Obama weighs in on ugly Dem primary

Challenger Nikki Tinker has run nasty attacks on her fellow Democrat, and Obama has condemned them.

Published August 7, 2008 6:46PM (EDT)

A primary race between two Democrats vying for the House seat in Tennessee's only majority African-American congressional district has turned so nasty that, on Thursday, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee was forced to wade into the fray.

In a statement, Barack Obama condemned attack ads run by the campaign of challenger Nikki Tinker, who is African-American. One of Tinker's ads linked the incumbent, Rep. Steve Cohen, who is white and Jewish, with the Ku Klux Klan. Another seems to be an attack on Cohen's religion.

"These incendiary and personal attacks have no place in our politics, and will do nothing to help the good people of Tennessee," Obama said. "It's time to turn the page on a politics driven by negativity and division so that we can come together to lift up our communities and our country."

One of Tinker's ads, which features an image of a hooded Klansman, questions Cohen's vote to not rename a Memphis park that takes its name from the Confederate general who founded the Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest. At the time, Cohen was a member of a Memphis advisory board on downtown development. Memphis' African-American mayor ultimately rejected the idea of a name change for the park, and, according to the Tennessean, Cohen has a long record of supporting civil rights.

In another ad that has raised eyebrows, as a child is heard praying in the background, the narrator asks: "Who is the real Steve Cohen, anyway?" The narrator continues, "While he's in our churches clapping his hands and tapping his feet, he's the only senator who thought our kids shouldn't be allowed to pray in school. Congressman, sometimes apologies just aren't enough." (The ad is referring to a vote Cohen made while in the Tennessee Senate.) The "our churches" construction has been interpreted as an unsubtle dig at Cohen's Jewish faith.

Earlier this year, Cohen was targeted by a mailer that read, "Cohen and the Jews HATE Jesus." It went on to urge "Black Christians" to support one "Black Christian" and oppose "this opponent of Christ and Christianity."

Tinker has defended the ads, but at least one has now been pulled from YouTube.

By Justin Jouvenal

Justin Jouvenal is an editorial fellow at Salon and a graduate student in journalism at New York University.

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