Congressman Steve Cohen has been looking for an answer for a long time. Up to now he hasn’t found the answer yet. His mother’s birth certificate states that his grandfather was born in Turkey. Though he contacted the Turkish consulate in Houston, he hasn’t been able to find out more information. His mother was born in 1915 and Mr. Cohen doesn’t even have any idea which city his grandfather was born in but he is still searching... Congressman Steve Cohen is the first Jewish Congressman from Tennessee. In his district, he is known as the father of the lottery, and he is the only Caucasian who represents a majority-minority district. Congressman Steve Cohen won his seat in the 60 percent black district as the only white candidate in a crowded primary field in the 2006 election. He has been in politics since 1976 and he is now completing his first term in Congress.
Cohen is a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives representing Tennessee's 9th district. Prior to his election to the House in November 2006, Cohen was a Tennessee State Senator from Memphis. As a member of the Turkish Caucus, Steve Cohen answered TURKOFAMERICA’s questions.
You are the first Jewish Congressman from Tennessee and 60 percent of your district is Afro-American. How did you do it?
I am the only Caucasian who represents a majority-minority district. There are Congresspeople who represent districts with a majority-minority but it’s a collection of minorities. For instance, Congressman Robert Brady (D, PA) is one of the few whites representing a majority-minority district but when you add together Hispanics and Afro-Americans, the combination mix adds up to eh majority. My position is unique. I have had a long career in politics since 1976 and very long relations with African American people, politicians, and issues. It’s been a extra hurdle to overcome, being racially different, but as one Afro-American woman told me, they had a difficulty to vote for me but they did because I was the best candidate. Once they got over it, when they saw my work, my voting record was good, they trusted me and they believed me. Re-election will be a difficult election but I am comfortable about winning the next election as well.
Does your district lean Democrats?
Yes but I have a primary opponent. Main thing, I don’t think it will be an issue concerning differences on issues, (imagine she would be pro-Armenian now) but other than that, I suspect how many people would be more comfortable with a person of their own race representing them. I don’t think the majority of Afro-Americans will let that factor stop them.
What will be on your agenda?
One of the things I want to do in my district is to pass a resolution. I proposed that the federal government apologize for slavery and the so-called Jim Crow laws that victimized blacks after the Civil War. I think as a Southern Caucasian, who is more appropriate to offer an apology? President Clinton talked about an apology in 1997 and I talked to him about it. I suggested we include Jim Crow. I had forgotten about this. When I cleaned up the records in my state senate office on December 17, 2006, I was donating my papers to University of Memphis, I found this letter and I thought I could do something about it now.
I am a Congressman and I can put forward a bill calling for an apology. I picked it up. I have 120 co-sponsors in the House and some in the Senate. Since the end of the Civil War, 142 years and counting, we need to apologize. Before questioning what was going on in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, we have to start to apologize at home. Not to knock on other people’s doors. Slavery is slavery. Slavery is slavery and it was wrong.
As far as I know, your grandfather was born in Turkey? How did you find out that?
I never knew and even my mother didn’t know it. I discovered it while going through some records on the internet. But I don’t really know where he was born. My mother’s birth certificate stated that her father was born in Turkey. My mother was born in 1915. What would they refer to as Turkey in 1915? Anatolia, the Ottoman Empire or what other place, because I know the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923. If Turkey was not the name used for the land, why they would put Turkey on the birth certificate? I still don’t know.
Did you contact any Turkish official?
I sent my mother’s birth certificate to the Turkish Ambassador. He sent it to Houston. He came up with some fellow who was born in some place in Turkey. But I don’t think this is same fellow, as he was born in 1895. The birth record says my grandfather was born in 1885 but maybe birth record could be wrong.
Well, let’s talk a little bit about the upcoming election and the U.S. foreign policy. In the past 6-7 years, the U.S. has lost its popularity around the world. What do you think?
Let me give you an example. When the U.S. delegation was in Turkey last May, we had a seminar in a high school in Istanbul. One student asked a question and said: We like American jeans, we like American music but we don’t like the American government. I answered, well we like American jeans, we like American music and only 30 percent of us like the government.
Can current American foreign policy be changed by a Democratic President or is it a policy that nobody can make any changes to, but just follow? Do you think a Democratic President can change America’s image?
Absolutely. There is no question of that. Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will show a better face to the rest of the world. Both have more sympathy around the world. Obama is a member of a minority; Hillary Clinton is the wife of Bill Clinton and a woman.
The U.S. does work with people rather forcing our interests upon people. The Iraq issue has been a mistake for American policy. When we invaded Iraq, we couldn’t find any partners. Even in the first Iraq War, the senior Bush got a coalition to invade Iraq. President Bush did not negotiate as much as he should have. We need to get out of Iraq.
WHO IS STEVE COHEN?
Steve Cohen was born in Memphis, Tennessee on May 24, 1949 to pediatrician Morris D. Cohen and his wife Genevieve. He is a fourth-generation Memphian. Cohen contracted polio when he was five, and the disease caused him to shift his attention from sports to politics at an early age. When Cohen was eleven, John F. Kennedy made a campaign stop in Memphis, and Cohen took a picture of Kennedy sitting on a convertible.
Cohen describes Kennedy as his political hero; the picture still hangs in his office. In 1961, Cohen’s family moved to Coral Gables, Florida where his father received a fellowship in psychiatry at the University of Miami. From 1964 to 1966, the Cohen family resided in Pasadena, California where Dr. Cohen had a fellowship in child psychiatry at the University of Southern California.
Cohen, who attended Polytechnic School, returned to Florida in 1966 to graduate from Coral Gables High School before returning to Memphis where his father established his private psychiatry practice. Cohen graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1971 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1973, he graduated from the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law of Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) with a Juris Doctor.
Reprinted with permission of Turk of America Magazine - www.turkofamerica.com