David Cohen (politician)

David Cohen (politician)

David Cohen (November 13, 1914 - October 3, 2005), was an American lawyer, Democratic civil servant and politician. For the last 26 years of his life, he was a Philadelphia city councilman representing the northwest district. Having served a four year term not consecutive to the other terms, he represented northwest Philadelphia for a total of 29 years. He died in office aged 90.

Cohen was a local Democratic and community leader during the mayoral administrations of Philadelphia Mayors Joseph Clark and Richardson Dilworth, a councilman during the administration of Mayor James Hugh Joseph Tate and the police commissionership of Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, and a councilman in the mayoral administrations of Mayors William J. Green, W. Wilson Goode, Edward G. Rendell, and John F. Street. He served nearly 14 full years in City Council with future mayor Michael Nutter (who was elected mayor two years after Cohen's death). His views on city issues were often at odds with the majority in city government. Rendell described him as the most tenacious political leader he ever met[verification needed].

Cohen supported labor unions, collective bargaining, racial integration, desegregation, and equal opportunity since the late 1930s. He claimed he had anticipated trends of increasing support for such positions[verification needed]. He campaigned with planks of civil rights, workers rights, good government, constituent service and geographic inclusiveness.

In his first term on the City Council, he successfully sponsored in 1970 an air pollution measure, and emphasized it in his next campaign. His chemical right-to-know bill, in 1982, was one of the nation's first. He opposed waste incineration within the city, successfully in the case of a proposed plant near the Philadelphia Naval Yard. During his tenure, two long existing waste facilities were shut down. He claimed that these curtailments in waste facility operations produced a saving of $1.5 billion in trash disposal costs over thirty years and enhanced the attractiveness of the city areas of South Philadelphia, Northern Liberties, and Roxborough as targets for development.

In 1995, Cohen declared himself "a Franklin D. Roosevelt Democrat", and thereafter refused any other public comment on supporting political alliances in the city.

At his death in 2005 at age 90, Cohen was one of the oldest American elected leaders in office, serving at large[1] on the City Council, and thus representing all the city's 1.5 million residents. (U.S. Senators Thurmond and Byrd each also reached the age of 90 while representing a U.S. constituency with a population of a million or more, before and after him, respectively.)


Early political career

Cohen, a child of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, was born in south Philadelphia.[2] Cohen first became active in politics as a campaign worker for Democratic mayoral nominee John B. Kelly, Sr. in 1935. He was appointed an attorney for the Rural Electrification Administration in Washington, D.C. in 1938 after graduating first in his class from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1937 and winning a graduate fellowship. As a graduate fellow, Cohen did research used for upholding the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's law providing for a minimum wage equal to the federal minimum wage for some people not covered by the federal minimum wage. As a Rural Electrification Administration attorney, Cohen drafted state laws for various states and became president of the agency union and participated in negotiations with two Secretaries of Agriculture.[citation needed]

Cohen resigned his position with the federal government in 1943, then located in St. Louis, Missouri as the federal government dispersed federal agencies around the country to forestall an enemy attack on them in World War II, to prepare to enter the US Army. Briefly working for the St. Louis Congress of Industrial Organizations while awaiting the completion of enlistment processing, Cohen made the transition from volunteer union leader to union staffer.[citation needed]

His first job after returning from New Guinea in the South Pacific theater, where he had reached the rank of the rank of staff sergeant, the highest rank for a non-commissioned officer, after declining to attend Officer Candidate School, was to legally represent federal union employees in New York City, where his wife's family lived, and help them unionize. In one case, after independent journalist I.F. Stone interviewed him, he recruited Stone as a volunteer legal aide so that Stone could get a first hand view of the obstacles facing union workers.[citation needed]

Cohen returned to Philadelphia in 1952 and developed a law practice representing unions, individuals, and businesses. With law partner Morton C. Jacobs, he handled an early legal case holding that computer software was patentable.[citation needed] When Cohen moved to the Broad and Olney area of Philadelphia, he saw a newspaper ad seeking volunteers for the Presidential campaign of Adlai Stevenson. He volunteered and was appointed an assistant committeeman in Philadelphia's 49th Ward, 27th Division.[citation needed]

After an unsuccessful run for Judge of Elections in 1953, Cohen was elected a Democratic committeeman in his division in 1954. He later became Treasurer of the 49th Ward Democratic Executive Committee, President of the Northwest Philadelphia Chapter of the American Jewish Congress, and head of the Northwest Philadelphia Chapter of the Community Chest. He also was active in the Jewish War Veterans, and often cited his experiences dealing with soldiers from rural areas in Missouri, running a health care clinic for soldiers in New Guinea and giving them legal advice as formative ones.[citation needed]

