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Shelby Co. Voters Guide: Cohen v. Bergmann (9th Congressional District Race)

October 27, 2014

This is the last of our seven posts on key races and issues on the November 4, 2014 ballot. Back in River City earlier covered Amendments One, Two, Three, and Four; Tennessee Senate District Races 29 and 30; and City of Memphis ordinance 5512. Early voting is underway at these locations. For a sample ballot, click here.

9th Congressional District

Tennessee’s 9th Congressional District was created in 1823. It survived until 1973, when Tennessee was cut down to eight districts because the 1970 census showed our population had not grown proportionately with the rest of the U.S. After better results in the 1980 census, the 9th District was re-established in 1983. New boundaries were drawn to create a black-majority district, according to Wikipedia. Harold Ford, Sr. was elected to represent the new district in 1983, after representing the old 8th district since 1975. His son Harold Ford, Jr. followed as congressman from the 9th District from 1997-2007.

Click here for interactive map of the 9th District.

Rep. Steve Cohen

steve-cohen1Steve Cohen ran unsuccessfully against Harold Ford, Jr. in the 1996 primary.  When Harold, Jr. decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 2006, Steve Cohen ran again. This time, he trounced Jake Ford (Harold, Jr.’s younger brother) and Rep. Mark White, winning 60% of the vote and breaking the Ford dynasty’s hold on the seat. (Jake Ford ran as an independent candidate.) Rep. Cohen has since easily beaten three African-American challengers in Democratic primaries for the seat: former Ford aide Nikki Tinker in 2008; former Mayor of Memphis Willie Herenton in 2010, and Memphis Urban League president and Memphis City Schools board member Tomeka Hart in 2012. He also sailed through each general election. Republicans made no attempt to capture the seat in 2008. In 2010, Rep. Cohen won with 74% of the vote over black Republican Charlotte Bergmann. In 2012, the Congressman walked away with 75% of the vote against challenger Dr. George Flinn, a white Republican.

By most accounts, Steve Cohen does what a congressman representing Shelby County is expected to do. He stays true to the liberal Democrat Party platform and supports President Obama. His office is responsive to constituent concerns. He works to bring home federal grant money. He seldom misses the funeral of an influential African American who dies in Memphis, and makes time to show up for barbecue in Orange Mound when he’s in town. He even attempted to join the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) when he first arrived in Washington in 2007. (The CBC said, uh, thanks, but No.)

For the most part, Rep. Cohen is liked by his district, 60 percent of which is African American. He is smart and hard working. He earned his political spurs by serving for 24 years as a state Senator. He is revered by Midtown white liberals and ardently supported by East Memphis Jewish voters (Rep. Cohen is Tennessee’s first Jewish congressman.)   So popular is Rep. Cohen that many Memphians claim he is unbeatable.

But all is not sparkling with fairy dust in Cohen-land.  He embarrassed himself and his constituents in 2013 when he was caught tweeting ILU (texting abbreviation for I love you) to a voluptuous, 21-year old  blonde model  during the President’s State of the Union message.He  initially denied romantic involvement with Victoria Brink, then  divulged that she was his daughter by a former friend-with-benefits. Later, a paternity test revealed that Ms. Brink was not his daughter; he had been misled. Rep. Cohen then made national news by tweeting about a tow truck driver’s josh to him that he must be black because his Cadillac had broken down and he was having paternity issues. News commentators deplored the tweet as racist. Rep. Cohen’s response to the flak was,

“My constituents don’t look at me as a white person. They say, ‘You’re one of us. And I took it was [sic] a compliment. I hear it in Memphis all the time.”

Rep. Cohen’s 9th District detractors – both black and white –  called the  comment  pandering to the African-American voting block that  keeps him in office.

Despite Rep. Cohen’s robust and widespread popularity among local Democrats, a significant percentage of his African-American constituency want him replaced, either because he is too white or too liberal. He is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and supports gun control, gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana – positions that rankle both blacks and whites with traditional views.

