A Yuppie Among the Bubbas 

What Makes Him Want to Be Governor?

What Makes Him Want to Be Governor?

The master bedroom in Steve Cohen’s midtown Memphis bungalow is a college flashback. Compact discs and videotapes clutter the floor, and the bed is rumpled. What’s more, even though Cohen’s interview with a Scene reporter has been scheduled for days, and even though the 48-year-old state senator has offered a tour of his home in the chic Overton Park district, he hasn’t bothered to remove a stack of Playboy magazines from the night stand.

The Playboys might seem out of place, given Cohen’s reputation as a champion of “women’s issues.” He has a history of supporting pro-choice issues, and, in the most recent state legislative session, was one of only three senators to vote against a ban on partial-birth abortions. A few years back, he introduced and successfully sponsored a “potty parity” bill that guaranteed women more toilets in certain public facilities.

But Steve Cohen is hard to pigeonhole. If he felt any need to justify the presence of a few bedside copies of Playboy, he could point to the fact that he is well-known for his support of First Amendment and civil liberty issues. Nevertheless, even though Cohen is a progressive liberal, he’s never been known as a slave to political correctness. He’s never seemed to care what people say about him, as long as they keep talking.

One of Cohen’s longtime friends is Paula Casey, a fellow Memphian who cofounded the Memphis Women’s Political Caucus. Even though she is a student of the women’s suffrage movement, Casey doesn’t seem bothered by the copies of Playboy. “Steve is very, very well read,” she explains, noting that he also reads Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, and Esquire. “I’ve given him hell about the Playboy magazines,” she says, “but the Playboy Foundation gives to a lot of feminist causes too, you know.”

Cohen’s career is rife with such apparent self-contradictions. As a politician, his motivations are frequently enigmatic, and he constantly goes against the pundits’ commonly held assumptions.

For example, Cohen, the Legislature’s most high-profile liberal, claims friendship with Republican Gov. Don Sundquist, another fellow Memphian and the man whom Cohen will oppose if he enters the next gubernatorial race. In 1995, when Sundquist made it clear that he badly wanted to dismantle the controversial Tennessee Public Service Commission, Cohen joined in with a Republican-led coalition to “sunset” the agency. He voted to abolish the commission despite the fact that Sara Kyle, a Memphis Democrat, had just won a seat on the agency. Kyle had, in fact, been the only Democrat to win a statewide race in 1994, the year when Republicans had seized the governor’s office and both of Tennessee’s seats in the U.S. Senate.

On the other hand, Cohen has never been afraid to take on the Democratic leadership in either chamber of the state Legislature. In 1987 Cohen was among a group of dissident Democrats who mounted an unsuccessful effort to unseat Lt. Gov. John Wilder as speaker of the Senate, even though some Senate colleagues say Wilder, a much older man, is Cohen’s only real champion on Capitol Hill. “There is no peer, no one of his generation in the Senate, that I’m aware of that he gets along with,” says state Sen. Jim Kyle, who is married to former Public Service Commissioner Sara Kyle, now on the Tennessee Regulatory Authority. Without Wilder as his mentor, Jim Kyle insists, Cohen would have no power at all.

In 1989 Cohen voted to keep Wilder in the speaker’s chair. In the aftermath of the 1987 debacle, according to Jackson Baker, a political writer for the weekly newspaper Memphis Flyer, Cohen had learned “on which side his bread was buttered.”

Down the hall in the House chamber, Cohen has been openly critical of the Legislature’s Democratic leadership, particularly House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, who is yet another West Tennessean, hailing from the small town of Covington. According to Cohen, Naifeh has been angered by Cohen’s comments on the radio talk show Teddy Bart’s Roundtable. As Cohen tells it, during at least one “bizarre episode,” Naifeh got physical. “He once put his hand on my collar, on my lapel, and started talking to me,” Cohen says. “I told him, ‘Take your hand off my lapel.’ That’s just that West Tennessee attitude of ‘I’m the man and you’re not.’ ”

Cohen describes Naifeh’s behavior as “bullying,” and it makes the sharp-tongued Memphian bristle. Cohen says he’s “never been good on the man. It’s a generational thing, and it’s a personal thing, and it’s a whole lot of things.”

Clearly, Cohen has very little time for political hierarchy of any sort. Now that former House majority leader Bill Purcell is out of the race, Cohen considers himself a sensible choice as the Tennessee Democratic Party’s consensus candidate to oppose Sundquist. As far as Cohen is concerned, the party has few other options. “The way it looks now, all I may need is a good bill of health,” he jokes.

Yet Cohen is outspoken in his criticism of the party, saying it has grown away from its traditional values of tolerance and freedom. He describes himself as very much the outsider when it comes to party politics, and he rankles at the fact that Tennessee Democratic Party chairman Houston Gordon has not even called him to talk about the gubernatorial race.

