Remembering David Cohen

As Councilman Goode alerted us to earlier today, we learned that David Cohen, a fixture in Philadelphia progressive politics, died today at the age of 90. I am going to leave this post up at the top for a few days, and, I encourage those who wish, to leave a message in the comments about any fond memories they have of the Councilman.

UPDATE: Here is the funeral info for the Councilman:

Memorial services will be held at 11:00 on Thursday October 6, 2005, at Goldsteins' Rosenbergs' Raphael-Sacks Funeral Home, 6410 North Broad Street.

Community members, regardless of religion, are also invited to observe Shiva with the family at the home of Mark Cohen, 1415 Brighton Street, Philadelphia, PA 19111 at 7:30 pm on Thursday, Oct. 6, Saturday, Oct. 8, and Sunday, Oct. 9.

I will start it off with my memory in the extended entry...

My freshman year at Central was the fall that the Philadelphia School District killed after-school activities, from JV sports, to arts clubs. There was a game of chicken going down between Ed Rendell/David Hornbeck and John Perzel/the rest of Harrisburg, over the Commonwealth's share of school funding. However, as students, we were left with a school that was basically becoming a shell, all the while we were cutting the wage tax. (This is not meant to start a debate over Rendell's wage tax cuts, so forget about responding to that point. It is just giving some context to what we were feeling that day.)

In response, in a show of activism that stuns me still today, school students from all over the city, of all colors, walked out of school, and to a rally at City Hall. I remember being threatened by our principal if we did walk, and hearing that other principals had even locked their students in. But, despite that, we marched.

It was a unifying, amazing show of force of kids from all kind of backgrounds. Kids from all over the City making demands for a decent education... And, whether you agreed with the demand to hold off on wage tax cuts so that we could get after-school activities back, there was no question that the larger thing happening that day was a potential political awakening for many students. In short, it was just the sort of thing that local politicians should have been thrilled with.

Well, the reaction from most of our leaders was not so great. One Councilman, who I still very much like, said that we all should have been arrested. Then-Mayor Rendell, in meeting with the student leaders of the Philly Student Union, treated them all so well that the front page of the Daily News showed one of them in tears after leaving his office. But, along with Angel Ortiz, who was the sponsor of the bill we were supporting, one other politician welcomed us to City Hall that day with open arms.

Even then, Councilman Cohen was 80 years old; no spring chicken. But, he climbed right onto the podium where we gathered, grabbed the megaphone, and then do you know what he did? He thanked us. He thanked us for caring, he thanked us for participating. He encouraged us to not let the fight die. From what I remember, his speech was generally pretty good. But it was that small act, of seeing a multi-racial force of student activists, and realizing their immense potential for good, seeing a flickering flame that could ignite a wave of young people from around the City, and genuinely and deeply thanking us for being there. He simply got it.

Rest in Peace, Councilman.

May the equitable, just Philadelphia that you worked so hard for, become a reality someday soon.

A few weeks ago, I was feelin

A few weeks ago, I was feeling pretty low, after a hard week of difficult classes and even more difficult (and long) meetings of Neighborhood Networks.

That night I went to the wonderful Bread and Roses event honoring Florence and David Cohen. What an inspiration to learn more about two extraordinary lives so well lived! There was no way to feel down when I heard of all their struggles, their battles won and lost, and the passion, energy, and deep human concern that marked everything Florence and David did.

And now David Cohen, one of my heroes, is gone. I am deeply saddened. But I also know that Councilman Cohen will remain an inspiration to us all. And it will take *all* of us to carry on his fights. No one person or ten, twenty or thirty people can replace David Cohen. It is going to take all of us, working on one campaign and then another, and always coming together to stand up for our rights, and the lives of working people, to make the kind of difference he made.

I think of David Cohen as the patron saint of Neighborhood Networks. Yet he also strikes me a very Jewish saint. More than anyone else I have ever met, David Cohen exemplified a central teaching of Jewish social ethics that I am reminded of by his death on the eve of the Jewish New Year. It has been best summarized in three lines from another of my heroes, my teacher, Michael Walzer:

--First, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt.

--Second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land.

--And, third, that "the way to the land is through the wilderness." There is no way to get there except by joining together and marching.

Deepest condolences to our friends and fellow marchers, Sherrie and Mark Cohen, Florence Cohen and the rest of the Cohen family.

My own Cohen experiance

I was very involved with the campaign to pressure Philadelphia City Council to pass a resolution against the Patriot Act. It was an election year and several members of Council were unwilling to commit to supporting the resolution before the vote. Of course, Councilman Cohen was a co-sponsor. While he spoke eloquently during the debate, it was really Councilman Cohen’s actions behind the scenes that show why he was a unique political leader.

A survivor of Japanese-American internment during World War II, Hiro Nishikawa, was present to support the resolution. Given that Cohen was the only council member alive during World War II, we thought he could best draw the connection between previous abuses of civil liberties and the current situation. We were a little nervous about asking him to introduce Nishikawa during the debate—after all, most politicians are unwilling to work that closely with grassroots activists. His staff was enthusiastic about working with us and was also extremely supportive of our strategic approach.

I’ve heard dozens of stories like that about Cohen. More than any other elected official, he saw himself as an extension of social justice movements in Philadelphia. He was the classic voice of the disempowered and downtrodden. Given many white politicians in Philadelphia could care less about issues of racial justice, I think it is particularly important to note that Cohen was a champion of civil rights throughout his life.

Cohen leaves a lasting legacy of progressive activism. I believe the next generation has an important responsibility to pick up the baton of social justice and keep up the good fight. If anything, Cohen’s life shows that grassroots politics combined with a meaningful progressive program can be an inspiring vehicle for change.

