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David Cohen, City Council's Liberal Stalwart, Dies at 90

October 12, 2005 By:
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Several months ago, 90-year-old David Cohen - who had served in the Philadelphia City Council for a total of 38 years - confided to his eldest son that he might just be ready to hang up his political hat, sort of.

"He said that he might not seek re-election in 2007. When I asked what he wanted to do, he said, 'I hope I can get a staff job at City Council,' " state Rep. Mark Cohen (D-District 202) told the nearly 1,000 people gathered at the Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael-Sacks funeral home on North Broad Street to honor the life of his father.

The elder Cohen, long a dissenting voice in the council chamber at City Hall, died of heart failure Oct. 3, just a few weeks shy of his 91st birthday.

"The truth is that he loved the city council. He considered it the best legislative job outside of the U.S. Senate," relayed Cohen. "He believed that the duty of government was to help each person achieve his or her full potential."

A liberal stalwart who stayed in his Logan home long after most Jewish families had abandoned the neighborhood, Cohen spent his political life battling some of the city's most powerful political figures, from Frank Rizzo to Edward G. Rendell, often unsuccessfully. Early on in his political career, he demonstrated against the racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws a decade before Martin Luther King Jr. became a household name.

He got his professional start in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Department of Agriculture, where he developed the views of government he would hold for a lifetime, and went on to serve with the medical corps in the Pacific during World War II. Twenty years later, he was an early opponent of the Vietnam war.

First elected to City Council in 1967 - he resigned in 1971 in an unsuccessful bid to wrest the Democratic mayoral nomination from Rizzo - Cohen returned to the council in 1979, where he remained until his death. From that office, he waged battles against SEPTA fare increases, police brutality and racial discrimination in housing practices. In his later years, he fought for campaign-finance reform, a ban on assault weapons and a wage-tax reduction for poor families, and also fought against the ubiquity of retail super stores.

In his more than three decades at City Hall, he developed a reputation for being constantly available to his constituents; he was known to personally intervene with the city's utility companies to have a household's gas or heat turned back on, and even accompanied residents to Traffic Court to argue on their behalf.

At the time of his death, Cohen was the only Jewish person sitting on the council.

The son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Cohen was born in 1914 in South Philadelphia. According to published reports, when it became clear that he wasn't very adept at the family paper-hanging business, he decided to focus on his studies. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law in the midst of the Great Depression, and said in an interview some years later that he decided to work for the Department of Agriculture when it became clear that the city's major law firms weren't hiring Jews.

Cohen never hid his ethnic identity, though he may have been far better known as a champion of the poor and minorities - particularly of black families, who comprised a large portion of his constituency - than as a Jewish leader.

"He often would say, 'As a Jew, I felt this way.' He really, in my mind, epitomized the Jewish sense of social responsibility," said Burt Siegel, director of community relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. "He really epitomized classic Jewish liberalism. He was a real champion of racial integration in this city, as well as of the rights of women, gays and the handicapped."

Siegel added that Cohen, a former board member of JCRC, was a staunch supporter of Israel. The legislator often pushed for council measures supporting the Jewish state, and informed fellow council members about life there.

Siegel said it bothered Cohen greatly that many like-minded liberals did not share a commitment to Israel's survival.

At the funeral home, lines of people packed into two adjacent chapels for the memorial service, with half of them watching the ceremony on a video screen. Displayed in the entrance to the building were enlarged photos of an elderly Cohen, with his wife of nearly 60 years, Florence; alone at his desk on the floor of the council chamber; even shots of him lifting weights in the gym.

Rabbi Gary M. Gans of Congregation Beth Tikvah officiated the ceremony. Noting that Cohen died several hours before the start of the Jewish New Year, Gans said in quoting a midrashic folk tale that "the most worthy are blessed with the opportunity to live out the whole year."

Family members and political leaders took turns lauding Cohen's legacy, praising him as a man who never wavered from his principles and never conducted a poll to determine which way he would vote on a particular issue.

"He didn't believe in measuring the political temperature; he believed in setting the temperature," said Mayor John Street, who said that anytime he scheduled a meeting with Cohen he blocked off at least two hours, because "he always wanted to take you back in order to bring you where he wanted you to be."

Street also referred to Cohen's reputation as a sometimes cantankerous speechmaker. "I loved his speeches. He could go so high; he had various pitches. When he was up here, you knew he was really serious," said Street, who became City Council president in 1992, and actually stripped Cohen of a coveted committee chairmanship.

In his eulogy, Street mentioned the most stinging rebuke Cohen offered him from the floor of the council: Cohen criticized the then-council president for his close relationship with then-mayor Rendell.

"You have reduced this council to less than a rubber stamp," Street quoted Cohen, attempting to replicate Cohen's speech pattern.

'Feisty, Fierce, Fearless and Ferocious'

U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D-District 1) said he often sought Cohen's advice, and one time even managed to convince him to change his mind on an issue.

"There will never be another David Cohen. He fought for everybody who couldn't fight for themselves," attested Brady.

Sherri Cohen, the eldest of Cohen's two daughters, reiterated the theme of her father as a warrior for the underprivileged.

"He was a powerful fighter against powerful interests," she said. "He was feisty, fierce, fearless and ferocious. Nothing would give him greater joy than being in the middle of a good fight."

The daughter, though, also revealed her father's liberally-tinged sense of humor in a comment that made the audience burst into laughter. She said she was sitting in her father's hospital room several days before his death, close to tears.

"He said, 'Don't cry, Sherri. The world is overpopulated anyway.' "

Cohen is also survived by another son, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Dennis Cohen, daughter Judy Cohen Minches and five grandchildren.

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