Nikki Tinker: You've lost my respect for running an anti-Semitic campaign

My readers know I am dismayed that some Jewish voters balk at supporting a certain African-American candidate with a funny name. It goes without saying that no group is immune from knuckle-headed appeals to racial and religious antagonism or to the primitive lure of the familiar tribe.

Until today, I had no particular opinion about the Tennessee Democratic primary race between incumbent freshman Representative Steve Cohen and challenger Nikki Tinker. The race has attracted broad attention because Cohen represents a majority-black Memphis district and has received rather frosty treatment from the Congressional Black Caucus despite his sympatico voting record. Tinker has attracted support from Emily's List and others. She seemed to be a pretty appealing candidate.

Cohen and Tinker are in a tough fight. The district is majority-black, and I venture 99% Christian. So Tinker and her supporting cloud face a temptation not unlike that facing John McCain and his supporters. Maybe they're reading similar playbooks. Tinker has responded by... well I'll just let Politico pick up the story

The campaign of Democratic attorney Nikki Tinker is increasingly using issues of race and religion to attack freshman Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a white Jewish congressman representing a majority-black Memphis district.

Just days after airing a racially charged ad connecting Cohen with the Ku Klux Klan, the Tinker campaign is up with a new ad not-too-subtly questioning his religious convictions.

"Who is the real Steve Cohen, anyway?" a narrator says as a child is heard praying in the background . "While he's in our churches clapping his hands and tapping his feet, he's the only senator who thought our kids shouldn't be allowed to pray in school. Congressman, sometimes apologies just aren't enough."

The apology line appears to be a veiled reference to Cohen's just-passed legislation in Congress that apologizes to African-Americans for the "fundamental injustice" of slavery and racial segregation.

"He's never voted against prayer in school. It's an out-and-out lie. This is desperation upon desperation," said Cohen campaign manager Jerry Austin. Cohen planned to hold a press conference Wednesday morning to respond to the new ad.

Cohen already has been the target of an anti-Semitic mailer was distributed earlier this year in the district. The flier said that "Cohen and the Jews HATE Jesus" and called upon "Black Christians" to support one "Black Christian" and oppose "this opponent of Christ and Christianity."

The charming hate fliers apparently have nothing to do with Tinker. These are the work of one Rev. George Brooks, who doesn't even live in Cohen's district.

The rest of this speaks for itself.

I'm sure Tinker disavows that anything untoward is being communicated. Nothing explicit is said about religion or race. How could I be so cynical as to raise an eyebrow at references to "our churches?" Of all the issues she could have picked, I'm sure school prayer was just a coincidence.

Everyone understands precisely what's going on. Maybe her next ad should zoom in on pictures of Woody Allen, Jon Stuart, and Barney Frank, while a narrator darkly intones: "Steeeeve Cohen. He's the funniest guy in the world..... But is he ready to lead?"

I take this personally. To do otherwise would disrespect my own forebearers, for whom anti-Semitism was a much larger obstacle than it ever was for me. And in my day job, I've visited some churches where I've lamely clapping my hands and self-consciously tapped my feet. I've been to many other spots where I don't exactly blend into the local scene. I am treated with respect and class by people who pretty-much know that I'm not from around there.

Many outsiders assume that African-American communities are anti-white and anti-Semitic. That's just not my experience. Campaigns such as Nikki Tinker's do such a disservice in feeding these stereotypes. News flash: This is not a great moment to send out this poisonous vibe.

Tinker does a special disservice to her own constituents, who deserve a substantive and professional campaign about (say) health care, global security, public safety, and jobs rather than her base appeal. I don't know whether Steve Cohen has delivered the goods for his Tennessee district. He deserves a fair chance to try.

I'm pleased that Emily's list president Ellen Malcolm issued a statement calling these ads "offensive and divisive," and that Tinker's campaign pulled the video off of YouTube. I hope the good people of Tennessee take care of business on primary day.

So Steve Cohen, sei gesund. Nikki Tinker, you should be ashamed of your campaign.


Statement of Senator Barack Obama on Tennessee's 9th Congressional District primary (as quoted in )

These incendiary and personal attacks have no place in our politics, and will do nothing to help the good people of Tennessee. It's time to turn the page on a politics driven by negativity and division so that we can come together to lift up our communities and our country.

I hate to see Senator Obama tied up in junk like this in a politically complicated primary. He has enough to do focusing public attention on the economy. I am still gratified by the statement.