For close to 36 years, Mark Cohen has represented Pennsylvania’s 202nd District, which stretches like a belt across much of Northern Philadelphia east of Broad Street.
Mable Windham has been with working with him for almost as long—since 1979—managing his local office in the heart of Olney’s commercial district. And despite the election only a few short weeks away, she’s planning on being with him well into the future.
In fact, Windham cringes at the prospect of even discussing politics and elections in the office. It’s not that it’s a neck-and-neck race where the slightest bit of negative press could tip the scales—Cohen is actually running unopposed—but rather she feels that the combative nature of partisan politics has no place in his duty representing the area.
“He’s a Democrat, but he represents all the voters. We don’t ask them what party they are,” said Windham. “He’s running unopposed, but he’s not taking it for granted. That’s just how great a legislator he is!”
As proof of that, according to Windham, the office on Olney wouldn’t even be available if it weren’t for Cohen. She said that a number of years ago Cohen passed a bill in the legislature that required all representatives to maintain a home office for their constituents. The reason behind this, she said, was that their work kept them in Harrisburg and out of touch with the people they are representing.
“They’d be working in the capital until Thursday and have no time to go back and forth. All of [the representatives] have their own home office now,” she said.
Even though the representatives themselves are rarely in the area, the local offices serve as intermediaries between the districts’ constituents and state government. Most of her work, she said, deals with helping residents file for licenses, permits, Social Security and other public programs as well as relaying their concerns to the other office in Harrisburg. Or as she puts it, “helping people break out of the bureaucracy.”
In addition to the broad-sweeping addition of local offices across Pennsylvania, Cohen has worked toward to pass several laws targeted specifically at Olney’s mostly low-income, minority communities.
The most hard-won and effective of the measures was a law regarding the state-established minimum wage for workers. In 2005, the House passed H.B. 257 that raised the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.15 an hour a year after it was signed into law by the governor in 2006. Two years later, Cohen introduced another bill that would require minimum wage to be adjusted for inflation each year, but has since stagnated in the legislature.
Aside from that, Cohen spent considerable time working with PECO and the state government to provide assistance for struggling families. He fought for the bill that created the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a social welfare program that helps heat the homes of families who would otherwise be unable to pay their heating bill.
When Mayor Michael Nutter presented his austerity budget last year, Cohen was on the front lines defending the public libraries that faced closure all across the city. His district in particular would be hardly hit by their loss, said Windham. The people there depend on libraries for computer access and books, in addition to important programs like job-searching and English as a Second Language materials. The nearby Greater Olney Branch was scheduled to close, but has since been able to stay open four days a week.
“He’s worked very hard to make sure all the public libraries stay open. The mayor was gonna close them down, but we fought and got them back,” said Windham. “It didn’t even make sense. You’re talking about education!”
Since re-election is almost a sure thing, Cohen is already working on a number of measures that he hopes to enact within the next term.
The most recent of these is H.B. 1393, a bill that would legalize medical marijuana within Pennsylvania. Although Windham reinforced his dedication to getting the bill passed, it has languished in committee for nearly a year.
Reaching further back is a broad-reaching attempt to bring about discussion on a publicly run college system. The goal, according to a newsletter sent out on the issue, is to give all Philadelphians a chance to get an education beyond high school without having to pay the high price of tuition associated with private and state-funded schools.
Despite what people may think about his performance, there will be little choice for the 202nd District in November. While it is unlikely that everybody will be satisfied with a long-term Democratic incumbent, Windham expressed hope that she and Cohen will be able to include them in the process.
“I think the big problem is that we get caught up in the parties instead of the common good,” she said. “Once he’s in, everyone should think ‘Now I’m represented.’”