It’s fitting that during his last days at the legislature Gerry Cohen has been witness to yet another drawn-out budget battle.
On Wednesday, he sat in the back of the Senate during a classic late-session brawl over local sales taxes that ended with an urban-rural rift over transportation funding that could have played out almost verbatim during any of Cohen’s three decades of service.
The accolades he’d received earlier were a fine tribute, but for a man who has witnessed up close some of the great political matches of the modern era, exiting while the chaotic music of democracy is cranking at full volume seems appropriate.
He had an unusual start for someone being lauded for his impartial approach to the job. He’d gotten involved in Chapel Hill politics as an undergrad, working to help get a referendum passed for public transportation. In 1972, he tried his damnedest to get George McGovern elected president. He was unsuccessful, but McGovern did carry Orange County.
Afterward, Cohen contemplated running for Board of Aldermen (later renamed Town Council). Departing graduate and fellow McGovern organizer Charlie Dean, brother of Howard, handed off the list of Orange County supporters and contributors. Cohen went at it, campaigning mainly on the need for better transit. In a race for four seats between five candidates he came in second becoming the first student elected to office.
Then as now the big debate was over rapid growth. Cohen said his views on growth changed during his time on the council as he realized stopping it meant greater sprawl and higher housing prices. It’s odd, he said, that so many people who opt to move to a college town seem to hate students.
Cohen ran for mayor in 1975 and was trounced by Jimmy Wallace. You can still detect a slight wince when he recalls it.
After getting his law degree in 1977, he landed a job in the legislature working alongside some of the state’s best minds at a time of immense change. He ran again for mayor in 1979 and lost in a three-way race to Joe Nassif.
“That was the fork in the road,” Cohen told me. He decided after the race to take the fork that led to a career as a member of the non-partisan professional staff at the legislature. Given how polarized this state has been at times, it’s a wonder how he pulled it off.
Tuesday, when Art Pope – yeah, that guy – presented him the Order of the Long Leaf Pine on behalf of the governor, he remarked that Cohen was once a self-described Democratic Socialist, but kept his politics in check when doing the work of the legislature.
That doesn’t mean Cohen doesn’t have opinions. Last year, he got his back up when the right of Montravias King, an Elizabeth City State University student, to run for city council was challenged. As the first student to win elected office, Cohen has long been a mentor to others, like former Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton and Boone Mayor Andy Ball.
In a way, he said, “I saw an attack on Montravias as an attack on me.”
Cohen, composed and friendly person by nature, wrote a blistering op-ed in defense of student participation in local elections. At King’s hearing at the Board of Elections he glared so intensely at the opposition I feared they’d catch on fire.
King got his place on the ballot and Cohen even campaigned for him. Last fall, King was the top vote getter in his race. Many of us got the news first on social media via Gerry Cohen, who was there on election night watching a student win a seat on the council in a small southern college town.
Funny where a fork in the road will lead you.
Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org