Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who represents the city’s 1st District, has worn a number of different hats since he moved to Baltimore, including student, teacher, nonprofit founder and now politician.
A resident of Baltimore’s Brewers Hill neighborhood, who attends High Holiday services at Beth Am, Cohen, 36, grew up in Northampton, Mass. He moved to Maryland to attend Goucher College, where he subsequently “fell in love with Baltimore.”
“Although I was not born in Baltimore,” Cohen said, “this city adopted me, and it’s become home.”
How did you first get interested in politics?
I studied it in college, studied political science, and I’ve always been interested in what politics can do to help people. FDR is one of my heroes. The idea that government can make people’s lives better is something that I grew up reading about and caring about. I think when I really decided to run was after the death of Freddie Gray and the uprising in Baltimore, and just feeling like the city government had fundamentally failed. Having been a teacher and having taught kids that were poisoned by lead paint and kids that were in schools that didn’t have heat and air conditioning and drinkable, running water, and just feeling called to public service, and to wanting to make a difference within the city that I love on a higher level. And so I was compelled to run because I love Baltimore and I love its people and I want to see it thrive. And I know it’s going to take a lot of work to get there.
What do you most enjoy about being a councilman?
Honestly, two things. One is day-to-day constituent service, just being able to help someone, even if it’s as small as getting a stop sign up, or getting someone who’s experienced dumping, getting the trash picked up. And to me that’s really gratifying, just the day to day getting to help people, particularly seniors and children. And I also like the role of being a legislator. There’s something really meaningful about getting to make laws, and creating laws like the Healing City Act, which I think will fundamentally transform how city agencies treat people. For me, there’s nothing better than that. You get to really have an impact in a place that needs a lot of help but that has so much resilience and so many wonderful people.
What are some of the issues that are most important to you?
I would say No. 1 is making sure every single child in the city of Baltimore gets an excellent education. We are a city where far too many people, far too many kids, are left behind. And so the right to a high-quality public or private education for me is top. No. 2 is reducing violence. Again, we’re a city where we suffer an inordinate amount of violence, be it homicide, be it robbery, be it carjackings, attempted homicide, we just lose too many people. And the trauma that creates is enormous and is determinative for too many people, so we absolutely must reduce violence across our city. And then third, I would say, is poverty. Baltimore has too many folks that are trapped on the margins and barely getting by. Recently, myself and Councilman [Isaac “Yitzy”] Schleifer have been advocating for a pay raise for frontline sanitation workers. Some of our sanitation workers make as little as $11 an hour, yet it’s one of the top five most dangerous jobs in the county, backbreaking, incidents of COVID transmission have been really high. So it’s an area where we just have far too many people living in poverty within our city, and we’ve got to do more.
Was Judaism was a big part of your upbringing?
I would say that Jewish values were a big part of my upbringing. My mother marched in Mississippi during the civil rights movement, and the idea of tikkun olam, to heal the world, was very much part of our lineage. My great-grandmother had escaped from Austria right before Hitler took power, and a good part of my family was exterminated in concentration camps. And fortunately for us my great-grandmother made it out and she went to Australia and then ended up in New York. And so the idea that we were once the stranger, too, and that we as Jews have an obligation to support not only ourselves, but other people who are experiencing oppression, is something that’s really near and dear to me and was a big part of my identity as a child and as an adult.