TN_LotteryConservative black ministers in Memphis have long been offended by Rep. Cohen’s progressive stances, reaching back to his persistent and ultimately successful sponsorship of a state lottery  when he was a Tennessee State Senator. In 2005, he was one of only three Senators to vote against the Tennessee Marriage Protection Amendment,  later approved by voters in a statewide referendum.  In this year’s campaign for re-election, Rep. Cohen faced Rickey Wilkins, a well known black attorney with strong Memphis political ties. A commenter on a September 2013 article in the Memphis Flyer put into writing a rumor heard throughout the city:

What Cohen fail [sic] to understand the [sic] majority of the black ministers are not going to allow him in their churches to speak as they did in he [sic] past….The word is out “Shut Cohen Out”

In the end, Rep. Cohen defeated Mr. Wilkins by a typically Cohen-style margin of 66%-33%. That said, Mr. Wilkins won a higher percentage of the vote against Rep. Cohen than had any previous challenger.

The local news media, who passionately support Rep. Cohen, have not mentioned the Congressman’s greatest point of vulnerability in the 2014 election: his irrelevancy.  As a Democrat in a solidly Republican House of Representatives, Steve Cohen can do little of substance for the people of Memphis for the next two years, especially in the lame duck term of an increasingly unpopular President.

Charlotte Bergmann

charlotte bergmann 2010

Full  disclosure:  I met Charlotte Bergmann two years ago after seeing the movie Runaway Slave, which she helped to bring to Memphis. She introduced me to Frederick Douglass Republicanism (more about this below) and quickly became a dear friend to both Eddie and me. With the license granted to bloggers but not to professional journalists (and with apologies to Rep. Cohen, whom I do not know personally), I will refer to her as Charlotte. 

It takes a gutsy Republican to go up against popularity and voter loyalty on the scale of Steve Cohen’s. Not one bothered to run in 2008 against the Democrat incumbent after his first term. Then, out of nowhere, Charlotte Bergmann appeared in 2010. A political newbie who was unknown to the public, Charlotte won 25% of the vote against Rep. Cohen in the general election in 2010. She ran again in 2012, but lost in the primary to Dr. George Flinn. Dr. Flinn ran a $1.6 million campaign, primarily financed by his own funds. In the general election against Steve Cohen, Dr. Flinn amassed only a third of the 33,000 votes Charlotte Bergmann won in 2010 on a $250,000 budget.

The word plucky was invented to describe people like Charlotte Bergmann, attempting now for the third time to replace Steve Cohen as congressman for  the 9th District. Charlotte has known hard times and what it takes to beat them.

The contrasts between the two contenders could hardly be more stark. One is a white, male, Jewish child of privilege; son of a Memphis pediatric psychologist; a career politician; never married; loyal to liberal causes. The other is  black, female, unabashedly Christian; daughter of a pastor/postal worker; previously married with time also as a single mother of three, now a grandmother to 14; and a committed conservative. He graduated from high school in Coral Gables, Florida while his father completed a medical fellowship;  earned an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University and a law degree from Memphis State (now the University of Memphis). She graduated from Northside High School in Memphis, worked her way through both State Technical Institute (now Southwest Tennessee Community College) and Christian Brothers University (CBU awarded her a partial scholarship).

jfk rfk mlk croppedThough brought up in a typical black Memphis family, with pictures of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King on the living room mantle, Charlotte Bergmann found her way to the Republican Party through her commitment to ensuring a good education for her children in the Memphis City Schools. One day in the 1980’s, Charlotte boarded a bus for Nashville with fellow PTA members to lobby for Gov. Lamar Alexander’s Better Schools Program. It was her first experience with politics, a seed that grew and blossomed. Along the way she realized that the Republican Party aligned more with her traditional values than the Democratic Party she grew up with. She worked on several Republican campaigns, including 7th District Congressman Ed Bryant’s 2002 senatorial bid against Lamar Alexander.

Like many black Memphians, Charlotte Bergmann owes allegiance to FedEx for giving her entree to the workplace and an opportunity to grow and thrive in the corporate world. Sorting packages in the hub helped pay her way through community college. Her CBU degree, IT skills and organizational know-how eventually landed her a respected and responsible position in FedEx’s IT project management. Financially secure at last, Charlotte moved into her dream house in an East Memphis subdivision, complete with a pink Jacuzzi. Then calamity struck. After ten years at FedEx, her position was eliminated in a 2000 corporate cutback.Her journey back to financial stability has been bumpy but resolute. The Memphis job market was tight. A marketing firm she launched with several partners failed to thrive in a depressed economy.  Charlotte fought with all she had, but eventually lost her home to foreclosure. She was homeless for awhile, living with family and friends and eventually out of her car.

