On a cool, drizzly morning last month in a parking lot in Cherry Hill, Councilmember Zeke Cohen posed for a photo alongside 15 purple-shirted volunteers. After the picture, the group fanned out across the South Baltimore neighborhood equipped with yard signs and campaign mailers.

Cohen bounced from door to door with a sign bearing his name and greeted residents with a big grin, adeptly engaging them with memories of his teaching days in nearby Curtis Bay or the trials of parenting his young daughter. Many residents nodded along. Some allowed him to leave a sign in their yard.

It was, in many ways, a typical scene for Cohen’s campaign — one that has played out practically every weekend in a different neighborhood around town, for more than a year.

“I don’t know any other way to campaign,” Cohen said in a recent interview. “I’ve always felt that, no matter what the polls say, you play like you’re 20 points back.”

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Southeast Baltimore’s representative on the City Council since 2016, Cohen jumped into the race for council president unusually early. After months of publicly exploring the idea, he declared his candidacy in March 2023 and has campaigned aggressively since then, canvassing the city for months while his opponents remained largely on the sidelines.

Council President Nick Mosby seemed uncertain about his decision to run for reelection, despite public statements to the contrary, until this year when he filed his candidacy a day before the deadline. Former Councilmember Shannon Sneed didn’t get into the race until October.

Thanks partly to that extra runway, Cohen has dramatically outraised both of his opponents, reporting more money in the bank at the April filing deadline than Mosby and Sneed combined, despite heavier spending. He’s also employed a much larger campaign staff than his opponents. His April campaign finance report showed nearly $40,000 in staffing expenses, while Mosby reported just $5,000.

Over eight years on the City Council, Cohen has not masked his ambitions for higher office, even publicly flirting with a run for mayor this year. In recent Baltimore history, the council president’s post has served as a steppingstone to the mayor’s office. Four of Baltimore’s last five mayors were president of the City Council first.

Some of Cohen’s critics take a more cynical view of his intense campaign operation.

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“He’s literally been campaigning since the day we took office,” said Mosby, who has argued Cohen is more inclined to “platitudes and rhetoric” than representation and legislating. The City Council president has weathered a tumultuous two years in his personal life, but he frequently notes he has showed up for council and the Board of Estimates and done the job — a contrast, he says, with his opponent.

Candidates could focus on their jobs, Mosby said, or “we can sit around and make phone calls to fundraise and campaign all the time.”

Cohen’s robust ground game seems to be paying off. Despite never holding citywide office before, Cohen has led Mosby consistently in polls.

A survey by The Baltimore Banner and Goucher College Poll this month found Cohen with a four-point edge over Mosby, while Sneed trailed by 10 points. Polling in September before Sneed jumped into the race showed Cohen with a 13-point advantage.

State Sen. Cory McCray, who represents a swath of East Baltimore north of Cohen’s district, has been impressed with the sophomore councilmember. McCray has known Cohen since before his days in elected politics, when he ran a youth programming nonprofit called the Intersection, but taking a side in the council president’s race wasn’t a no-brainer for McCray.

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The East Baltimore senator polled support in his own district for Cohen and other candidates before endorsing Cohen last month. For McCray, Cohen’s broad-based appeal that showed up in his survey is a testament to how seriously he takes the job.

“I always say, ‘If you watch somebody’s campaign, it’s the first demonstration of how they’re gonna govern,’” McCray said.

Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen addresses the audience during his campaign announcement to run for City Council President, Sunday, March 19, 2023, in Baltimore.
Baltimore City Councilmember Zeke Cohen addresses the audience during his campaign announcement to run for City Council president in March 2023. (Terrance Williams / For The Baltimore Banner)

The Banner’s April survey suggested he remains relatively unknown to Black voters. Thirty-nine percent of Black respondents expressed a favorable view of Cohen, while nearly as many, 36%, said they didn’t have an opinion of him.

