For Rep. Mark Cohen, the longest-serving state legislator in Pennsylvania, charges that he abuses taxpayer-funded per diem reimbursements are nothing new.
What is different is that Cohen, whose family has deep political ties in the Philadelphia area and who has represented the Northeast for four decades, will face a rare challenger on the Democratic primary ballot May 20.
He is coming to the end of a heated race against a fellow Jew, Jared Solomon, who has lobbed fierce attacks at Cohen, 64.
If Solomon, a 35-year-old community activist, wins, it would mark a significant turnover in Harrisburg, where Cohen has served since 1974 and once chaired the Democratic Caucus.
The incumbent’s father, David Cohen, spent 38 years on the Philadelphia City Council and was known as a strong supporter of progressive causes who was willing to challenge Democratic leaders like Frank Rizzo and Ed Rendell. His sister, Sherrie Cohen, is hoping to follow her father on to the City Council in 2015.
But Solomon has focused on Cohen’s reported status as the state legislator who collects the most per diem payments — money intended to reimburse lawmakers for meal and lodging expenses when they are on official business.
He has also pointed to a Philadelphia Inquirer report in 2006 that the state had reimbursed Cohen more than $28,000 for books to expand his personal library.
“All of that money, all of those resources, could be going toward our police, our firefighters, our teachers, but it’s all going” to Cohen, said Solomon, who started Take Back Your Neighborhood, a group that aims to combat crime and promote positive change in the Northeast.
Solomon has received the endorsement of another young politician, Rep. Brian Sims, a 35-year-old Democrat from Philadelphia, who has insinuated that Cohen is not fit for the job in a Facebook post that received significant media attention.
In an interview, Cohen defended his use of the per diems saying, “I have no outside income. I am a full-time legislator. While other legislators frequently practice law or sell real estate or work for one business or another, I have not done that.”
On the book purchases, he said,“I research legislation intensively. The books I buy are detailed studies of public policy. They’re not romance novels; they’re not how to make money in the stock market.”
By running attack ads, Solomon “has shown that he has no sense of decency,” said Cohen, who won a primary challenge in 2012 but before that rarely faced an opponent from either party. “I think if he really wanted to win, he would stop running them.”
The 202nd district boundaries have been redrawn as part of redistricting in recent years and Cohen conceded that he was “not quite as strong in the new district as the old district.”
“There are still an awful lot of people in the district who I’ve worked with on various issues and lot of people in the district who know who I am,”said Cohen, who belongs to Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in the Northeast.
Robin Schatz, director of government affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said she’s “not sure how familiar the new parts of the district are with Mark or his record.
“He comes from a politically active family,” said Schatz. “But I’m not sure how that will play out in terms of the changes in the district.”