He developed national concerns as well. He attended the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, and marched with Dr. King and many others for voting rights in Selma, Alabama in 1965. He had spent the end of 1964 gathering information about violations of African-American voting rights in Mississippi in support of the challenge to the seating in Congress of Mississippi's Congressional delegation.[citation needed]

Following the one man, one vote decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, the wards of Philadelphia were redistricted, and the 49th Ward was split in half. Cohen was elected Democratic leader of the 17th Ward in 1966, and was continuously reelected henceforth. In 2002, he became the most senior Democratic ward leader in the City of Philadelphia, and he continued to serve as the 17th Ward Democratic leader until his death.[citation needed]

City council

City Council redistricting left Northwest Philadelphia without an incumbent councilman, and Cohen was elected to that position in 1967, quintupling the November victory margin of the previous incumbent.[citation needed]

Sworn in as a member of City Council in 1968, Cohen became a leader of the independent factions of the City Council, and worked to focus the City Council on previously slighted problems dealing with zoning, public health care, air pollution, governmental ethics, delivery of city services, and race relations. Elected a delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Cohen supported the Presidential campaigns of Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, and frequently spoke at rallies opposing the War in Vietnam.[citation needed]

Cohen resigned to run for Mayor of Philadelphia in 1971. After failing to garner adequate support to win the Democratic mayoral nomination, he withdrew and supported Congressman William J. Green, who lost to former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Frank L. Rizzo.[citation needed]

Cohen remained active in Philadelphia politics and civic life, campaigning for George McGovern, running unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for City Controller in 1973 and for Councilman at large in 1975. He joined an unsuccessful effort to recall Mayor Rizzo in 1976 after Rizzo, who had won two elections opposing tax increases, pushed through the largest tax increase in Philadelphia history. Cohen was one of the leaders of the successful opposition to Mayor Rizzo's campaign to amend the City Charter in order to allow Rizzo to seek a third consecutive term as mayor.[citation needed]

He returned to the Philadelphia City Council in 1980, this time as a Councilman at Large. He began his tenure by working to make the rules of City Council more effective and democratic. When City Council President George X. Schwartz, Council Majority Leader Harry Jannotti, and Councilman Louis Johanson were taped accepting bribes from FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks in the nationally prominent Abscam scandals, he and freshman councilman John F. Street, who later became Mayor of Philadelphia, began regularly demanding explanations and resignations from the implicated City Council members.[citation needed] When Schwartz resigned as City Council President in the fall of 1980, Cohen backed his successor as District Councilman in the 8th Councilmanic District, Joseph E. Coleman, whom Cohen had defeated in 1967 for the Democratic nomination, as Council President. Coleman, the first African-American to serve as Council President, later appointed Cohen as Chairman of City Council's Rules Committee.[citation needed]

Cohen's 25 years as at large councilman were the longest tenure in that position since it was created by City Charter amendment in 1951. Throughout it, Cohen was an independent voice in City Council, actively examining and often seeking to modify or defeat the proposals of Mayors William J. Green, W. Wilson Goode, Ed Rendell, and John F. Street. He identified with people who did not have institutional power and were adversely affected by governmental decisions he considered arbitrary and unfair.[citation needed] His achievements included legislation providing sixty day notice for mass layoffs by employers, which served as a model for national legislation signed into law by President Ronald Reagan; divesting city pension funds of investments in South Africa; making Philadelphia a pioneer in the recycling of trash, saving the city of Philadelphia $1.5 billion in estimated costs of establishing a trash to steam plant; shutting down Philadelphia's existing incinerators; restricting increases in locations for billboards; and achieving improvements in Philadelphia's service delivery systems.[citation needed]

Advanced years

Cohen had always demonstrated a strong work ethic, telling a nephew in the early 1950s that he intended never to retire. When the youngest Pennsylvania governor, George M. Leader, was succeeded by the oldest Pennsylvania governor, David Lawrence, in 1958, he repeatedly commented on that fact. Celebrating his 90th birthday as a member of City Council on November 13, 2004, Cohen told The Philadelphia Inquirer he would not retire from City Council and would run for reelection in 2007.[citation needed]

