Congressman defeats race slurs in US primary

By Nathan Guttman, August 15, 2008

A Jewish member of congress from Tennessee has emerged victorious from a fierce primary battle in which racial and religious accusations were thrown at him by his opponent.

Steve Cohen, a freshman Democratic member of congress from Tennessee's 9th district, won in a 60 per cent margin over his rival in the state's primary elections and is expected to keep his seat in the November elections.

Mr Cohen is the first white American in over 30 years to represent the district, which is predominantly black. The Tennessee congressman has a reputation for being a strong civil-rights activists and in his first term in Congress pushed forward a historic resolution which offered the first formal apology to African-Americans for the policy of slavery in America's early years.

But despite this activity, Mr Cohen faced allegations of bigotry from Nikki Tinker, his chief rival in the primary race. Ms Tinker, an African-American candidate who had served in the past as a political aid, produced TV ads attacking Mr Cohen on issues of race and religion. One of the ads showed Mr Cohen alongside a hooded Ku Klux Klan member, suggesting the congressman was a supporter of the white-supremacist movement.

It focused on the congressman's refusal to support a 2005 local legislation calling for the removal of a statue commemorating the Klan's founder.

Another ad, criticised by Jewish groups as "divisive", blasted Mr Cohen for allegedly voting against approving school prayers and spoke of the way Mr Cohen came to "our churches" and clapped his hands while not being supportive of school prayer.

In the final days of the primary campaign, the Tennessee race drew national attention and led Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama to deplore Ms Tinker's ads. Mr Cohen, in interviews to the local press in Memphis, said voters, both African-American and white, proved by their overwhelming support for him that attempts to raise racial and religious tensions had no chance.

"Tennessee and Tennessee 9th district voted firmly for the post-racial politics that has carried a new generation to power," Mr Cohen said.

Last updated: 4:54pm, August 14 2008