The brand-new congressman sits at his paperwork-covered desk, one hand cupped over the mouthpiece of his telephone.
“I'll be right with you,” murmurs the recently elected representative from Tennessee 's Ninth District. “Just give me a minute or two to take care of some business, will you?”
A moment later, the 57-year-old Stephen Ira Cohen (JD '73) is engaged in an animated phone conversation. “Okay,” he says, “sounds good. No problem. But can we get it done today? I really need to get this taken care of today.”
Waiting for him to finish, the reporter finds himself wondering: Is this first-term congressman from Memphis — one of the 42 freshman Democrats elected to the House in last November's historic sweep — talking to one of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's lieutenants about the upcoming vote on Supplemental Funding for the Iraq War?
Or is he perhaps conferring with a staffer at the high-powered House Judiciary Committee, where he recently managed to nail down a coveted seat (with help from his longtime pal, Committee Chair John Conyers of Michigan)?
What important matter of state looms behind this sudden phone call to Rep. Cohen's office in the Longworth Office Building on Capitol Hill?
The suspense ends a couple of minutes later, however, when the former longtime Tennessee state senator hangs up the phone and then explains with a groan of impatience: “That was the guy at the gas and electric company. I've been trying for several days to get them to turn on the gas in my new apartment. You know, I've been in Washington for nearly two months now, and I'm still living out of boxes. I've got my TV set up on one box, and my computer on another one. Now all I need is for them to turn on the gas, and I'll be in business!”
Welcome to Capitol Hill, Steve Cohen.
Ask this skilled veteran politician to describe the life of a congressional freshman, and he'll shake his head, while emitting a weary sigh that contains equal amounts of fatigue and aggravation: “You know, a lot of people don't realize it, but making the transition to the U.S. Congress is extremely difficult. In my case, I had to hire 17 new staff people within a month or so, then figure out a $1.2 million office budget. I had to close down my state senate office after 24 years, and I also had to shut down my Memphis law practice.
“It's tough, believe me. It's burdensome. Then you get to Washington , and you take one orientation class after the next. You sit down with the party leadership day after day, and you learn how the process works from the ground up. At the same time, you're already getting swamped with requests from the people of your district — and that's your first job, to take care of their needs. So you're working as hard as you can, just to handle the workload from the district.
“At the same time, you've gotta find a place to live, buy a bed, pick up some furniture — you have to struggle with the gas and electric company, just like anybody else who's moving to Washington. Burdensome! I brought two paintings with me from Memphis , only two paintings, but they're still sitting on the floor — I haven't had time to even hang them up yet. I've got one chair, one lamp, one bed and that's it.”
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, left, and Randy Wade, a deputy director in Cohen's Memphis office. Photo by Mark Stansbury.
A painful transition with an incredibly steep learning curve? You bet. So why was the normally laid-back and easygoing Steve Cohen willing to take on the daily grind of life on Capitol Hill? Ask him that rather searching question, and he frowns thoughtfully for a moment. “Yeah, it's very difficult, and you do wonder at times: Why am I putting myself through all of this? I guess the answer is that I felt obligated to serve. I felt that it was my duty, to do what I could to help the country at this particular time — because we do face some extremely challenging and dangerous problems right now.
“Just this morning on the [House] floor, we were debating the mess in Iraq . I mean, we've got a very real crisis there, and it's very threatening. As a state senator down in Memphis . . . well, I just felt that I couldn't stand by and watch all of these problems taking place at the national level and not try to help.
“I decided to run because I thought the country needed whatever help I could bring to it. And I was convinced that right now, more than ever, we need progressive voices in Congress. And as a member of the Progressive Caucus in the House, I'm hoping that I will be able to — ”
But he's interrupted, at this point, by three piercing tones and then a voice from the TV set that hangs from the wall on the other side of his office. “The Caucus has 15 minutes to vote on the King of Iowa Amendment to the Employee Free Choice Act. That's 15 minutes on King of Iowa,” the voice says.
(Translation: “All Democratic members are hereby ordered by party leadership to race down to the floor and vote ‘No' on the amendment by Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa that would give employers the right to discriminate against employees who support labor unions, under the proposed H.R. 800 Employee Free Choice Act.”)
Showtime! The clock is ticking, and Steve Cohen is already on his feet. “Sorry, but I have to take off in a minute,” he says with a grin. “You see how it is here? You run from morning to night, that's all. Fortunately, you get used to it after a while, and you learn how to keep up with the pace, which is absolutely relentless.
“It helps to keep your sense of humor — and so far, I've managed to do that!”
A little smarter than the “average bear?”
