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Fiery Cohen builds loyal support base

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By Halimah Abdullah
October 19, 2006

Steve Cohen's life these days is a series of carefully organized moments.

Prayer breakfast invitations, high school football games and concert ticket stubs, the dates for fund-raisers and candidate forums -- each item documented with meticulous care in his spiral-bound Smith Barney Group 2006 calendar.

Cohen, 57, the Democratic nominee for the Ninth Congressional District seat, has no secretary, answers his own calls and squeezes in frequent visits to his elderly mother in the Parkview, an assisted-living facility down the street from his home.

"I'm just well organized, I guess," he said.

Cohen is the attorney and veteran state senator whose 20-year effort helped create the Tennessee Lottery and link a portion of the proceeds to scholarships.

Years ago, he cast a critical Shelby County Commission vote to help create the Regional Medical Center at Memphis, and he has supported civil rights and women's issues in the Senate.

In the process, he's built a loyal and diverse base of supporters, including a small corps of local bloggers and writers who plug Cohen's campaigns heavily and sling mud at his critics.

In August, he won a heated Democratic primary where he was attacked on race and religion and has since received endorsements from the Memphis and Shelby County mayors.

But along the way, Cohen has also butted heads with several political figures during his career, including colleagues in the legislature and members of the Ford family, who criticize his campaign tactics. He's yelled at members of the media, argued with fellow legislators and once screamed at a 79-year-old woman who rear-ended his new sports car.

That dichotomy has proved a dual-edged sword as he makes a second bid for the congressional seat. While Cohen has been able to point to a solid legislative record during the campaign, his opponents have asked whether his pugnaciousness may prove a hindrance in Washington.

He is "quick-witted ... which at times gets him in trouble," said Gloria Houghland, a former girlfriend. "The one thing you always knew about Steve Cohen was that he takes it to the mat."

'Bird dog'

Stephen Ira Cohen was born in 1949, the youngest of late pediatrician and psychiatrist Morris Cohen and his Genevieve's three sons. When he was 5, Cohen was diagnosed with polio, a condition that made him "very aware of people with disabilities."

Cohen said he refused to let his childhood illness affect the quality of his life. He went on to play on his California and Florida high school football and basketball teams and served as class president.

He graduated from Vanderbilt University and Memphis State University law school.

After a three-year stint as a legal adviser to the Memphis Police Department, he was elected to public office in 1978. As a member of the County Commission he cast the deciding vote to help create The Med, but lost his seat a year later in a short-lived attempt to win and keep a judgeship on General Sessions Court.

Over the years, he has supported bills to create a licensing and regulatory system for adult day care centers and limit campaign contributions and curb legislators' perks from lobbyists. He also sponsored ethics reform measures that included requiring public servants to fill out a conflict-of-interest disclosure.

He opposed government requiring businesses to make patrons show drivers' licenses before purchasing alcohol regardless of age and he voted against a resolution to require the Ten Commandments be posted in businesses.

Cohen was twice awarded him the "Bird Dog" honor for fighting for ethics and integrity in government by Common Cause, a Washington-based nonpartisan, nonprofit group that advocates for governmental accountability.

In 1999, he violated legislative policy when he used Senate stationery to pen a letter to ask state insurance regulators to help a client who paid him $50,000 to resolve an insurance dispute. In 2005, Cohen sent the Memphis and Shelby County Board of Adjustment letters asking them to delay voting on a zoning dispute between Clear Channel and a Memphis billboard company.

Cohen said he put the 1999 letter on state Senate stationery by mistake and requested the delays in 2005 because the vote conflicted with the legislative schedule. Cohen said no complaint was ever brought against him for the 1999 incident and the 2005 complaint was dismissed.

Cohen isn't a "buddy-buddy type of guy," then-state Sen. Robert Rochelle, D-Lebanon, told The Commercial Appeal in 1996. ".... He gets mad too often when he loses. He flies off the handle, but he's often a help after he settles down."

Little pleasures

Beyond the bravado is a man who deeply enjoys little pleasures -- coffee in his cozy (albeit cluttered) kitchen, rocking at Bonnie Raitt and Kenny Loggins concerts, tailgating at University of Memphis football games or cheering at Melrose High School football games.

He has a room filled with more than 3,000 campaign buttons that boast such slogans as "Come Home America" from former South Dakota senator George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign and "Shirley Chisholm for President -- Catalyst for Change" from the former New York congresswoman's 1972 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Cohen's private life was forced to the fore after rumors about Cohen's sexuality were printed in a September article in The New York Times. On several occasions in interviews with the media, independent candidate Jake Ford has questioned Cohen's sexuality.

"Critics of Mr. Cohen have made insinuations about his bachelorhood; he volunteers that he is not gay, but that he is simply 'older,'" the Times wrote.

"Now that I'm older I don't have as many opportunities (to date)," Cohen told The Commercial Appeal.

He did, however, have a 10-year relationship with Houghland, a Williamson County marketing teacher and magazine writer. The two would take trips to Switzerland and Copenhagen and her teenaged daughters worked on his failed 1996 Democratic primary bid against Harold Ford Jr.

"Girls know I'm straight and gay guys know I'm straight," Cohen said, adding that Ford's questioning of his sexuality is unfair.

"I am a strong defender of people who are otherwise discriminated against."

-- Halimah Abdullah: 529-5806

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