February 2007

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PA State Rep. Mark Cohen
In Their Own Words

PA State Rep. Mark Cohen: Democratic Majority Caucus Leader

-- Dr. Daniel E. Loeb

Mark B. Cohen was elected to the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives in May 1974 at the age of 24. He has been Chairman of the Democratic Caucus since January of 1990, and with the Democratic takeover of the State House, is now Majority Caucus Chairman and second ranking Democratic in the House. He represents the 202nd House District which encompasses portions of Northeast Philadelphia.

• PJV: You are a regular contributor to the political blog, Daily Kos, and known for your insights into state government. How did you get involved in this, and do you see other politicians following in your footsteps?

I believe it makes a lot of sense to blog. It makes you more conscious of the significance of the things you do day to day. It gives you a way to reach out to people on matters that are not of earth-shaking significance, but nevertheless are interesting and help boost their understanding. I think it is a very good way to reach out. The ways we have of reaching out now are limited. To a certain degree, when we “make news,” we get coverage. However, it has become more and more difficult to “make news,” as the total amount of news coverage has gone down over time. The commercial media know that their purpose is to sell the greatest number of ads. Covering political news is not necessarily the best way to do that. So there is less and less space for news, and a very high percentage of that space dealt with what crimes were committed last night.

• PJV: And when people follow political news, often it is at a national level. Many people are unaware for example that the Democrats are in control of the Pennsylvania State House.

That is correct. I think the internet, letting people chose the subjects they want to talk about, is a way to get around the limits on what counts as “news” and enables you to talk about things that are interesting, that are important, even if they’re not new. Even if they do not foretell dramatic changes, but just explain the way the system operates, even if it hasn’t changed dramatically, I think the internet provides a useful public service.

• PJV: Many perceive state government as opaque. Floor debates are often published six months after they transpire, and committee hearing transcripts can be very difficult to obtain. As a result, representatives can try and kill something in committee, and then on the floor pretend that they are in favor of it. Do you think the Sunshine Plan described recently in The Pittsburgh Tribune or any other changes have the chance of seeing the light of day?

Yes. Right now we have started posting debates on the internet. All debates are public in the sense that the Pennsylvania public cable network covers legislative proceedings live, and then they run them over again after they occur. So there is plenty of opportunity for the public to know what’s going on. Obviously there is no end to the things that could be done to increase public accessibility. In an ideal world where there are unlimited resources, we could mail tapes of every day’s debate to every voter within 24 hours, but in a world of limited resources, we are, I think, making significant steps ahead. When I was first elected to legislature, there was no internet to post debates on, and we did not have any television coverage at all of the legislative proceedings.

• PJV: When Bob Casey was State Treasurer, he increased the state’s holding of Israel Bonds to a total of $50,000,000. Are there any other ways you feel Pennsylvania can show its support for Israel?

I think Casey acted under the authority granted to him by the legislature to buy those bonds, and I was a co-sponsor of that legislation. Pennsylvania has a continuing trade relationship with Israel, along with other countries. The Commerce Department has a deputy, Joe Hoeffel, a former member of Congress, who is in charge of increasing trade with foreign countries and the United States has offices across the world. Certainly that apparatus could probably be used more vigorously to increase trade with Israel and have worthwhile exchanges with Israel.

• PJV: You were the chairman of the House Labor Relations Committee from 1983 through January of 1990. Can you comment on our recent changes in the Pennsylvania minimum wage and on the bill working its way through congress to change the national minimum wage?

I was the initiator of the effort to get the Pennsylvania legislature into the business of raising the minimum wage above the Federal level 20 years ago. In 1988, I proposed, for the first time in the history of Pennsylvania, raising the minimum wage above the Federal level. I think that the Federal legislation, at least as far as Pennsylvania is concerned, is virtually meaningless. And it is going be meaningless for more and more states as time goes on. Pennsylvania’s wage is now going to be ten cents lower than the Federal wage, which is not going to fully take effect until 2009. Pennsylvania’s wage goes up to $7.15 on July 1, 2007. The Federal minimum wage, at the earliest, will not take effect until January 1, 2009.

