New Deal Democrat, Penn graduate and 27-year City Council veteran David Cohen is a man whose unimposing figure belies his robust record in public life.
Cohen, age 91, has experienced decades in U.S. history that most in the Penn community have only read about in textbooks. But his political roots as a Roosevelt Democrat are as firmly rooted today as they were during the Great Depression.
"He thinks every person counts," says Bill Greenlee, Cohen's administrative assistant of 25 years. He deals with issues that may be "small ... on the general scale but are certainly big to the person who has the problem ... . There's a real resolve to the guy."
Cohen describes himself as a voice for the politically disenfranchised and an opponent of big business.
Whether it is helping a constituent with a pothole on his road, an unfair gas bill or a towed car, "he really gets involved" in helping to solve the problem, Greenlee says.
But 73 years ago when he entered Penn as an undergraduate in the School of Education, politics did not seem to be in the cards. Cohen says he "never dreamt of being in government."
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Cohen grew up on the corner of Germantown and Allegheny avenues in North Philadelphia. His father and brothers operated a wallpaper-hanging retail store on the block.
As the son of a working-class Jewish man, there were no silver spoons in his mouth.
When the stock market crashed while Cohen was in high school, though his family was not poor, Cohen says that the New Deal years gave him his "first real understanding of social issues."
After graduating from the School of Education, Cohen attended Penn's School of Law on a scholarship. He says that the "educational foundation was excellent" at Penn, but that in recent years, the University has behaved "like a rich, private school," failing to recognize its obligation to teach responsibility to the community.
Cohen says that administrators' and professors' salaries are unnecessarily high and that Penn's refusal to allow graduate students to unionize sets "a bad example for everyone in the U.S."
Universities such as Penn are "partly responsible for the wave of corporate problems" in the country, Cohen says, and they must accept their "corporate social responsibility."
Since he graduated from the Law School in 1938, Cohen has sought to force the country's big businesses to do just that.
Cohen experienced his "first taste directly of discrimination" after graduating, when he could not find work in Philadelphia because no one wanted to hire a Jewish lawyer. Eventually, networking got Cohen a job as an employee of the government agency called the Rural Electrification Administration, one of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal programs.
He worked there for four years until his number was called in September 1943. In December, he left his home, job and future wife -- whom he met at the agency -- to fight the World War II in Europe.
Cohen completed his basic infantry training and was ready for combat, but he was never sent to the front lines. Instead, he helped build and then worked at a hospital in what was formerly Dutch New Guinea.
Cohen and his fiance‚ Florence were married within a week of his return to the States in February 1946.
After the war, he says his "most important interest ... was not to work for those who already have economic power."
So he dedicated himself to the fight for the underdog and began working for a New York union.
But the Big Apple did not hold his appeal for long, and Cohen moved back to Philadelphia in 1952 because, he says, he "felt [he] belonged there."
Cohen started a private practice in the city and also served as the lawyer for several unions. He became active as a committee man in his community for five years before his neighbors began pestering him to run for City Council -- a suggestion that he initially refused.
However, when the city was re-zoned, Cohen found himself in a ward without a leader, a position to which he was elected in 1965 -- and continues to hold. He then decided to run for City Council and won by a landslide in 1968.
He served Philadelphia's Eighth District until 1971 when he resigned to run an unsuccessful campaign for mayor. He re-entered the council in 1979 as an at-large representative and has since worked to "make government more responsive politically to the powerless."
Greenlee recounts a time in the late 1980s when then-Mayor and current Councilman at Large W. Wilson Goode and other political heavyweights were supportive of a proposal for a "trash-to-steam" plant, to which the community was staunchly opposed for community and environmental reasons.
Though many told him he was committing political suicide, Cohen kept fighting. The plant -- which converts garbage into usable energy -- was never built, and right after the whole incident, he got one of his best vote tallies in the Democratic primary, Greenlee says.
Additionally, Cohen's administrative assistant Charles Taylor -- who has worked for Cohen for 23 years -- says the councilman is not afraid to take unpopular positions on controversial issues, even if that means suspending ties with traditional allies.
For example, in recent weeks Cohen has butted heads with Councilman Frank DiCicco, who wants to continue to allow billboard advertising in the city. Taylor says Cohen believes billboards are a city blight, and though the two are generally in agreement on legislative issues, "they fought on that" one.
Cohen is persistent is his efforts to push legislation he believes in, his aides say, and as a staunch opponent of the city's wage tax, he has relentlessly sought its repeal in the council.
Though he has yet to be successful, he "certainly isn't giving up," Greenlee says.
As for the future of his career, Cohen says he plans to "leave that to the Lord," but he has "no intention of retiring as long as I can do the work."
"He's not physically robust," Greenlee says, "but he still has the energy to really fight for what he believes in."Comments powered by Disqus
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