On Aug. 7th, the voters of the Ninth Congressional District will get another chance to decide who will represent them for two years. The incumbent, Steve Cohen, again wants that to be him, and – again – the President of the United States is backing him.
So Monday morning when a minister-laden group gathered near the National Civil Rights Museum to show support for attorney Ricky Wilkins, one of the questions was about dealing with President Obama's support for Cohen. The question was fielded by Bishop Edward H. Stephens Jr., pastor of Golden Gate Cathedral.
"As it relates to our president not being on the ground, we are," said Stephens. "And some decisions he has to make because he is the president. I think with the intelligentsia that he has, if he were here (in Memphis), he would be here (supporting Wilkins."
The show of support by Stephens and the other ministers was a signal that the race has shifted into a higher gear in the wake of the May 6th Shelby County Primary Elections. Cohen has been formidable against previous challengers, winning by overwhelming margins.
So, why should voters oust a representative who has proven to be popular at the polls? And how important of a role can the church play this time around?
"We need change," said Bishop Brandon B. Porter, pastor of Greater Community Temple COGIC. "I am a strong believer that if something is not broken, you don't just say don't fix it, you make it better. It's not that the systems are all broken, but they need to be improved. So I am saying over and over again as it relates to Ricky Wilkins, give change a chance. I believe we can have better this time around."
Porter said he was motivated by what he sees in Wilkins' life and by his achievements as an individual.
"As he (Wilkins) mentioned, he happens to be a black man, but he is an accomplished man, someone that we can look at in our community. And also being that I am black, I cannot negate that fact, there are young people that I want to point towards him and say, 'You can survive, you can make it, you can come back home to Memphis.'"
The Rev. Noel G. L. Hutchinson Jr., pastor of First Baptist Church-Lauderdale, said he views Wilkins as "the right man at the right time for this job." Asked if that was the sole reason or whether he had a particular issue with the incumbent, Hutchinson said, "I think it is a mixture.
"I think that the incumbent has shown a great face in Washington, but as was said earlier, there are some pressing needs here in Memphis on the ground that need to be addressed. ... If you think about how Congressman operate, they bring things from Washington to help their constituents and they also understand the need of their constituents to know what needs to be brought for that particular district. So it's key to have somebody who has the sensitivity to that and has an understanding of that. I believe Ricky Wilkins is uniquely equipped to do that."
Wilkins was introduced by the Rev. Keith Norman, pastor of First Baptist Church-Broad, who said he believed Wilkins to be "the best and the next Congressman of the Ninth Congressional District."
Saying he was humbled by the showing of clergy support, Wilkins detailed his journey from being "a poor kid who grew up in the heart of the Ninth Congressional District. I couldn't wait to get out of law school and get back home, roll up my sleeves and do everything in my power to try and move Memphis forward. And I have been doing that for the last almost 24 years."
Wilkens, remarking that much is required of one who is given much, said he spent 20-plus years rebuilding public housing here in Memphis so that poor people would have "a decent place to lay their heads and a nice community to raise their children."
Referencing his involvement in numerous other civic activities and noting his support for "many causes with my time, my talent and my money," Wilkins said he was prepared be the next congressman from the Ninth Congressional District.
"I have been living my life trying to represent the best example of what our young people can be in this community, that regardless of what circumstance they grow up in, if they work hard, if they have faith in God, they can truly rise up where they belong," he said.
"This campaign, this Congressional office is more than just someone going to Washington to vote in the halls of Congress. It also represents someone who will be on the ground in Memphis where real people are, where real pain is being felt, where real solutions need to be provided. I am that man," said Wilkins.
Declaring that the community has to turn the page and prepare itself for the future, he said, "No disrespect to those who have served us in the past, I want to say to everybody, if you like Steve Cohen, you will love Ricky Wilkins."
The question then surfaced about whether he can make the issue of 11 Congressional districts in Tennessee and no African-American representatives resonate in a way that previous Cohen challengers have been unable to do.
"Clearly the idea of having diversity of representation I would think people would value and appreciate regardless of what side of the political aisle you may be on," said Wilkins.
"But I make one thing very, very clear to everybody. If you look at Ricky Wilkins and my pedigree, my academic pedigree, coming from Howard University, graduating from Vanderbilt Law School, practicing law at Burch, Porter & Johnson and becoming a partner there, and leaving the firm after 13 years and starting my own firm, and representing all sort and manner of individuals – be that rich, poor, black, white, it does not matter, if you look at Ricky Wilkins and all you see is a black man, then that says to me that something is wrong with your eyes and your heart.
"There is a lot more to Ricky Wilkins than just being a black man. I just happen to be a black man."