While a single event doesn’t define an individual, the event’s impact can shape the future. Such was the case when Ellen Cohen was diagnosed with breast cancer before she was 30 years of age. Living in her late husband Lyon’s hometown of Montreal at the time, she had questions her doctors could not answer. The support of her family, an instinct for survival, and an inquisitive mind sustained her. In fact, as soon as she was able, she determined that no other woman would endure the diagnosis of breast cancer alone, and she founded Reach to Recovery of Canada, a self-help post-mastectomy group. The program was in all Montreal hospitals when the Cohen family left Quebec.
Ellen could have returned to her native Ohio when the family – including daughter Marcie and son Eric — relocated to the U.S. in 1977. Instead, she and Lyon chose Texas, in part, because “things were settled with a handshake.” With its black gold under the ground and intellectual black gold above, the state was on the move. Ellen’s administrative acumen fit right in. Houston offered unlimited possibilities resulting in yet another advocacy role as executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). There she worked with the leadership from Houston’s diverse religious and business communities to foster mutual understanding and tolerance for one of the nation’s premiere human relations organizations.
After a decade with AJC, she served as President and CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Center (HAWC) for 18 years. Dedicated to eliminating domestic and sexual violence, the Center again allowed for the blending of her executive leadership abilities with her compassion. In that capacity, she managed a $6.2 million budget and a 120-person staff, serving over 6,000 women, children, and men annually. Ellen continues to be recognized nationally as an expert on domestic and sexual violence issues.
Following almost 20 years at the Houston Area Women’s Center, Ellen was presented with the opportunity to become an entirely different kind of advocate – that of an elected official.
In 2005, Ellen was encouraged by a group of leaders in the community to consider running for the position of State Representative, District 134. She felt it was a natural extension of the work she had been doing in Houston for the past 28 years. On November 7, 2006, Ellen Cohen was elected to the Texas House of Representatives with the largest margin of any challenger to an incumbent in Texas at that time. During her two terms in the Texas Legislature, Ellen worked diligently to restore balance and integrity to the Texas Legislature and her record reflects this commitment. She is widely respected by her former colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, for her ability to work “across the aisle” and bring reasoned discourse to Austin.
Ellen served on various committees’ during her tenure in the Texas Legislature including Appropriations, Higher Education, Public Health, Rules & Resolutions, Select Committee of Federal Legislation, and Urban Affairs.
Ellen worked on significant legislation as a member of the Texas House of Representatives. She was the first House sponsor of the bill creating the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) that funds grants addressing cancer research, clinical trials, and laboratory facility construction in Texas. In addition, she authored and passed legislation with the goal of providing $25 million for adult and child survivors of sexual assault through an Adult Entertainment Fee and co-authored the bill creating the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, Ellen helped craft a $182 billion biennium budget which unanimously passed the House. She was also the joint author on the bill which set the stage to create more Tier One research universities across Texas, including the University of Houston.
Ellen’s career choices are a reflection of her commitment to public service. She is dedicated to continued public service and giving back to the City of Houston.
Ellen dedicates her time to serving on various boards with a significant impact on the Houston community. She serves or has served on the boards of: American Cancer Society, American Leadership Forum Executive Committee; City of Houston Housing and Community Development Consolidated Plan Advisory Task Force, Congregation Beth Israel; Faith Trust Institute; Police Advisory Board; American Jewish Committee; Cool Globes Houston Programming Advisory Board; Houston Area Adult Protective Services, and Park Plaza Hospital. She is also a former President of Leadership Houston and the Medical Center Hospital Board.
Ellen was appointed by President Bill Clinton along with the US Attorney General and the Secretary of Health and Human Services to the National Violence Against Women Advisory Council. She accepted this role because of the need for comprehensive language dealing with domestic violence and sexual assault. She was also appointed to the Governor’s Planning Council for the STOP Violence Against Women campaign. The Supreme Court of Texas appointed Ellen to the Gender Fairness Implementation Executive Committee. In addition, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus appointed her to the serve on the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission following her sponsorship of the bill establishing the Commission.
Ellen’s service is one reason why she is recognized as a community leader. She has a reputation for lending her expertise and leadership to those organizations and issues that she cares deeply about. Ellen is sought out as a speaker by schools, civic associations, and various community groups because of her extensive community and professional experience.