I have hoped, as I’ve written on the Daily Kos, that Congress should really be seeking a much higher minimum wage. Seventy percent of the country is now covered by a higher minimum wage than the Federal minimum. And I have introduced legislation in Pennsylvania to raise the minimum wage to $9.35 an hour as of 2010. We will raise it to $8.15 an hour in 2008, $8.75 an hour in 2009, $9.35 in 2010, and then a cost of living adjustment thereafter. Assuming inflation stays under 4% in 2007 and 2008, the 2009 figure will barely lift the full-time minimum wage worker out of poverty. That was something that was traditionally done in the 1960’s. It is time for us to go back to the idea that a full-time minimum wage worker supporting two dependents ought not to be in poverty.

• PJV: What do you hope to accomplish in the next two years while the Republicans control the State Senate?

We hope to improve environmental protections. We hope to raise the minimum wage again. We hope to improve funding for social services. We hope to deliver senior citizens’ property tax relief. We hope to increase consumer rights. We hope to increase the rights of people to join labor unions and some more rights in the workplace.

• PJV: Will it be difficult to move this agenda when already we lack the working majority necessary to elect Bill Deweese (D-Greene County) as Speaker.

Obviously, there are problems. Our margin in the state House of Representatives is considerably less than the margin of the Democrats in Congress, which is another reason why it is frustrating to me that they are seeking what I see as essentially meaningless minimum wage legislation. I believe that we will make every effort. We were able to get meaningful legislation through in the last session when the Republicans were in the majority by reaching out to the public, by clearly articulating what we stand for, by mobilizing large numbers of people, and I think we will have to use the same tactics this time. The fact that we have 102 seats in the State House all by itself, if there was no mobilization for the things in which we believe, it will not be enough to push our agenda through.

• PJV: Why did State Representative Tom Caltagirone (D-Berks County) and a couple of other Democrats vote for John Perzel (R-Northeast Philadelphia) to remain as Speaker?

Perzel is good at delivering targeted benefits to people and districts. If you have a project in your district that needs a grant, John Perzel is good at finding a way to make sure you get the grant. However, in the overall picture, these grants are a tiny, tiny percentage of the state budget, and it really makes a difference as to how much money is available for education, how much money is available for mental heath and retardation. What the overall priorities are, and there’s no question that the Democratic overall priorities are far more in the interests of those three heavily minority districts than Republican priorities are.

• PJV: In the end, Dennis O'Brien, a Republican, was elected Speaker how is he doing Running a Democratic house?

So far it’s worked out fine. He has appointed all of the Democratic Committee Chairmen recommended by the majority leader. He has established a committee on reforms, co-chaired by Joshua Shapiro (D-Abington) who helped initiate his candidacy for Speaker, and David Steil (R-Newtown) who supported his election as Speaker. I think the desire for reform was a key impetus, both in the election of Democrats and in the defection of Republicans in O’Brien’s candidacy. And I think we are going to try and deal with that in a constructive manner.

• PJV: CeasefirePA, a gun violence prevention advocacy group, has proposed an anti-handgun trafficking bill. As Judiciary chair, O'Brien prevented this bill from being heard in committee. Do you see any hope that this bill will go to the floor or at least be heard in committee?

It went to the floor in a non-binding fashion. The Republican leader Sam Smith (R-Jefferson County) is a great believer in trying to break deadlocks by taking polls of all members by secret ballot first when there is a lot of controversy, so we had a committee of the whole that voted on this by secret ballot, and it got creamed last session. Though there are many new members in this session, and because of Smith’s secret ballot method, nobody is on record at all, so people can be free to change their vote. This is a prime example of something that requires a lot of public mobilization. If only the NRA believes the First Amendment applies to them, we will never, in anybody’s lifetime, pass regulations of guns. People who believe that the government ought to regulate guns have to contact their legislators and have to be willing to actively support candidates who agree with those beliefs.