Cohen pulls no punches when he talks about his potential competition for the party’s nomination. In the unlikely eventuality that Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen should become the consensus candidate, Cohen says he would bow out. On the other hand, if the party should embrace Knoxville developer Doug Horne, whose name has recently surfaced among the party’s power players, Cohen would not give up so easily. “It’s an affront to me for [the Democratic Party] to go around trying to find someone who’s not been an active Democrat,” Cohen says. “Nobody knows who Doug Horne is. He has no positions on anything, except maybe that he’s for economic development, which is somewhat nebulous and not a Democratic or Republican issue. But because he’s got money, the Democratic Party is willing to say, ‘We’ll all fall in line behind you.’ ”

Typically direct and fearless, Cohen predicts that the odds of Horne becoming governor are “about as good as Tennessee getting a state lottery.” On that point Cohen may know what he’s talking about. A statewide lottery to fund education initiatives has been one of his unsuccessful pet projects for years.

With his quick wit and his confrontational style, Cohen has earned some respect as a consistently intelligent voice in the state Senate, a man who can cite clear constitutional reasons for every stance he takes. But he also has a reputation as a near-perfect caricature of a yuppie liberal, and for that reason he has had trouble gaining support for many of his causes, including the statewide lottery. “He can’t pass gas in the Legislature,” quips one Capitol Hill observer. Obviously a Cohen debunker, Jim Kyle says, “I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have speak against my bill,” adding, “the more you try to work with Steve the greater your opportunity to have a problem.”

Not all of Cohen’s initiatives have failed, but it usually takes a long time—sometimes years—for his efforts to bear fruit. His long-standing campaign for a lottery is merely one example. When Cohen says, “It takes me a few years to get things done, but that’s because I introduce ideas that are difficult for people to grasp at first,” there’s no denying the hint of condescension in his voice.

Cohen has always been something of an underdog, even though he and two older brothers grew up in a well-to-do Jewish family. Their father, who died several years ago, was a well-known Memphis pediatrician and psychiatrist.

But when Steve was 5, during kindergarten, he was stricken with polio. For the next year, he was forced to use crutches, and he was left with a weaker—and thinner—left leg. It looked as if all his hopes for playing sports were dashed. “He tried everything,” his mother, Genevieve Cohen, says. “He was always interested in sports and then found he couldn’t participate in them the way he wanted to.” Cohen did play football while he was attending a private high school in Pasadena, Calif., where the Cohen family lived for a few years, but Steve was—and is—a sports junkie, and his limitations frustrated him. Years later, while he was at Vanderbilt, he would get as close as he could to sports, even serving as mascot to the Commodores.

“He knew because of the polio that he wasn’t going to be able to be good in sports,” says his friend Paula Casey. “So he read voraciously.” It was in his reading, Casey suggests, that Cohen developed his interest in government and “the great thinkers.”

During his 1994 gubernatorial campaign, Cohen told the Memphis Commercial Appeal, “I knew politics was what I wanted to do from the late ’50s when we’d be at my aunt’s house listening to Gov. Frank Clement’s speeches on the radio. I remember my grandfather telling me that the Republicans were good for the stock market, and my grandmother telling me that the Democrats were good for the people who live in cities.”

Steve Cohen the sports junkie had become a political junkie too.

In 1960, when Cohen was 11, John F. Kennedy made a campaign stop in Memphis. Using his cheap camera, Cohen snapped the candidate’s picture, and even though he was convinced the picture wouldn’t come out, the results were stunning. Prints of it now hang in Cohen’s legislative office in Nashville and in his Memphis dining room.

In 1970, when he had just turned 21, Cohen entered politics in earnest. Newly registered to vote, he filed his petition to run for the state Legislature. Running against a Republican, he made a respectable showing.

Cohen graduated from Vanderbilt and went on to get a law degree from Memphis State University. After that, he spent four years as legal counsel to the Memphis Police Department.

He won his first election in 1978, when he ran for a seat on the Shelby County Commission, a job that lasted only two years. It ended abruptly—and controversially—when he cast the deciding vote to name himself an interim General Sessions Judge in 1980. Cohen was on the bench for just eight weeks. A special election was ordered, and Cohen finished second in a crowded field of candidates.

Two years later, Cohen made it to the state Senate. He was appointed to fill the seat left vacant by Jim White, who was retiring from the Legislature to run for a judgeship. Cohen has been re-elected every four years since.

Even after 15 years on Capitol Hill, however, Cohen has never learned to fit in with the good old boys. He was one of a handful of legislators who dared to point out that a resolution in support of posting the 10 Commandments was unconstitutional and idiotic, but he doesn’t mind being seen as contrarian. This past May, he slammed Republican state Sen. Tom Leatherwood’s bill that would have levied a $1 fee on the sale or rental of pornographic videos. “If your bill is to tax X-rated movies..., lust-inspiring type movies, American-type movies, I don’t think you can do it,” Cohen said at the time. “It doesn’t take a first-year law student to look at this and realize it’s unconstitutional.”

