Q&A: U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen Reflects on a Life in Politics—and Big Star

Last week, shortly after the Navy Yard shootings in Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, of Memphis, appeared on MSNBC and criticized the NRA’s influence over Republicans. “Their guns are right there next to their Bibles. I’m not sure which they find more important to them,” Cohen said.

The state Republican party called Cohen’s comments “outrageous,” and said they “have no place in Tennessee,” but the fact remains that Cohen’s had a place in Tennessee politics since 1982, when he was first elected to the state Senate. And unlike any number of politicians in the state from both parties, Cohen isn’t afraid to speak his mind—on the floor of the House, on Twitter, or in a brief phone interview.

Cohen will be speaking Friday night at the Knox County Democrats’ annual Truman Day dinner. There’s no telling what he’ll say, but you can bet it’ll be quote-worthy.

You were in the state Senate for 24 years, until leaving for Congress, and it was still a Democrat-controlled Legislature at that time. What’s it like being on the other side of things in the Republican-controlled House?

Fortunately, with a Democratic president, we still have some leverage and some voice. … It’s not the same as it was my first four years in the House, with Speaker Pelosi, but we still have the Senate and try our best to get things done.

In the state Legislature, I know that over the years you frequently reached across the aisle to get bipartisan support on legislation. Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, for one, says he’s proud to call you a friend and to have worked with you to get bills passed. But it doesn’t seem like that happens anymore in the Tennessee Legislature. Do you think those days are gone for good?

It certainly doesn’t seem to be happening now. But they are so few Democrats in the state Senate that there’s not even the opportunity for bipartisan legislation. I think Democrats in the Legislature are—what’s that phrase about animals?

Endangered species?

Yeah, it’s like we need protection by the Endangered Species Act. Especially white Democrats. There will always be a few black Democrats, because there have to be districts drawn to elect black legislators. But the white Democrats—man.

Even though Democrats hold the mayoral positions in the state’s four biggest cities, the party statewide is pretty much in disarray. They haven’t been able to field any qualified candidates for Senate or even come up with anyone to run against Gov. Haslam. What do you think is the best way to address this?

I think some individuals are just going to have to step up and be leaders. And I think that when we see some of the effects of the Republican policies, it will be easier. Like the state failing to bring in a billion dollars to fund a quarter-million people on Medicaid. This is an issue that needs to be highlighted. Turning a billion dollars away is a major thing. They say, “Oh, we’ll have to pay for it later,” but the macroeconomic effect is massive. It would end up paying for itself. And I don’t think you can just do it on dollars and cents. You can’t just govern based on dollars and cents and not take human lives into account.

You are one of the few liberal Southern voices in the House—as opposed to the blue-dog Democrats and other more moderate Dems. Do you ever feel like you’re just out there all alone with no support?

Not at all. I felt that way in the Senate for 24 years in Tennessee. Really, on a lot of my issues, I was alone. The lottery took me 20 years to get passed, for example. … It was difficult at times. I was a white liberal from Memphis and a Jew—I felt very much alone. In 1995, I think it was, I was the only one to vote against a bill putting the 10 Commandments in every courthouse and school, even though it was clearly unconstitutional. I was almost always alone on anything to do with the separation of church and state. … But in the House I don’t feel alone. There’s Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, Rep. John Lewis from Atlanta—there are several of us who are liberals from the South. Yarmuth and I might be the only white guys—we kind of buddy up—but that’s the beautiful thing about moving from the General Assembly to Congress. There are people from all over, so I can partner with people from California or the Northeast or wherever. It’s a breath of fresh air.

You are an outspoken proponent of the reform of laws that regulate marijuana. Do you see Tennessee becoming one of the states that could soon legalize medical marijuana, or do you think it will have to happen on a national level first?

I don’t see Tennessee doing it. There are some Republicans in the General Assembly that claim to be libertarian, but when it comes to drug-reform laws, they won’t touch them. … It’s ironic, because Tennessee actually had a medical-marijuana law passed in 1978 or ’80, but it was never really utilized. We were kind of on the forefront of that, but it was repealed in, I think, 1992, because of pressure from the pharmaceutical lobby.

Your personal life has been in the news a lot this year, thanks to the Twitter/Politico news cycle, and you’ve criticized the media for how it has covered you. Do you think the Washington news cycle is broken?

To some extent, it is. With the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and bloggers, it’s kind of made the 6 o’clock news irrelevant. But that’s what I came up with. I still watch it, even though I know I can get the news on CNN or MSNBC at any time. But now so many want to be first and break the story and they don’t worry about their credibility. Newspapers would run corrections when they messed things up, but bloggers don’t run corrections, you know?

In 2010, you took to the floor of the House to recognize Alex Chilton shortly after his untimely death. I’m curious as to whether you’ve seen the Big Star documentary yet. If so, what did you think about it?

I actually just bought the Alex Chilton 1970 solo album today. But I did see the documentary, and I thought it was phenomenal. Alex was a great singer. … He was a friend, and that was just something I did because I saw he had died and I wanted to use my minute on the floor to acknowledge that. I had no idea it would go viral. But I have heard from so many people over the years about how much it moved them.

From here, the interview descended into a discussion of Big Star and the Alex Chilton 1970 album and then the Rolling Stones. Never let it be said that Cohen doesn’t know his music.

The interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Knox County Democratic Party Truman Day Dinner • The Foundry (747 World’s Fair Park Drive) • Friday, Sept. 27 • 6:30 p.m. • $70 • knoxdemocrats.org

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