Drop by Steve Cohen's crowded, buzzing office in 1004 Longworth on a typical weekday afternoon, and you'll probably find him engaged in a non-stop marathon ... a 16-hour-per-day endurance test in which he shuttles back and forth between endless meetings with constituents, huddled conferences with his frenetically busy support staff, and hurried, last-second votes on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Elected last November to replace Democratic Congressman Harold Ford Jr. — who had earlier resigned to run for the U.S. Senate — the peripatetic Cohen spends most of the day darting around his office like a perpetual-motion machine. A dynamic and indefatigable politician, he long ago proved that he has the stamina for elected office. During 24 years in the Tennessee legislature, in fact, Cohen gained a statewide reputation for his tenacious staying power . . . as a liberal-minded (he prefers the term “progressive-minded”) senator who was willing to work for years at a time to achieve such legislative goals as establishing a statewide education lottery and improved community access to health care.
A childhood polio survivor who still walks with a limp, Cohen knows all about overcoming obstacles en route to the winner's circle. As unlikely as it might at first sound, his election last November made him the first Jewish congressman ever sent to Washington by a majority-black district. Savvy and street-smart, this grandson of a Lithuanian immigrant who once peddled newspapers on the streets of Memphis is a consummate politician with a knack for survival, regardless of the odds.
Yet he's the first to admit that life on Capitol Hill can be “extremely difficult and challenging, a real acid test” for anybody daring enough to seek office there.
“I was probably thought of as being a little smarter than the average bear in the Tennessee General Assembly,” says the newly minted congressman during a recent interview in Washington. “But I'm not smarter than the average bear up here. You know, you can be an all-star in Triple-A baseball . . . but when you get up to The Show [the major leagues] — that's when you realize, hey, there's a lot of talent up here, there really is, and maybe you're not gonna be one of the smartest guys in town.
“But that's okay with me. I'm here to try and contribute, that's all, and I do feel strongly about doing what I can to help solve some of the terrific problems the nation faces right now. But it isn't easy. I do think that serving your first term in congress is a huge challenge for anybody, and it takes all of your energy and all of your focus just to get yourself acclimated. Fortunately, you do get a lot of help from the party leadership, and you can learn the ropes fairly quickly.
“But it's a formidable assignment, and I don't think this job is for the faint of heart. You have to pace yourself, and you have to think ahead. And sometimes, you just have to take a deep breath and plunge into the next task, whatever it may be.”
A “lot more cerebral” than most politicians?
The son of a highly regarded pediatric psychiatrist, Steve Cohen studied history at Vanderbilt, then arrived at then-Memphis State as a hard-charging law student in the autumn of 1970. “What I liked about law school at Memphis was the way they taught you how to think analytically, and also how to think on your feet,” recalls the veteran politico, with a gleam of nostalgia. “I had [Professor] James Minicus for torts, a classic old guy and a terrific lawyer, and he was an absolute stickler for getting it right. By the time he was done with you, you knew torts inside and out, and that was great preparation for running a law practice.”
After nailing down his JD at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, Cohen would spend three years as a legal adviser to the Memphis Police Department and then serve as a Shelby County Commissioner during the late 1970s. Elected to the Tennessee General Assembly in 1982 as a senator from Memphis, he would go on to build a rock-solid reputation as an accomplished legislative tactician during the next 24 years.
Often described as a brainy, pragmatic and open-minded lawmaker who was “a lot more cerebral than his colleagues” in the state senate (according to longtime political analyst Larry Daughtrey of The Tennessean), Cohen surprised many voters last year when he outlasted a field of 15 primary candidates (in spite of being heavily outspent) and then a potentially formidable challenge in the general election to replace incumbent Harold Ford in the Ninth District.
An urban liberal, Cohen says he's gearing up for what is certain to be the most contentious — and critically important — issue that will be fought out in the 110th Congress: The Iraq War.
“Iraq is a total mess,” Cohen will tell you with his typical candor, “and it's gonna cost us a ton for years and years to come. I think the hatred we've already generated in the Middle East will go on for several generations, at least. And that's a real tragedy.
“We're now a debtor-nation, and we've got environmental problems everywhere you look, and economic problems, and the military industrial complex is completely out of control. That's really why I came to Washington — to try and help solve some of those huge problems right now.”
He pauses for a moment and his eyes wander to his big office photo of John F. Kennedy perched on the back of a convertible during a campaign stop in Memphis, way back in 1960. Steve Cohen was an 11-year-old boy on the afternoon when he took that long-ago photo.
“We've got a lot of work to do in America ,” he says quietly. “I think we've got some long, difficult days ahead of us — but I also think we're capable of getting it done.”