He was also the lone voice criticizing passage of a Senate resolution honoring a “March for Jesus” in Nashville. “Government cannot lend its prestige in any manner that tends to place any religion above any other,” Cohen said. “When something’s in our face that is unconstitutional, can’t we accept responsibility and correct it?”

Whenever it comes in handy, Cohen casts himself as a martyr, the lone, liberal Jew in a conservative Senate, an outsider who has to work twice as hard to pass legislation that is worthwhile for his district. Meanwhile, the truth of the matter is that Cohen is Jewish by background, but not particularly by practice.

When he was growing up in Memphis, his family always celebrated Christmas, and childhood photos show Cohen sitting amid pretty presents under a decorated evergreen tree. “We always celebrated Christmas,” Cohen’s mother says. “But on the high holy days I wanted the children to know something about the Jewish religion, and so we celebrated those too. We did our best. We tried to give them Jewish background, but we celebrated Christmas too for the children.”

To this day, his friend Paula Casey says, Cohen remains “very liberal” and “very cognizant of his heritage,” but she adds that “Steve eats lots of barbecue.”

Maybe, in Tennessee’s conservative General Assembly, Steve Cohen looks like a liberal. In another environment, he might look more like a libertarian, or even a moderate. He summarizes his positions as “anti-government more than anything else,” explaining, “I don’t think the government should be stopping people from carrying guns, and I don’t think the gay community should be subject to oppression.”

Such generalizations are impressive, but when Cohen has gone up against the sometimes belligerent state Legislature, he has been most successful in sponsoring what he describes as “retail” issues. For example, he was responsible for the passage of a bill that allows restaurant patrons to take home their unfinished bottles of wine. Another Cohen brainchild was The Imported Beer Keg Law, which passed in 1995. Prior to that time, Cohen points out, “We were the only state in the union where you couldn’t get Guinness on tap.” Then he goes on to explain, “It’s a retail issue. A lot of what I do is keeping government off people’s backs.”

Cohen is almost 50 years old, but when he talks about “our generation,” he’s often referring to people a few decades younger than himself. On Capitol Hill, he has a reputation for being more comfortable with members of the Capitol Hill Press Corps, the people who write about what’s going on in the Legislature, than he is with the legislators themselves. “I identify a lot more with the press corps than I do with the members of the Legislature,” he admits. “They’re on the outside, and I’m on the outside too.”

Cohen is, in fact, so comfortable among journalists that he has been known to step out on the porch and smoke a joint with a group of them at a private party. The easy inference is either that he doesn’t care what the press knows about his habits or that, because they’re doing it too, he figures they’ll never write about it. “It’s a generational thing,” Cohen says of the pot smoking. “I don’t do it very often.”

As a public figure, Cohen has never attempted to hide his impulsiveness, or his notoriously quick temper. In a widely publicized 1986 encounter, Cohen reportedly cursed an elderly woman who had rear-ended his new Alfa Romeo sports car. Then, eyewitnesses told newspaper reporters, Cohen kicked the woman’s car and jumped on the hood. The only part Cohen denies is the part about jumping on the hood. Casey dismisses the story, saying, “I think he just had a short fuse, but he shouldn’t have done it. It’s part of the Steve Cohen folklore.”

As one of only a few state legislators who has never been married, Cohen has made no secret of his dating habits, and he makes no apologies for his bachelor status. Indeed, he admits that he is somewhat set in his ways and that he is not looking for a woman to reform him. According to Casey, “Some people can be married and have careers and stuff, but they’re not really involved in causes or political office. And some people channel their energies into other areas, and I think Steve does that. He is good to his mother, he is good to his friends, and he has had lots of good relationships with women.”

In recent years, Cohen was frequently seen with Gloria Houghland, a politically conservative Nashville socialite. Meanwhile, in his Memphis bungalow, Cohen keeps boxes of photographs, many of which are pictures of his former girlfriends. The sheer number of them is astounding.

Most of the women in the pictures are, like Houghland, blond, and Cohen says he is still on good terms with many of them. He singles out one of the photos in particular, which is accompanied by a slightly yellowed newspaper obituary. The woman in the picture, Cohen says, was named Nancy. She died of cancer in 1980. He says she was very young and suggests that they might have married.

Casey says Cohen’s relationship with this woman was “a great love story. He was crazy about her.”

