MEMPHIS, Tenn. — U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a white incumbent who represents a majority black district in Memphis, landed the endorsement of President Barack Obama on Tuesday – and harsh criticism from his black opponent in the primary.
Opponent Willie Herenton called the endorsement a desperate political move by Cohen and said Obama doesn't know the voters in the district.
Obama issued a statement backing Cohen for a third term in the House, calling him a proven leader. Cohen and Herenton, who served 18 years as Memphis' first elected black mayor, face off in the Aug. 5 Democratic primary.
"Together, we passed historic health care reform and together we're continuing the fight to renew our economy and bring jobs back to the American people," Obama said. "I am proud to stand with Steve and support his re-election to Congress."
Herenton said Cohen, who is white, is concerned he'll lose the black vote and pushed the Obama staff for an endorsement. He said Obama is disconnected from the district, which roughly follows the city borders, and slipping in popularity.
"Mr. Obama's got to look hard and long to even know where Memphis, Tenn., is, OK?" Herenton said at a news conference.
"I'm going to always be respectful to the president," Herenton added. "He doesn't understand the aspirations of people in this community. He made a political decision."
Herenton, who badly trails Cohen in fundraising, has drawn attention by making race an issue throughout his campaign, arguing with his "Just One" slogan that Tennessee needs an African-American congressman. All nine House members and the two U.S. senators are white.
Cohen has used Obama's election to support his argument that race should no longer be a major factor for voters.
"I was inspired by President John F. Kennedy to enter into politics to make a difference in my community and my country," Cohen said. "Like President Kennedy, President Barack Obama inspires a new generation to do the same."
Herenton said he admires and supports the president but found it unusual that Obama would intervene in a congressional primary.
"Did I want my president to get involved in this? Of course not," Herenton said.
Memphis voters, not the "Washington establishment," will decide who represents them in the House, the ex-mayor said.
Herenton saved his harshest comments for Cohen, calling him phony and weak. On the campaign trail, Cohen has been "trying to act black, trying to bring back the plantation days," Herenton said.
"As much as I admire the Obama administration, they have not moved this nation forward," Herenton said. "With all respects to our former president, I think whomever followed President Bush had an uphill struggle. Any president would have had some real tall mountains to climb."