He didnt walk the high wire or get shot out of a cannon, but Gerry Cohen managed a feat of derring-do for 37 years in the North Carolina legislature. He got along with Democrats and Republicans alike.
For 31 years, he headed the bill-drafting office, a challenging task to be sure. Some lawmakers, believe it or not, dont know a lot about writing laws, and they turn to legislative staff for help. Often, that means lots of help.
Now, the legislatures encyclopedia, as he was known, is retiring. In Cohens time on Jones Street, the legislative staff has grown from nothing to a group of professionals who keep the place orderly even if they cant control the politics.
Cohen was available to members of both parties who respected his knowledge of state law and his direction of the process of drafting bills. Its a chore that demands a meticulous hand. One slight error can mean chaos. A bill that is off by even one word can wind up meaning something entirely different from what the sponsor intended.
Whether all of the states laws are shining examples of Jeffersonian democracy may be open to debate, but those that went through Cohens desk were guaranteed to pass technical muster.
Its a job that demands a person who doesnt care for glory or power, though in drafting bills Cohen had power, to be sure. For him, he told The News & Observer, the fun was in being in the middle of all this partisan politics without holding a weapon for either side. Working on issues without being for or against them is alway enjoyable, he said.
Cohen was helpful to anyone who asked. Over the years, media representatives called him to clarify proposed or passed legislation. He managed to do so without conveying a sense that he was on one side or the other.
Perhaps, truly, he was walking a high wire.