Today she is managing partner of an elder care business started by her sister, in addition to co-hosting a weekly talk show on KWAM 990 with fellow black conservative Charles Johnson. Charlotte also spends a great deal of  time in community service. She is a board member of Sober House Homeless Mission, program chairman for the Golden K Kiwanis, member of the Memphis Gavel Club, and a volunteer for the American Cancer Society.

The  years of trial were pivotal to the growth of Charlotte Bergmann’s interest in politics. Frustrated by the lack of employment opportunities in Memphis, Charlotte began to lobby elected officials in Washington, DC to bring more jobs to Memphis. She financed multiple trips to DC from her FedEx severance package. Gradually, Charlotte learned how to gain access to the halls of power and the people who occupy them. She developed contacts and friendships with political luminaries who appreciated her integrity, intelligence, charm, authenticity, tenacity, and growing political astuteness.

While in Washington, she was introduced to the burgeoning black conservatism movement and Frederick Douglass Republicanism. It was then that Charlottte Bergmann knew she had found her political soul. Frederick Douglass Republicans (FDRs) are people of all races, creeds, and economic classes with a passion for liberty. They believe in four principles that defined the remarkable life’s journey of former slave and venerated human rights activist Frederick Douglass:

  1. Respect for the Constitution.Frederick Douglas
  2. Respect for life.
  3. Belief in limited government.
  4. Belief in personal responsibility.

Frederick Douglass Republicans are not a branch or official subset of the Republican Party. They represent what the Republican Party was at its founding, and what it could be again under the leadership of statesman-patriots who are unafraid of paying allegiance to founding American principles.

Most people who are FDRs don’t know it yet because they haven’t heard of Frederick Douglass Republicanism. (That group used to include me. Now, because of Charlotte Bergmann, I proudly proclaim my only political alliance: not Democrat, not Republican, no longer Independent, but a Frederick Douglass Republican.)

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The local news media, solidly behind Steve Cohen, have ignored Charlotte Bergmann as much as possible. Former diplomat, UN Ambassador, and presidential candidate Dr. Alan Keyes,  one of this era’s most gifted speakers, visited Memphis twice to support Charlotte’s campaign. Local news outlets (including the Tri-State Defender) were generally oblivious, as they are to any prominent black conservative,  up to and including Dr. Ben Carson. It is too embarrassingly  clear that most local and national black opinion leaders are determined to keep African Americans manacled to the Democratic Party, even though it no longer  represents the values of those who are socially conservative and Christian; takes their votes for granted; and has left most African Americans no better off after fifty years of liberal entitlement policies.

But black conservatism has established a foothold in Memphis. In addition to Straight Down the Line with Charlotte and Charles, KWAM AM 990 also airs the Herman Cain show. News-talk radio WKIM  FM 98.9 airs the popular Andrew Clarksenior six days a week. Nineteen months after we first wrote about Dr. Ben Carson on Back in River City, that post drives more traffic every week to this blog than anything we have ever written.


black republicans

In the end, it will be black Memphians who decide whether Charlotte Bergmann will replace Steve Cohen in Washington to represent the 9th District.  While the district was redrawn in 2010 to encompass parts of Whitehaven and Millington with a higher proportion of people who consider themselves to be Republicans or moderate-to-conservative Independents, it is still the 39th strongest Democrat stronghold in the U.S. House of Representatives.

polling booth --body

Charlotte Bergmann has been part of the black community in Memphis all her life. Everywhere she goes, she has told us, African Americans whisper to her that they support her, but fear reprisals from their friends and neighbors if they do so openly.

What a voter does “behind polling booth curtains” no one else need know.

It will be interesting to see what happens when all the ballots are counted on November 4th.  Whether she wins this race or not, Charlotte Bergmann has won hearts and minds in every neighborhood in this city.  She has broken new political ground that bodes a better future for a community struggling to find prosperity, peace, and racial harmony.

We are proudly voting for our friend Charlotte Bergmann.

marquee charlotte

 This post has been updated from its original version.

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