Otherwise, Cohen’s home is a virtual museum of political and personal memorabilia. His desk is cluttered, and the floor around it is covered with papers. The walls of the dining room are covered with political cartoons, awards, and pictures from Cohen’s political life. The living room furniture is somewhat mismatched, and wooden crates hold hundreds of vinyl albums. There’s a turntable, but it does not work. His photographs are stored in boxes, kept in cabinets in the dining room. “When you’re in politics,” he says, “there’s always someone there to record what’s going on.” But there are also images from Cohen’s travels—including trips to Israel, Italy, Ireland, and Thailand—as well as childhood photos and pictures of him with his college buddies. He hurries past one notable photo—it shows a young Cohen holding up a bottle of pills.

A guided tour of the Cohen residence offers plenty of reassurance that, if he does run for governor, his campaign won’t fail to be entertaining. It would probably be casual too, maybe even more casual than his unsuccessful 1994 bid for the Democratic nomination. That time around, he spent just under $100,000.

Cohen confirms that his campaign would be “very different,” that he’d bring out his old brown Cadillac—although it would need a new fuel pump—and that he would recruit his friend Warren Zevon, the 1970s rock cult figure whose hits include “Excitable Boy” and “Werewolves of London,” to come play at some of his fundraisers. Contacted on his car phone in Los Angeles, Zevon says, “I’ll be there.” A Cohen candidacy, he suggests, “may be what it takes to get me out traveling again and playing on the road.”

If Cohen does decide to run, there are incidents from his past that could come back to haunt him—particularly those incidents when he has stabbed an associate or a colleague in the back. One recent and noteworthy instance of his alleged ruthlessness stems from his dealings with Robin Merritt, a former Cohen intern who now works as a lobbyist for the City of Memphis.

Merritt was the stepdaughter of former state Sen. Jim White, who died last April. Since White was the man who tapped Cohen as his successor in the state Senate, Cohen expressed an interest in speaking at his funeral. Merritt gave her consent.

Then Cohen spent much of the summer publicly leading the chorus against Merritt as the city’s lobbyist on Capitol Hill. As proof of Merritt’s alleged ineffectiveness, he blamed her for the passage of the controversial “tiny town” bill, which was opposed by the City of Memphis. It seemed to make little difference to Cohen that the Tennessee Municipal League had already shouldered some of the blame for the bill. Nor did he mention that, among Capitol Hill insiders, it was widely known that Lt. Gov. John Wilder was believed responsible for secretly shepherding the bill through the Legislature.

“It’s really hurt me, what Steve’s been doing,” Merritt says. “The irony is, I understood Steve, I appreciated Steve’s intellect and his wit, even though it rubs people like sandpaper. He took my father’s place [in the Senate], and he represents the same district I grew up in my entire life. For him to go after me is to go after someone who was one of his biggest fans.”

At the same time, Cohen could run into trouble because of his on-again-off-again relationship with Wilder, his contentious dealings with Naifeh, and his frank criticism of the current state of the Tennessee Democratic Party. He even says that he wants to run for governor because “Democrats are trying to assume mantles that aren’t the standards of the Democratic Party. While I’m good on the Second Amendment, the party is not known for guns, it’s not known for putting religion into politics, nor is it certainly known for screwing the poor. But that’s the new party.”

When it comes to political campaigning, Cohen has made two unimpressive showings during the past few years. First there was his lackluster performance in the 1994 gubernatorial race. Then, even as he was running his state Senate re-election campaign last year, Cohen simultaneously took on Memphis’ powerful African American dynasty, the Ford family. Cohen dared to run against Harold Ford Jr., who logically assumed that he would succeed his father in the U.S. Congress. As it turned out, “Junior” took 60 percent of the vote, and Cohen came in second with 34 percent.

Cohen’s concession speech was less than gracious. “It is impossible for a person who is not African American to get a large vote in the African American community...against a substantial candidate,” he said. “The fact is, I am white, and it doesn’t seem to matter what you do.”

Cohen says he made the speech because he did not like the assumption that a congressional seat can simply be passed from father to son. Genevieve Cohen says the race was “heartache” for her youngest son and for herself.

Whatever the justice or injustice of Cohen’s treatment at the hand of the Fords, one thing is certain: With a few more lousy campaign performances, Steve Cohen could damage his credibility even further and find himself wondering what’s next for his political career.

Doug Horne is expected to make an announcement soon about his possible run for governor, and that announcement will probably determine whether Cohen enters the race. Cohen says Horne called him on Friday to talk about the race but that he wasn’t impressed with what he heard.

Typically, Cohen wanted to talk about the issues, not about party politics. “I asked him what his position was on the lottery,” Cohen says. “He said he didn’t really have one yet. He was really nice and told me, if I ever want to go to a UT game with him and sit in his box, I could.”

Cohen says he probably won’t accept the invitation. “Here’s a guy who likes to enjoy his wealth above the people in an enclosed box,” Cohen says, “as opposed to me, who likes to be among the people, with the people, right on the field. That’s real symbolic of the difference between him and me.” It is also symbolic of the way Steve Cohen chooses to play—or not to play—the game.

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