When Ellen Cohen decided, two months after losing re-election to her state House seat, to run for Houston City Council, a friend worried, “Isn’t that a step down?” Cohen’s answer? “No, it’s a step closer.”
In the House, Cohen, the former longtime director of the Houston Area Women’s Center, would have been in the Democratic minority waging a futile battle to prevent deep budget cuts. She’d be watching, hamstrung and heartbroken, as Republicans gutted funding for women’s health and family planning programs, her pet issues, as they did last weekend.
If she’s elected to the Houston City Council next fall, she’ll be tackling crumbling streets and flooded parks, clear-cut problems with straightforward fixes. She’ll have 16 non-partisan colleagues to sway, not 149 House lawmakers divided by political party. And she’ll often see the results of her efforts within weeks or months, not years. Cohen sees a vision for her future — making Houston the country’s premier city for the 21st century — that’s only blurry for many Democrats in the Legislature.
“In the House, I would’ve either voted for a lot of the cuts, and felt really ill about it, or I would have voted against the cuts, and known it didn’t make one iota of difference,” Cohen said. Running for city council “is on a different scale, sure, but the immediacy of being able to do something in the city you chose to move to is really appealing.”
With Texas’ current political climate, it’s a particularly shrewd move for an effective Democrat, said Bill Miller, an Austin-based political consultant who’s worked with candidates on both sides of the aisle. Most politicians run “upward,” he said, from city government to statewide office and beyond. Some fail backward, running unsuccessfully for unrealistic seats, then working their way back to local government. It’s the rare candidate who’s committed enough to public service to run for the seat where he or she will have the most impact — even if it’s not the highest profile.
“Many Democrats in the Legislature are going to leave this session feeling like they bounced off the wall and left no mark whatsoever,” he said.
Cohen, 70, said she took her November defeat in stride because it didn’t hold a candle to real-life disappointment; the Ohio native survived breast cancer as a young woman, and in 2003 lost the husband she met as a teenager and was married to for 42 years.
“I didn’t feel people were saying, ‘Ellen you didn’t represent us well. Ellen you weren’t a good legislator,’” she said from a picnic bench outside a Houston brunch spot, pulling maple syrup she brought from home out of her purse to douse a stack of pancakes. “It was just the circumstances.”
Cohen says she was never trained in the “stair step” rules of elective office, which is why going from a Legislative race to a citywide run doesn’t feel unnatural; before serving two terms in the House, the former member of the Canadian ski patrol spent 18 years running a Houston women’s shelter.
After raising an impressive first-time campaign war chest and unseating a Republican incumbent in 2006, Cohen was not your usual freshman legislator either. The District 134 Democrat passed a bill that required strip club patrons to pay a $5 fee, money designed to fund programs for sexual assault survivors. And she was instrumental in passing a referendum to sell $3 billion in bonds to fund cancer research. “I felt I had nothing to lose,” said Cohen, who currently works as an executive leadership consultant. “It never occurred to me that, as a freshman, that just wasn’t what you did.”
Cohen said she would’ve been happy to stay in the House, if not for the Republican sweep and surprise upset that sent her on this new course. But now that she’s on it, there are obvious benefits. It takes roughly two and a half times more money to run for state representative than for a district city council seat, Cohen said. And the pay is better: Houston City Council members make roughly $50,000 a year, compared to the Lege, which pays House members just $7,200 a year.
There are also lifestyle differences. The Houston Council generally meets two days a week, plus committee meetings, and rarely late into the night, versus the House’s six-month sprint every other year. Council members get to sleep in their own beds, instead of in an Austin hotel room.
And then there’s proximity to power. Houston political observers suggest Cohen, who would have more constituents in her city council district than she did in the House, would have greater influence and more authority at home than in Austin. There’s already buzz about whether she’d make a potential mayoral candidate down the line.
Cohen scoffs at that buzz, and says she’s intensely focused on her city council run. If her last race taught her anything, she said, “nothing’s a shoo-in.” Still, she acknowledges, she never rules anything out. “I simply have never closed the door to anything,” she said.
For Cohen, city council’s appeal is all local. She and her husband chose Houston as their home in 1977. For years, she has tuned in to local council meetings and thought, “I’ve driven that pot-holed street,” or “the accidents on that corner are terrible.”
“Maybe I’m not on the political step ladder, but I have the opportunity to change someone’s life for the better, and do it in a more timely fashion,” Cohen said. “I really like that sense of home.”