The Philadelphia primary was marked by insurgent candidates disrupting machine politics. Ultra-progressive DA candidate Larry Krasner. Kick-out-the-bums controller candidate Rebecca Rhynhart.
Today, Mark B. Cohen, a Democratic Court of Common Pleas candidate who was a longtime state Rep., says his name should be added to the list.
“I think all of us will be change agents,” he said, lumping himself into the same category as Krasner and Rhynhart. “I think it’s clear that a lot of voters wanted change and were interested in people who do not have traditional credentials. There’s a thought that people without traditional credentials will bring change. I was a change agent in the Legislature and I will continue to be a change agent as judge.”
Cohen, who hails from a storied Northeast Philly political dynasty, pointed to his liberal track record in the General Assembly, where he supported policies like marijuana decriminalization and expungements for nonviolent offenders. He said he would take a similarly progressive attitude on the bench, while encouraging reforms to Family Court and more interaction between the judiciary and Harrisburg legislators.
“My supporters communicated a very clear message as to what I stood for and the people responded. I started out as a pretty well-known state legislator,” he said. “The message was that I’ve been very active in both criminal justice and family law in the Legislature and I wanted to continue that activity as a member of the court.”
However, Cohen, who was the state’s longest-serving Rep. when he was defeated by community organizer Jared Solomon in 2016, has been tarnished by what some described as excessive – although entirely legal – use of per diems and his office’s expense account.
In his run this year, he was given a “Not Recommended” rating by the Philadelphia Bar Association; he wound up finishing with the second-lowest vote total of the nine Democratic Common Pleas victors, with 36,000 votes.
Others were skeptical that Cohen’s selection was part of a larger progressive wave.
“To the extent that he wants to occupy a position in the progressive landscape, he’s got credentials in that regard, helped by his family history,” said David Thornburgh, head of the government watchdog Committee of Seventy. “But these judicial elections are such a crapshoot, it’s hard for me to believe that anyone amongst the 40-some candidates really stood out, in terms of a message or a position.”
But Thornburgh also said he didn’t think that victory for a political insider like Cohen was a signal that machine politics weren’t quite dead yet, as some, like former Gov. Ed Rendell, have suggested in the wake of Krasner and Rhynhart’s victories.
“From our scan, he doesn’t seem to have shown up on too many sample ballots,” Thornburgh said. “I chalk him up to name recognition and family history. People probably think his old man is still around” – a reference to longtime Philadelphia City Councilman David Cohen.
Political analyst Larry Ceisler said he didn’t know how Cohen’s success fit into an election that he described as a reaction to President Donald Trump’s victory last year.
“People wanted new faces. People wanted to vote for women. Look at Ellen,” Ceisler said, pointing to the success of his ex-wife’s bid for Commonwealth Court. “But I have no clue why Mark was able to win. I really have no idea. I was really surprised to see that Mark won. Obviously, he knows people all over town.”
Cohen said he looked forward to a long career as judge, despite a not-too-distant state mandated retirement.
“Mandatory retirement age is 75, so I will serve seven years as judge, God willing. Then, under the law, I could be a senior judge,” he said. “But being a senior judge is not guaranteed. You have to apply, just like any other judge. I have to be the best judge I can possibly be.”