• PJV: But if the members do not have to go on the record with a public vote, won't voters have trouble holding them accountable.

Well if anything is to happen, they have to go on record with a public vote. The secret vote was a mechanism to determine what support there was for it, and among the people in the legislature in September of 2006, there was nowhere near enough public support for it to pass, so that has been established. There are 50 new members of the House who where not there then, and there is a tremendous need for public mobilization. If people who favor gun control just talk about it to themselves, it will never happen in the lifetime of a single Pennsylvanian.

• PJV: Governor Rendell appointed former State Representative Conte (R) to a newly created position in charge of the Liquor Control Board. Newman (R) had been seen by many as doing a great job making the Pennsylvania liquor stores profitable. As a state representative, how do you feel about Conte from your experience working with him? And do you view his appointment into the newly created position as a reward for supporting the governor?

I assume it was a reward for supporting the governor. I have no idea how good of a job Conte will do. I do have questions about Newman’s goal of trying to make the liquor stores as profitable as possible. The whole reason they are under state control is to stop people from becoming addicted to alcohol. Alcohol addiction is a major problem in this country. And Pennsylvania by many measures has been near the bottom of the states in the amount of alcohol addiction. We are near the bottom in people arrested or convicted of drunk driving. We are in the bottom of people getting treatment for alcohol addiction or people on waiting lists to get treatment for addiction. So I think although people have many objections to the state being in this business, it has had a positive effect on reducing alcohol addiction. When we say “Since we are in this business, our goal is to increase sales to the greatest possible degree,” I think we are undermining the original reason why we got in this business in the first place.

• PJV: With the conservatives having the majority on the Supreme Court, what do you think would be the effect would be on Pennsylvania if Roe v. Wade were overturned?

Well, a bill would have to get through the legislature to outlaw abortion. I think there would be an effort made in Pennsylvania to do that. Again, the question of who contacts the legislature is of vital importance. I think it is clear from Governor Rendell’s two victories, from Governor Ridge’s two victories, from the defeat of Rick Santorum, from the repeated victories in Pennsylvania of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry that the voters in Pennsylvania as a whole are pro-choice. Numerous polls have shown that as well. Again, the question is who contacts the legislature. And traditionally, the people who are against abortion have shown no reluctance to contact legislators, while people who are pro-choice have tended to view this as matters of great complication and strategy, and have not done so in the same percentages.

I would really hope that people would realize this is not a very complicated thing at all. You have a legislator; he is the guy who sends you a lot of mail. Call him up, or her up, let them know where you stand on the issue. You do not need a whole organization behind you. You do not need a great strategy – just contact the people. If the pro-choice majority asserts itself, we should be able to beat back attempts to outlaw abortion in Pennsylvania if indeed Roe v. Wade is overturned. If the pro-choice majority gets mired in complexity, we will not be able to beat it back. Though Rendell will veto it as long as he is governor. So it would take a 2/3 vote of the legislature to override Rendell’s veto. Again, that depends on how much mobilization there is as to whether it can be done, but I have no doubt that if people who are pro-choice contact their legislators, the overturning of Roe v. Wade would not be determinant in Pennsylvania.

• PJV: What about same sex marriage and similar arrangements? Is that likely to become an issue in Pennsylvania?

It has been an issue in Pennsylvania. And because the gay community has to a considerable degree engaged itself at the state legislative level, the effect has been that Pennsylvania has not taken action to pass a constitutional amendment outlawing same sex marriage. And that is due to the mobilization of the gay community. The legislature, if anything, is hyper-responsive to communities that make themselves known and make their wishes known. It tends to ignore communities that for any reason whatsoever do not feel it imperative to be in touch with the legislature. And I think the gay community and the state store workers are two examples of communities that have been very, very active and have therefore influenced public policy in a manner that the right wing in Pennsylvania strongly opposes. My hope is that these examples would spur others to act in a similar way of vigorous outreach and vigorous political action in regards to the legislature.

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