In a majority Black city, McCray, who is Black, said it’s important that residents have leaders who look like them. But he added there are times when it’s important “to set some things aside.” It can take time to build name recognition, but McCray said Cohen has proven he can build a diverse coalition.

“Black, white, Hispanic — he’s doing the work,” McCray said.

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Cohen has also benefited from challenging a vulnerable incumbent. The last year has been a turbulent one for Mosby — the council president and his ex-wife, former State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, divorced last year and he took the blame in federal court in January for the couple’s delinquent tax returns — but Cohen has steered clear of discussing Mosby’s personal trials.

He acknowledged in an interview that he’s been “really careful not to feed into any of the negativity.” Asked whether he thinks residents should be concerned about how Mosby’s personal financial troubles could affect his job, Cohen demurred, saying it’s a question for the voters to decide.

When Cohen has criticized Mosby, he has focused on the incumbent’s leadership of the City Council. Under Mosby’s tenure, Cohen said, the City Council has been “adrift,” marked by infighting and lack of “coherent vision.”

The council has become disconnected from the communities it serves, Cohen said. To strengthen those relationships, the councilmember said as president he would move some hearings out of City Hall and into neighborhood venues.

Among his top priorities, Cohen emphasized the importance of establishing a stronger pipeline from city schools into well-paying, middle-class jobs as carpenters, electricians or dockworkers at the Port of Baltimore. The second-term councilmember also touted accomplishments in his eight years in office, such as policies he introduced to train city employees in “trauma-informed care,” tighten regulations on lobbyists in City Hall, hike fines on illegal dumpers and establish a cabinet-level office for senior citizens.

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Cohen is calling for universal prekindergarten and, though the City Council doesn’t have authority over the Baltimore school system, he argued the body has a consequential role to play by leaning on agencies in oversight hearings and by advocating for policy reform.

“It’s going to be an issue of political will,” he said, “If no one is pushing and holding the administration accountable to deliver, I don’t think it’ll happen.”

But Cohen’s core message, the one he pitched to every resident he met in Cherry Hill, is his argument that Baltimoreans aren’t getting the services they deserve. He opposes the proposed ballot measure to slash the city’s property tax rate but also argues that the city needs to find sensible ways to lower the tax burden on its citizens. Residents pay “double the property taxes” of their neighbors across the county line but don’t get “double the city services,” Cohen said repeatedly in Cherry Hill, arguing the council needs to do a better job of holding agencies to account.

Baltimore City Councilmember Zeke Cohen speaks at the Patterson Park Splash Pad Pop-up Launch in August. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

With election day approaching, tension between Mosby and Cohen has built.

At a televised debate last month, Mosby pointed to Cohen’s stint in the classroom, through the nonprofit Teach for America, to critique Cohen’s Baltimore credentials, dismissing the Massachusetts native as the kind of “revolving door” teacher he encountered growing up in Baltimore public schools.

Later, in a debate on WYPR’s “Midday” program, Mosby took jabs at his challengers, reiterating criticism of Cohen’s backing of mandated collective bargaining agreements on major city projects. In one case, Mosby turned a point from Cohen on its head to suggest the councilmember had thrown Councilmember Odette Ramos “under the bus” over a bill she’d introduced that tanked in committee.

Perhaps the chief attack Mosby has levied, though, is his argument that Cohen hasn’t been a team player. Mosby argued Cohen has frequently left council hearings to campaign or fundraise and noted that the 1st District representative was the lone member of the council to vote against the city’s budget a year ago.

Cohen responded on social media shortly after the radio debate, posting that Mosby had “made several bitter, personal and dishonest attacks on me and my record.”

“That type of negative campaigning makes people hate politics,” he said.

This isn’t the message Baltimore residents want to hear, Cohen said in an interview. People are tired of “mudslinging” and “dirty”-feeling campaigns. Instead, Cohen has tried selling them something more positive, even hopeful.

Whether residents are buying will be clearer soon.

Baltimoreans possess a kind of “self-protective armor,” Cohen said, that allows them “to tell you, very quickly, whether they think you are sincere or not.”

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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