Over 500 people attended a "Tribute to Change" reception at the University of Pennsylvania, held to raise money to fund Bread and Roses, a Philadelphia charitable foundation, and to honor him and his wife Florence Cohen for their lifetimes of activism, on September 12, 2005. The event, held near the law school where he had graduated first in his class more than 68 years earlier, turned out to be his last public appearance before his death.[citation needed]

He was buried in Har Nebo Cemetery in the Oxford Circle section of Philadelphia. His grave is located at the intersection of Israel and Shalom streets near entrance number 2. On his gravestone, unveiled on October 22, 2006, are the words "conscience of the city."[citation needed]

Personal background

In 1946, Cohen married Florence Herzog, whom he had met when she too worked for the Rural Electrification Administration. Together they had four children. Several members of his family followed him into public service.[citation needed] His wife headed a community organization, the Ogontz Area Neighbors Association, and two political organizations, the 17th Ward Democratic Women's Club and the New Democratic Coalition of Philadelphia. From January 1980 until her retirement in September 1996, she served as his City Council Chief of Staff.[citation needed]

His son Denis P. Cohen served for 24 years as an assistant district attorney, and was a leader of the Philadelphia Bar Association. He was also a President of a community association in the Overbrook Farms section of Philadelphia and a Vice-President of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Philadelphia. He was appointed a judge of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas by Governor Tom Ridge in 2000, and was nominated and elected by both the Democratic and Republican Parties for a ten year term in 2001.[citation needed]

His son Mark B. Cohen was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature in May 1974, and served continuously thereafter, holding the governmental positions of Chairman of the Labor Relations Committee, Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, and Democratic Majority Whip. A member of the Democratic State Committee continuously from 1984, he was a delegate at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that nominated Senator John F. Kerry.[citation needed]

His daughter Sherrie Cohen was a trial lawyer in Florida and Philadelphia, as well as an activist for public, political, and gay causes.[citation needed]

His daughter Judy Cohen Minches was a reporter in New Jersey, a leader in her synagogue, and a mother of three.[citation needed]

Death and summation of career

David Cohen died on October 3, 2005, at the age of 90, after a hospitalization at Albert Einstein Medical Center, a few blocks from his home of 53 years. The cause of death was heart failure, although he had entered the hospital for kidney failure. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Claude Lewis, a longtime observer of Philadelphia politics, metaphorically suggested in an October 5, 2005 column that he had died of heart failure because "he used his heart so much."[citation needed]

He had served in City Council over a period of nearly 38 years, more than any Democrat in Philadelphia history, and had served as Councilman at Large for almost 26 years, more than any Philadelphia Councilman at Large. He called himself a "true Roosevelt Democrat."[citation needed]

He was an unabashed liberal and tenacious champion for causes of the poor and downtrodden, as well as for the middle class. In the midst of his 2003 re-election campaign, he told the Philadelphia City Paper for February 27-March 5, 2003 "My colleagues will tell you that I'm the most active member of City Council. For years people have been saying I should step down, but it's not because of my age, it's because of my politics.

"I believe that government must help people to a better life, to see to it that everyone has an equal chance at the American dream, no matter what their economic background. That may not make me popular with some people, but the voters have elected me to Council (at Large) six times, so I must be popular with someone....[citation needed]

"I have more zest now than when I first started. When I leave is up to the Lord and the voters."[citation needed]

Eulogies, posthumous honors and evaluations of record

The October 5, 2005, Philadelphia Daily News published an editorial cartoon by prize winning cartoonist Signe Wilkinson. The cartoon featured a pair of battered boxing gloves, falling apart, held together by band-aids, with Cohen's name on them. To their right was a fight card entitled "City Council Heavyweight Bouts," listing "Cohen v. Injustice," "Cohen v. Stadiums," "Cohen v. Trash to Steam," "Cohen v. Corporate Welfare," "Cohen v. Vietnam War," and "Cohen v. Racism."

The Daily News editorial of October 5, 2005 employed the same theme. It was "David Cohen, A Glove Story."

"No one wore the boxing gloves with as much relish as the Councilman," the Daily News editorialized. "Cohen was a champ because he fought for what he believed in.... Cohen was ... not truly a professional politician. We can't imagine Cohen ever commissioning a poll to decide which way to vote on an issue. Cohen acted on something more important: his conscience and beliefs.[citation needed]

"In all his battles, he was guided by doggedness rather than expediency, courage rather than deal making....[citation needed]

"David Cohen was a true champion."[citation needed]

In 2007, the Ogontz branch of the public library was renamed after him. He had been instrumental in its establishment back in the 1960s.

