From Lege to Council Race, Cohen Takes a “Step Closer”

Apr. 11, 2011 in News Articles

The New York Times –

When Ellen Cohen decided to run for Houston City Council, two months after losing a re-election bid for her State House seat, a friend worried, “Isn’t that a step down?” Ms. Cohen’s answer? “No, it’s a step closer.”

In the House, Ms. Cohen, the former longtime director of the Houston Area Women’s Center, would have been in the Democratic minority waging a futile battle to prevent deep budget cuts. She would be watching, hamstrung and heartbroken, as Republicans gutted financing for women’s health and family planning programs, her pet issues, as they did last weekend.

If she is elected to the Houston City Council in the fall, she will be tackling crumbling streets and flooded parks, clear-cut problems with straightforward fixes. She will have 16 nonpartisan colleagues to sway, not 149 House lawmakers divided by political party. And she will often see the results of her efforts within weeks or months, not years.

“If I were still in the House, I would’ve either voted for a lot of the cuts, and felt really ill about it, or I would have voted against the cuts, and known it didn’t make one iota of difference,” Ms. Cohen said.

Running for City Council “is on a different scale, sure,” she said, “but the immediacy of being able to do something in the city you chose to move to is really appealing.”

Given Texas’ current political climate, it is a shrewd move for an effective Democrat, said Bill Miller, a political consultant in Austin who has worked with candidates on both sides of the aisle. Most politicians run “upward,” Mr. Miller said, from city government to statewide office and beyond. Some fall backward, running unsuccessfully for unrealistic seats, then working their way back to local government.

It is the rare candidate who is committed enough to public service to run for the seat where he or she will have the most impact — even if it is not the most high profile.

Ms. Cohen, a 70-year-old Ohio native, said she took her November defeat in stride because it did not compare to what she had been through in real life. She survived breast cancer as a young woman. The husband she first met as a teenager at summer camp and was married to for 42 years died in 2003. She was never trained in the “stair step” rules of elective office, which is why going from a legislative race to a citywide run does not feel unnatural, she said.

Ms. Cohen, who represented District 134 for two terms, was not your usual freshman legislator either. She succeeded in getting a bill passed that required strip club patrons to pay a $5 fee, money designed to finance programs for survivors of sexual assault. And she was instrumental in passing a referendum to sell $3 billion in bonds to finance cancer research. “I felt I had nothing to lose,” Ms. Cohen said. “It never occurred to me that, as a freshman, that just wasn’t what you did.”

Ms. Cohen said she would have been happy to stay in the House, if not for the Republican sweep and the surprise defeat that sent her on this new course. But now that she is on it, there are obvious benefits. It takes roughly two and a half times more money to run for state representative than for a district City Council seat, Ms. Cohen said. And the pay is better: Houston City Council members make roughly $56,000 a year; House members earn just $7,200.

There are also lifestyle differences. The Council meets two days a week, plus committee meetings, and rarely late into the night, Ms. Cohen said, versus the House’s five-month sprint every other year. And then there is proximity to power. Houston political observers suggest that Ms. Cohen, who would have more constituents in her City Council district than she did in the House, would have greater influence and more authority at home than she had in Austin. There is already buzz about whether she would make a possible mayoral candidate down the line.

Ms. Cohen scoffs at that buzz and said she is intensely focused on her City Council race, in which the appeal is all local. For years, she has tuned in to local council meetings and thought, “I’ve driven that pot-holed street” or “The accidents on that corner are terrible.”

“Maybe I’m not on the political step ladder,” she said, “but I have the opportunity to change someone’s life for the better, and do it in a more timely fashion. I really like that sense of home.”