A well-timed Tribute to Cohen

One of my first thoughts on hearing of Councilman Cohen's passing yesterday was that the Bread and Roses Paul Robeson Social Justice award had come just in time for him and his wife Florence.

Three weeks ago, Bread and Roses recognized Florence and David with the Paul Robeson Social Justice award. It was a great event anyway, but now with the Councilman's passing it's become even better as I realize that we got to praise and give thanks to this great man in person, to his face. You can read more about that tribute by clicking here to see my report.

I was lucky to have met David and Florence just a few days before the Tribute at their apartment at the Fountain. The Councilman's body may have been frail, but his mind was still incredibly sharp. As we sat discussing Philadelphia politics that day I remember thinking about the sense of loss I would feel when he left us, and now I know that I was right.

But, as I am sure Councilman Cohem himself would say, "don't mourn, organize!" The best way we can all pay tribute to this true Philadelphia hero is to keep on working for a better Philadelphia with justice and freedom for everyone.

...we will sure will miss him in that fight...

Cohen had HEART - and Soul! :)

It is ironic that the Councilman died from heart failure because "heart" is what characterized his living. Cohen had HEART as in "caring", "passion", and "courage". He was the most courageous Council colleague that I've had. He taught me to be willing to stand alone - and to stand strong early (before you even know if you're alone) - in order to offer courage to others to stand with you. While we disagreed at times, he supported EVERY one of my legislative initiatives. For that, I thank him dearly.

Two stories.

After the primary election in 2003, David Cohen called me to congratulate me on my 2nd place finish behind Councilwoman Brown and only slightly (less than 100 votes) in front of him. He told me that he was very proud to be the third African-American councilperson at-large. It was one of the best laughs that we shared - but in a strange way , I'm still not sure he was entirely joking. :)

And as we started our next term, Cohen offered the most important tax reform proposal - reducing and eventually eliminating the wage tax for extremely poor individuals and families. I was the first co-sponsor. He and his staff knew that, in my heart, I wouldn't blink before signing it - and would lobby my Council allies on its behalf. It was a great victory for him in the eventual veto override. I'm glad that I could be a part of it. It was the greatest testament to his heart. God bless his soul. I'm gonna miss the "brotha". :)


A wrap-up of the public tributes

Everything that I could find in the papers (as well as a link to this thread) is collected at A Smoke-Filled Room:

I hope that my record will look even a fraction that impressive in the lens of history!

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
— Margaret Mead

David Cohen

Politics can be a rough, venal and repulsive vocation. I am certain that any one in reach of this blog has personally encountered some of the lowest forms of human life in politics. The greed, egotism, dishonesty,power hunger and selfishness sometimes make the political trade seem more akin to brothel management, just a few debatable steps ahead of drug dealing and pedophilia, in its ability to arouse disgust and disdain.

But in sharp contrast to all of that, David Cohen's life shows us that politics can be not only an honorable trade, but a noble one. Cohen was a tribune for the poor and the working class in this city, and he used the instruments of the political profession on behalf of their interests. Cohen didn't parlay his office to become rich or personally powerful. He was a heroic figure in the history of this city. And we should always thank him for lifting our horizons about what is possible and desirable as practicioners of politics.



If I can add one more comment

If I can add one more comment. Ben's post gets at one of the things that most distresses me about our politicians. They are so reluctant to help build the grass-roots organizations that gain support for the legislation they work to enact in council or for implementing that legislation.

I wonder how many folks know that David Cohen's staff was instrumental in helping create SCRUB and in bringing the initial lawsuits with which SCRUB tried to force the ZBA to take the billboard law seriously?

Councilman Cohen saw his wonderful staff as not just a means to keep himself in office but as a resource for the progressive community. That is how it should be.

Since I've never really exami

Since I've never really examined the at-large election results in depth, is my perception that Cohen got a decent amount of support from black neighborhoods correct? That's a pretty unusal thing for a white politician in Philadelphia. The same thing is true for white neighborhoods and black politicians. Cohen seemed to be able to speak to a citywide progressive base than rose above traditional racial politics. Pretty admirable and clearly a winning political formula.

City Council Memorial Service for David Cohen - October 17 @ 2pm

FYI - City Council will hold a special session on October 17 @ 2pm for the exclusive purpose of memorializing our late colleague.


He also always had a lawyer o

He also always had a lawyer on staff to help community groups navigate the legal process that often accompanies legislative efforts....

2003 At-Large Primary - A Lesson in Racial Politics

In the 2003 Democratic Primary for City Council At-Large, there were 10 candidates - five incumbents, five challengers.

There were two African-American incumbents (one female, one male), two Latinos (one male incumbent, one male challenger) and six Caucasians (two male incumbents, four male challengers).

David Cohen placed third in total votes - only 52 votes behind the black male - and 4000 votes behind the black female. But Cohen received 8000 more votes than the other white incumbent - 30,000 more votes than both Latinos - and 40,000 more votes than the white challengers.

By the numbers, Cohen most likely ran third in Black votes - hence, he became the self-described "third African-American At-Large Democrat". :)

It is very likely that Cohen would have done as well in the black community even if there were African-American challengers, but it would have impacted the last two nominees more seriously.

Blondell Reynolds Brown* - 70,167
Wilson Goode, Jr.* - 66,079
David Cohen* - 66,027
James F. Kenney* - 58,190
Juan F. Ramos – 36,094
Angel Ortiz* - 34,860
Mike Driscoll – 26,805
Daniel P. Pellicotti, Sr. – 24,162
Joseph M. Grace – 14,452
Pete Fiorentino - 12,396
Write In - 125


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Syndicate content