MEMPHIS — A Congressional race in Tennessee has become freighted with racial overtones almost a year before the election, with a prominent black politician saying the white incumbent cannot properly represent black voters.
The black candidate, former Mayor Willie W. Herenton of Memphis, has argued that Tennessee needs a black voice in its currently all-white delegation. He is running a blistering campaign against Representative Steve Cohen, a fellow Democrat with a precarious hold on the majority black district.
“To know Steve Cohen is to know that he really does not think very much of African-Americans,” Mr. Herenton said in a recent radio interview on KWAM. “He’s played the black community well.”
The primary election in August 2010 pits an unlikely officeholder — a Jew in a deeply Christian region, a middle-age white man known for fighting for blacks and women — against a prominent challenger. Already, the campaign has proved how deeply race still infuses much of politics in the South, even after the election of a black president.
The candidates are battling to represent the Ninth Congressional District, a low-income area that envelops Memphis and is more than 60 percent black. The district was redrawn and renumbered in 1973, increasing the percentage of minority voters, and for three decades it elected the state’s only black members of Congress since Reconstruction, Harold E. Ford Sr. and his son Harold E. Ford Jr.
But in 2006, Mr. Cohen defeated a divided field of black candidates. He coasted to re-election last year against a little-known black corporate lawyer.
The Herenton campaign argues that Mr. Cohen is an anomaly.
“This seat was set aside for people who look like me,” said Mr. Herenton’s campaign manager, Sidney Chism, a black county commissioner. “It wasn’t set aside for a Jew or a Christian. It was set aside so that blacks could have representation.”
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