High School

Henry Cohen, high school student, is running for the DC Council

Henry Cohen has a campaign manager who’s not old enough to vote, a budget of almost zero dollars and the pesky obligation to be in high school classes all day while his competitors are out campaigning. Even so, the 18-year-old is mounting an energetic campaign to be Ward 3′s next representative on the DC Council.

“We have pretty much no voice in government at this current moment,” Cohen says about young people like himself. And he thinks the district would be better off if youths did have a say in how the city is run.

“Vince Gray is 79 right now. Anita Bonds is 76 years old, ”said the Jackson-Reed High School senior enrolled in a class on DC history, naming two council members. “Look at all these problems we have in our city.”

By darting into high school classes before the bell to quickly gather signatures, Cohen qualified for the ballot in the June Democratic primary for the seat representing the ward where he has lived all his life. With longtime council member Mary M. Cheh retiring, the field to replace her is crowded with nine candidates, many with résumés much longer than Cohen’s: the chair of the ward’s Democratic Party, a staffer who worked on the city’s budget for years, several advisory neighborhood commissioners who’ve won elected office before.

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But none of them – nor any other politico in the city – can speak for the city’s youths as well as he can, Cohen contends.

He has been interviewing even the youngest of potential constituents, standing outside three of Ward 3′s elementary schools recently to ask students and their parents about the concerns they would like addressed by their council member.

This week, he asked students leaving Jackson-Reed High School about their political concerns. Spotting a boy riding a one-wheeled skateboard home from school, Cohen called out, “I have a question for you as a student and as a nontraditional commuter.”

While Cohen asked the boy for his thoughts on traffic safety, the boy insisted that Cohen try riding the board. Cohen gamely hopped on, and he kept campaigning all the while. As he wobbled, he shouted, “What issues are important to you?” to Ella Lusty, 18, who said she prioritizes candidates who support the construction of more apartment buildings in Ward 3. She is on a Cleveland Park email discussion group where she argues with neighbors about density, she said, and promised to send Cohen a list. of her ideas.

Cohen has found that young people like Lusty are full of suggestions; he’s not surprised when they cite zoning codes and legislative proposals.

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Cohen, who attended a charter school for middle school followed by a neighborhood public school for high school, has made education issues a focus of his campaign. He says the council’s oversight of charter schools on issues such as accommodations for students with disabilities, and anti-Muslim and antisemitic bullying is lacking – and he has anecdotes from his education to back up his beliefs. He supports a moratorium on opening any new charter schools.

When he campaigns at his school, one student after another names the same top concern, with remarkable consistency: the bathrooms. Cohen says it’s a sign the city isn’t wisely managing its $ 2 billion education budget, and he believes he could do better. “If we’re seeing all these issues while we’re spending a ton of money – a lot of it doesn’t matter if we don’t have soap in the bathrooms and we don’t have enough room for students,” he said. said.

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But his platform extends far beyond student issues. He wants to eliminate single-family zoning to spur denser housing construction in Ward 3; urge the mayor to use eminent domain to seize the former Marriott Wardman Park for use as subsidized housing rather than allow it to be purchased by a developer; pay for free public transportation for DC residents; and allow every resident to direct $ 25 of city money to a political campaign in the model of Seattle’s “democracy vouchers.”

“I’m clearly different from all the other candidates, not just because I’m 18. I think I’m the most progressive,” he said, before launching into an astute analysis of each of his eight opponents.

He knows his pro-density attitude and the fact that “I’ve yet to see a bike lane proposal I don’t like” won’t please everyone in high-income, low-density neighborhoods of Ward 3.

“I’m willing to take a stand and draw some negative attention from some people. More people that get to live here and get to experience the prosperity that I’ve experienced growing up, that’s a good thing, ”he said.

At 18, Cohen is a newly minted voter but a seasoned veteran of political campaigns. His first political memory was 12 years ago, he said, handing out campaign literature for DC Mayor Adrian Fenty’s unsuccessful 2010 reelection campaign alongside his father, Brian Cohen, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner and current staffer for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Henry Cohen was just 6. He remembers putting a Fenty sticker on his head.

By the time he was 12, when Donald Trump was elected president, Cohen was the one urging his father to come campaign with him. He has spent many a weekend helping out Democratic congressional candidates and Joe Biden in Virginia and Pennsylvania, as well as close to home.

Now Brian Cohen is out campaigning for his son. “To see him grow from a goofy high school kid to an adult and a candidate who has knowledgeable opinions and views and insights into the way that the city works and the way it should work, it’s exciting as a citizen. It’s gratifying as a parent. It’s really nice, ”he said.

Brian thinks older adults should consider voting for Henry. “Being someone who’s young and being able to say, ‘I want this city to work for me in 40 years,’ it’s an important perspective, and it’s a perspective that most of our elected officials in the District, for good or bad, they can’t bring to the table, “Brian said. “He shouldn’t be graded on a curve because he’s young. He shouldn’t be penalized, either. “

As his high school graduation approaches, Cohen has applied to colleges outside the District – his top three choices are Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Pittsburgh – but says he wouldn’t attend any of them if he were to win. the council seat. Instead, he would apply next year to two Ward 3 universities, American University and the University of the District of Columbia, so that he could attend college in the ward while representing it on the council.

Much of his campaign plan relies on winning the votes of the ward’s high school seniors. While younger teens can’t vote, Ward 3 is home to more than 8,500 people ages 18 to 24, according to demographic data compiled by the organization DC Action.

“If one person gets registered [to vote] because of this campaign, that’s so totally worth it, “Cohen said. As a council member, he said he would work on making voting easier. He believes 16-year-olds should be able to vote in DC, as they can in neighboring Takoma Park. And he supports a proposed plan by council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) – currently the council’s youngest-ever member, elected at 28 – to allow residents to vote online.

“It’s going to increase turnout by numbers we can’t really comprehend right now,” he said. “It’s so much easier for me to say to my friend, ‘Hey, go to DC.gov’ than ‘Go down to this polling place.’ ”

Pinto promotes mobile voting. Experts warn technology isn’t ready.

Outside his high school, Cohen chatted with his campaign manager and classmate Isaac Simon, 17, who has just booked him a speaking slot at a student protest and is looking into how to get “Cohen for Council” stickers printed.

Camelia Terraza, 18, walked past, arm-in-arm with her 12-year-old sister, and told him she thinks buses should be more reliable and the council should invest more in helping children who need behavioral support after the disruption of the pandemic coronavirus

“They’re just learning how to be a human being, interacting socially in some really critical years in their lives,” Terraza said, and Cohen responded, “I’m proud of you for being able to say that.” A few minutes later, she texted him asking about his plan to clean up the Anacostia River.

Not every encounter on the campaign trail is a serious one. A group of girls came up to Cohen, and one shouted, “Excuse me! She likes you! ” The girl squealed in question, “No, I don’t!” before they all scurried away.

“Never seen them before in my life,” Cohen said, shrugging. A politician has to get used to being recognized.

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