Henry Cohen, high school student, is a candidate for the DC Council

Henry Cohen has a campaign manager who isn’t old enough to vote, a nearly zero-dollar budget, and the pesky obligation to be in high school classrooms all day while his competitors campaign. Even so, the 18-year-old is mounting an energetic campaign to be Ward 3’s next representative on the DC Council.

“We hardly have a voice in government right now,” Cohen says of young people like him. And he thinks the district would be better off if young people had a say in running the city.

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

By rushing to high school classrooms before the bell to quickly collect signatures, Cohen qualified for the June Democratic primary ballot for the seat representing the neighborhood where he has lived his entire life. With longtime board member Mary M. Cheh retiring, the field to replace her is crowded with nine candidates, many with resumes much longer than Cohen’s: the neighborhood Democratic party chairman , a staff member who has worked on the city budget for years, several ward commissioner councilors who have already been elected.

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But none of them — or any other city politician — can speak for the city’s youth as well as he does, Cohen argues.

He’s interviewed even the youngest of potential voters, recently standing outside three of Ward 3’s elementary schools to ask students and their parents about concerns they’d like to see their board member address.

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

As Cohen asked the boy what he thought about traffic safety, the boy insisted that Cohen try to get on the board. Cohen jumped on it, and he kept campaigning the whole time. As he faltered, he shouted, “What issues are important to you?” to Ella Lusty, 18, who said she prioritizes candidates who support building more apartment buildings in Ward 3. She is part of a Cleveland email discussion group Park where she argues with neighbors about density, she said, and promised to send Cohen a list of her ideas.

Cohen discovered that young people like Lusty are full of suggestions; he is not surprised when they cite zoning codes and legislative proposals.

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Cohen, who attended a charter school for middle school and then a neighborhood public school for high school, has made education issues a focus of his campaign. He says charter school board oversight of issues like accommodations for students with disabilities and anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic bullying is lacking — and he has anecdotes from his upbringing to back up his beliefs. He supports a moratorium on opening new charter schools.

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

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But his platform extends far beyond student issues. He wants to eliminate single-family zoning to spur higher-density 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 allowing it to be purchased by a developer; pay for free public transit for DC residents; and allowing each resident to direct $25 of city money toward political campaigning modeled after 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 a detailed analysis of each of his eight opponents.

He knows his pro-density attitude and the fact that “I haven’t seen a bike lane proposal yet that I don’t like” won’t appeal to everyone in high-income and low-density areas of the neighborhood. 3.

“I am ready to take a stand and attract negative attention from some people. More people are living here and experiencing the prosperity I experienced growing up, that’s a good thing,” he said.

At 18, Cohen is a newly appointed voter but a seasoned veteran of political campaigns. His earliest political memory was 12 years ago, he said, handing out campaign materials for DC Mayor Adrian Fenty’s unsuccessful 2010 re-election campaign alongside his father, Brian Cohen, a former Neighborhood Advisory Commissioner and current staffer of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Henry Cohen was only 6 years old. He remembers putting a Fenty sticker on his head.

At the age of 12, when Donald Trump was elected president, Cohen was the one urging his father to come campaign with him. He spent many weekends helping Democratic congressional candidates and Joe Biden in Virginia and Pennsylvania, as well as closer to home.

Now Brian Cohen is campaigning for his son. “To see him grow from a goofy high school kid to a grown-up and a candidate who has informed opinions, views and ideas about how the city works and how it should work is exciting as a as a citizen. It’s rewarding as a parent. It’s really nice,” he said.

Brian thinks older people should consider voting for Henry. “Being a young person and being able to say, ‘I want this town to work for me in 40 years,’ is an important prospect, and it’s a prospect that most of our elected officials in the District, for good or badly, they can’t bring it to the table,” Brian said. “He shouldn’t be ranked on a curve because he’s young. He shouldn’t be penalized either.

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

Much of his campaign plan hinges on getting votes from neighborhood high school students. While young teens can’t vote, Ward 3 is home to more than 8,500 people between the ages of 18 and 24, according to demographics compiled by the organization DC Action.

“If a person registers [to vote] because of this campaign, it’s definitely worth it,” Cohen said. As a council member, he said he would work to make the vote easier. He thinks 16-year-olds should be able to vote in DC, as they can in nearby Takoma Park. And he backs a plan put forward by council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) — currently the council’s youngest member, elected at 28 — to allow residents to vote online.

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

Pinto promotes mobile voting. Experts warn that the technology is not ready.

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

Camelia Terraza, 18, went arm in arm with her 12-year-old sister and told her she thought the buses should be more reliable and the council should invest more in helping children who need a behavioral support after the disruption of the Coronavirus pandemic.

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

All the meetings on the electoral campaign are not serious. A group of girls approached Cohen and one of them shouted, “Excuse me! She loves you!” The girl in question yelled, “No, I don’t!” before they all ran off.

“I’ve never seen them before in my life,” Cohen said with a shrug. A politician must get used to being recognized.

About Rachel Gooch

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