Awards have been established in his name by the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, the Community High School of Philadelphia, and the Joseph Pennell Elementary School. A section of books at the Bushrod Library in Northeast Philadelphia was dedicated in his memory.


"This bill (banning stores the size of Supercenters) is plainly aimed at Wal-Mart. What would happen if Wal-Mart was the only place that sells food?" St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 30, 2005.

"It's time to stop treating smokers so politely.... They have no right to make our air impure." Philadelphia Weekly, March 23, 2005.

"The main problem with the Democratic Party is that it seems to be too much like the Republican Party. But Kerry seems to be a fresh change. In Kerry's language I see the kind of government that F.D.R. fought for." "Voter Interviews: Plebes Primed to Pick President," Philadelphia Independent, October, 2004.

"Rittenhouse Square has always been a special place....Rittenhouse Square has character....This is the last place in Philadelphia where we need such a development (parking lot and cinema). Let Rittenhouse Square be what it is now. This is what attracts people to Philadelphia. I think Rittenhouse Square ought to be Rittenhouse Square and not become like Times Square in New York." The Weekly Press, July 7, 2004.

His "most important interest (after returning from World War II)... was not to work for those who already have economic power." He returned to Philadelphia in 1952 because he "felt (he) belonged here." After his election as councilman at large in 1979, he worked "to make government more responsive politically to the powerless." Elizabeth Rossi, "Phila. political elder backs 'powerless,'" Daily Pennsylvanian, March 29, 2004.

"Get rid of them immediately," (reacting to a court decision ordering a billboard company to take down hundreds of billboards made illegal by a 1991 law he had sponsored banning new billboards within 660 feet of playgrounds, parks, schools, and various other places.) Anthony S. Twyman, Philadelphia Inquirer, February 24, 2004. Posted by Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight (SCRUB) at urbanblight.org.

"I don't think you can create an artificial park that can do what LOVE Park can do. I understand that there are competing interests here, but as Council members we often deal with such conflicts. And I put the interests of skateboarders pretty high. The younger people are so often put into a corner." Carla Anderson, "When Will Skaters Roam LOVE Park?" Philadelphia Daily News, November 10, 2003

"I'm sorry to hear that my colleague believes that skateboarders are causing the damage. I don't believe it for a moment. The real issue is anti-skateboarder bias.... He (city planner and skateboard advocate Ed Bacon) is a little older than me, so he's obviously got more wisdom than I have." Sara Kelly, "City Hall: Save the Children," Philadelphia Weekly, June 18, 2003. Posted at Free LOVE Park at ushistory.org.

"We don't need bigger government or smaller government; we need better government." Charlesdog12, Daily Kos, December 28, 2003 and subsequent dates.

"The war (in Iraq) must not be used as an instrument for curtailing people's rights." Andrea Miller, "City Opposes Media Consolidation," Daily Pennsylvanian, March 21, 2003.

"This is a movement in the opposite direction of what we've had for many years. I think it's very heartening. And I think it's good for everybody in Philadelphia." (The decision of congregation Mishkan Shalom, founded in the Philadelphia suburbs, to build a new synagogue in Philadelphia) Ami Eden, "Shuls Heading for Cities, Bucking Suburban Trend), Forward, January 11, 2002.

"The point of this bill (an anti-mask ordinance introduced in anticipation of the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia to nominate George W. Bush) is to sabotage Philadelphia, to make sure we're all on nice behavior." Jacquelyn Horkan, Inbox, Florida Business Insight, July 3, 2000.

"The mayor didn't say 'I'm going to think about it.' He didn't say 'I'm going to try to do it.' He said 'I'm going to do it.' We assumed it had been done. You don't make commitments like that unless you follow through with them."[3]

"Mayors have to be cheerleaders. Philadelphia is not unanimously behind this merger.... Philadelphia seems to be practically unanimously opposed to this merger (between First Union and CoreStates banks)."[4]


  1. ^ David Cohen page on city government site
  2. ^ Jewish Exponent, 2005 October 12
  3. ^ [Firehouse.com Julie Knipe Brown, "A Hepatitis C Crisis, Firefighter Hospitalized," Philadelphia Daily News, March 22, 2000.]
  4. ^ [epop-leaders.org Joseph N. DiStephano and Bob Fernandez, "First Union's Critics and Backers Have a Say. They Came From the Carolinas and Kensington. Regulators Listened and Questioned," Philadelphia Inquirer, March 14, 1998.

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