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Rep. Mark Cohen on why Philly needs a state university, and whether he’s going to retire (Q&A)

Mark Cohen, 66, is the senior member of Pennsylvania’s legislature. He’s served the 202nd House District (Northeast Philly) since 1974. In that time, Cohen has largely been synonymous with progressive initiatives. He supported gay marriage and the legalization of weed earlier than most. He’s continuously supported measures that assist veterans. He helped create legislation that led to wheelchair accessible cabs in Philadelphia.

And Cohen keeps winning, albeit barely. Last spring, he defeated Democratic primary challenger Jared Solomon with just under 52 percent of the vote. Cohen spoke with Billy Penn about changes needed for Philadelphia, the boys club of 1970s Harrisburg and his future.

Q: When you look back to when you first got elected to the state House in 1974, what strikes you as the thing that has changed the most?  

A: Well, the thing that struck me most recently is the decline of poetry, the poetry of politics. There used to be a lot more eloquent speakers on the floor of the House of Representatives. Right now people are more rushed. Politics has gotten more complicated. There are more fundraising calls. Everybody is in a hurry. Decisions are rushed. There are not always the best decisions made. There’s less concern for the life situations of low-income people than there used to be. There’s less sense the government can play a positive role in solving problems.

Q: Why do you think that is?

A: There has been a rather steady effort to de-legitimize government, to increase public cynicism. Everything goes hand in hand. The monetization of politics feeds in to the public cynicism and the more it exists the harder it is to build consensus — which leads to raising more money, which feeds into the cynicism. People don’t bother to talk to each other as much as they do raising money for them. It’s more money-driven.

Q: How much money did you have to raise when you started out?

A: I think I raised something like $4,000 and spent something like $5,000. The last primary I raised about $135,000 and spent about $150,000. I think the trend will continue. Things are just going to get more expensive. We see the same with [Governor Tom] Wolf’s budget. God knows how much both sides are going to spend to get the legislature to be for or against Wolf’s budget.

Q: You were first elected in 1974, height of Watergate, end of Vietnam. That must’ve been pretty intense.

A: Richard Nixon resigned just a few months after I was elected. That certainly was an education for me and for many millions of Americans. I found it largely energizing. Watergate and Vietnam were caused buy poor governmental decisions. There’s no inherent reason why there had to be a war in Vietnam. There were many opportunities to cease the war but the Johnson administration was very concerned about what the terms were and the loss of face, and so we lost roughly 55,000 American lives and hundreds of thousands were seriously hurt for the rest of their lives and many millions of Vietnamese were killed in the effort. That was just a poor governmental policy.

Q: How did that translate to everyday work and legislation?

A: People would often talk about it. It was an interesting saga. By the time I got there, the war in Vietnam was basically over but we were having the problems with veterans. I helped a veteran in my district set up a Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter. I found a place for them to meet and helped them learn the mechanics of publicity and organizing. I served on the veterans committee and was very strong for the state. I continuously supported bonus programs and preferential hiring for veterans. I think, getting back to question,  it was like day-to-day a steady reminder in ways large and small of both the importance of the policies and the importance of seeking remediation for all the ill effects the policies had on people’s lives. We’re still dealing today with the problems of injuries and post traumatic stress disorder.

Q: How much of a boys club was Harrisburg back in the ’70s?

A: There were very few female legislators. I guess there were virtually no female legislators. There were virtually no female lobbyists. The term sexual harassment was not generally understood then, but there was widespread sexual harassment and surprisingly there was widespread acceptance by women of sexual harassment — just it existing as a fact of life and you move on. It was very different. [Former governor] Milton Shapp was clearly a change agent. He made a lot of money in the cable industry and used the money to beat the party organization twice for governor. And he was a terrible judge of individual people. His administration was riddled with one scandal after another, but an excellent judge of public policy. His policies have proved to be extremely useful to this day. Shapp pushed through the equal rights amendment.

Q: Is it tougher to make bipartisan deals?

A: There’s a greater degree of partisanship. The Republicans are more conservative than they were then. The Republican leader when I first got there greeted me warmly the day or day after I was sworn in, smiled and said, “we’re the bad guys.” That sort of friendliness just isn’t there today. There’s less public debate and much more private anger. There was a lot of public discussion and issue differences, which went down to paragraphs of legislation. People were focused on the policies. Nowadays there’s much less focus on the policies and much more focus on politics and fundraising and interest groups. That pretty much ends the discussion once they know what the interest groups are on each side.

Q: What are two or three things you think Philadelphia urgently needs for the city to continue its growth?

A: I think we need a state university in Philadelphia. It is ridiculous that the county with the most poverty in both numbers and percentages doesn’t have an inexpensive state university in it. The closest state university is in West Chester. I favor a state university in Philadelphia. That could include moving an existing one to Philadelphia or just setting up a new state university. There could be a state subsidy involved so the costs are less. At one point the Rendell administration was very tempted by that. It looked like it was going to happen and then we had the stock market crash, and that was the end of that.

Secondly, we have to pay more attention to the actual delivery of city services. The complaints about city services are huge, and as a state legislator I get more calls about city services than state services, and the city really has to figure out how to deal with it. I think one easy thing to do would be to break down the complaints received by zip code or by ward and really study the complaints in the various areas on a systematic basis and then release the results to the public and get conclusions.

Q: Your father, David Cohen, served in City Hall until he died in his 90s, how much longer are you going to stay in politics?

A: I have no intention of retiring. My opponent [from 2014] is also running. I expect to stay around in the future. When I see politics I don’t just see it as bouncing from one office to the other. I see it as staying in the office and pursuing policies that benefit people and that’s what I’ve done. I’ve always been more interested in the long term than the next newspaper headline.

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