Councilman Zeke Cohen made it official late Sunday afternoon, telling a bustling crowd of supporters at Center Stage in Mount Vernon that he’s running for City Council president.
Pointing to hundreds of millions of dollars of federal stimulus money and a roster of new leadership in Annapolis with close Baltimore ties, the Democrat said that dysfunction and chaos persist at City Hall despite a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make progress.
“The only thing that is getting in our way right now is our leadership,” he said in an interview with The Baltimore Banner prior to the announcement. “Baltimore deserves better. People are looking for better. And I’m hoping that that’s me.”
While the announcement was not quite a surprise to City Hall observers — the Democrat earlier this year formed an exploratory committee for a citywide run for either council president or mayor — it marks the beginning of the first citywide race with multiple major candidates thus far. Incumbent Nick Mosby affirmed his reelection plans on Wednesday.
Cohen’s message resonated with the large and diverse crowd of supporters that flocked to the campaign launch, where a three-piece band played jazz as the candidate milled among the teeming group, which included Comptroller Bill Henry and Del. Mark Edelson.
Ray Kelly, a longtime police activist donned in a purple campaign T-shirt, said he’s supporting Cohen because they both agree that City Hall doesn’t need to choose between effective governance or delivering services. He said he encouraged Cohen to run for council president the last election cycle.
“Too often, politics puts you in a place where you’re not getting everything you’re supposed to from the government,” he said. “We’re aligned on how this work needs to be done.”
The Democratic primary, which is scheduled to take place April 23, 2024, though state lawmakers have filed legislation to move it to May 14 due to a conflict with Passover, is tantamount to the general election in Baltimore, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by nearly 10 to one.
Cohen, a 37-year-old resident of Brewer’s Hill, was raised in Massachusetts. He moved to the Baltimore region to study political science at Goucher College in Towson. He also holds a master’s degree in public policy from the Johns Hopkins University.
Cohen taught middle school social studies as a member of Teach For America at the now-closed George G. Kelson Elementary School in Sandtown-Winchester and Curtis Bay Elementary School before founding the nonprofit The Intersection, which led after-school programs for city youth.
He was elected to represent the 1st Council District in 2016 and won a second term in 2020. Cohen has been among the most outspoken members in both council terms, occupying a visible seat within the group’s progressive faction, where he often served as an ally to former councilman and now-Mayor Brandon Scott.
Cohen is one of a few elected city officials, including Mayor Scott and fellow council members Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and Eric Costello, to have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to the most recent campaign finance reports filed in January. His war chest exceeds $370,000, a sum that Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs, called impressive.
“Cohen is a rising star with strong support in his diverse Southeast Baltimore district, and has attracted support throughout the party,” Hartley said.
The money means Cohen will serve as a formidable foe to Mosby, who reported having less than a thousand dollars on hand in his most recent campaign filing but who benefits from strong name and citywide recognition thanks to his incumbency, his native Baltimore roots, and his wife, former Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who came in third place in her bid for a third term in office last summer.
Cohen’s pitch boils down to change — he’s betting that voters will be looking for something different when they head to the polls next year.
“I think that in this moment, people are tired of feeling like their elected leaders are constantly fighting with each other, that they’re unfocused, distracted by either petty politics or personal problems,” he said.
He’s as quick to point to his legislative accomplishments — which include a law that requires city lobbyists to register in a public database and the Healing City Act, which mandated that agency workers are trained to recognize and respond to the signs of trauma — as he is the successes of the 1st District, a diverse group of neighborhoods that managed to report a growing population in the last city census, unlike the city as a whole.
“We’re going to build an incredibly diverse constituency and coalition,” he said. “I am extremely proud of the support that we’ve got from Black, white, Hispanic, Asian communities in every corner of our city.”
At Center Stage, Dave Heilker, an activist who worked on Cohen’s 2016 campaign, said his personal politics are sometimes further to the left than Cohen and that he does not always agree with the politician’s “compromise mindset” but that he’s trustworthy.
“If we have a conversation about something, he’s not going to tell me one thing and do another. He might tell me something I don’t want to hear, but he’s not going to lie to me,” he said.
Delivering remarks in support of Cohen, Bryonna Harris recalled the day that Frederick Douglass High School went on lockdown because of a shooting that injured a school staff member. She and her fellow students worked with Cohen on writing the Healing City Act, which she is now paid to implement.
“I dreamed of becoming a lawyer or politician but I never thought I had a seat at the table, that I’d even be welcomed at the table,” she said. “The decision to stand up here for Zeke was easy because for me, this isn’t about what he will do. It’s about the work he’s already done.”
Behind the podium, Cohen said residents are too often asked to settle for mediocrity.
“We are told that we don’t deserve great city services, or even just weekly recycling pickup. And when the systems break down, it’s somehow our fault,” he said. “We need to stop settling for false choices. I know we can do these things because we’ve been doing them in Southeast Baltimore.”