Roxborough’s Josh Cohen eases into new role as Northwest Philadelphia’s ‘connection to the city’

In conversation, Gina Snyder, executive director of the East Falls Development Corporation, was asked to size up Joshua Cohen, special assistant for 4th District Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr.

“Josh has always been very strong in constituent services,” she said. After specifically praising his responsiveness, the exchange drifted to other topics.

A few moments later, Snyder interrupted herself.

“While we were speaking, I received an email from Josh,” she said, noting the coincidence. “See, he’s very responsive.”

Getting ‘back in the swing of things’

Roxborough resident Josh Cohen is one of the newest members of Councilman Jones’ staff, assuming his position in February. A veteran of Philadelphia political life for over a decade, this is Cohen’s second tour of duty with Jones, having worked for the Councilman from 2008 through 2010.

However, this wasn’t the only personal milestone that occurred this year. A week after resuming his role as special assistant – and the day after his 38th birthday – Cohen’s first child, Max, was born.

“And I still made it to the Ridge Park Civic Association meeting,” Cohen chuckled, referring to a Roxborough-based community group that convened two days later.

Three months later – and with budget hearings and bike races out of the way – Cohen’s enthusiasm for the work hasn’t let up.

“It took a few weeks to get back in the swing of things,” he said, “but after that, it’s like I never left.”

Northwest Philadelphia’s City Hall liasion

Beneath a muted lithograph of a fabled American vista inside Councilman Jones’ City Hall office, Cohen’s metal and faux-cherry topped desk is located beside the entryway.

Within, Cohen will invariably be on the phone with a constituent, his head slanted at a 45-degree angle to balance the receiver. One hand may be scrolling through emails – the other could be manipulating an Eclipse chewing gum tin.

Regardless, he’s listening. “It’s what I’m good at,” he explained.

It’s a key component of his position as special assistant.

In this role, Cohen’s primary responsibility is for “constituent services” – acting as a liaison for the Councilman and providing 4th District residents with a sounding board, listening to their concerns and giving answers to questions that range from policy to potholes.

In addition, Cohen works to process activity grants and capital funding destined for neighborhood recreational facilities and programs. Lastly, he fills in as needed on matters pertaining to zoning or public relations – a duty informed by his work as assistant press secretary for Mayor John Street.

While his responsibilities are tailored to Northwest Philadelphia, Cohen has a hand in all parts of the district, as he notes that many concerns aren’t specific to one locale.

“A lot of issues that people have in Roxborough are the same issues they have in Parkside – they both want to have their potholes paved and get their streets fixed,” he said.

Establishing and maintaining connections with the neighborhoods

In addition to these duties, Cohen is a frequent speaker at civic groups in the Northwest, presenting new initiatives on behalf of the Councilman.

Asked to speak to their importance, Cohen said civic groups are “absolutely critical.”

“This is where things get talked about,” he observed, “and this is where issues get resolved.”

In addition to providing forums for building applicants and general neighborhood information, Cohen related that the Councilman’s office takes the feelings of civics associations very seriously, as the decisions of these groups informs policy and zoning decisions.

In regard to his outreach duties, Cohen received high marks from local civic leaders.

“He’s our connection to the city,” said Kevin Smith, president of the Manayunk Neighborhood Council.

Smith pointed to Cohen’s work with the myriad zoning issues that affect Manayunk, as well as to his efforts on behalf of the Roxborough-Manayunk Bike Race Committee.

Tom Sauerman, president of the East Falls Community Council, said Cohen is both honest and effective, and is a good representative for Councilman Jones.

This isn’t a passing familiarity – Sauerman meets with Cohen and other 4th District staffers at City Hall once a month to discuss emerging and recurrent community topics. The result of these sessions is a direct statement of praise for Cohen.

“Josh is a straight shooter,” remarked Sauerman.

Civic and campaign experience 

In fact, Cohen has personal experience guiding a civic group. From 2005 to 2008, he was president of the Wissahickon Interested Citizens Association. In 2009, he moved across Ridge Avenue to his current Roxborough address, where he is now a dues-paying member of the Wissahickon Neighbors Civic Association.

At this period of time, Cohen was in his first tour of duty as special assistant for Councilman Jones, selected for the position after working as Deputy Chief of Staff for Councilman Ramos, who lost reelection in 2007.

In February of 2010, Cohen left his City Hall post to campaign for a seat in the 194th District of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, which was being vacated by incumbent Kathy Manderino.

Despite a vigorous campaign – one complicated by Jones’ endorsement of 21st Ward Leader Louis Agre – Cohen lost the Democratic primary to Pam DeLissio, who was elected later that fall.

Despite being one-time political adversaries, DeLissio remains committed to working with Cohen.

“When he worked for the Councilman previously, Josh was well regarded for his ability to facilitate constituent services,” DeLissio recalled, and added that she looks forward to continue working with him.

Noting an absence of animosity, Cohen said that he and DeLissio maintain a good relationship, and that she often refers constituents specifically to him to assist with their requests.

A return to Jones’ office 

After a period of recovery – and unemployment – Cohen reentered the political milieu that fall with the local Democratic election coordinating campaign. In March of 2011, he served as campaign manager for Mark Squilla’s successful race for City Council.

After Squilla’s election – and looking for employment less tenuous than that of campaign work – Cohen began a conversation with Jones, his sights set on returning to the 4th District’s staff. It was a conversation that reflected favorably on Cohen’s performance, especially in regard to the needs of the Northwest, and resulted in his city career coming full circle.

“Josh represents much of what is good in the 4th District – advocating for sound public policy and getting things done without losing the common touch in the process,” said Jones of Cohen’s return.

“I am so glad he is back in the office,” he concluded.

Now that he’s back, Cohen will continue with the responsiveness that he’s known for.

“I always pride myself in being responsive,” he said. “I like to think that if you ask people about that, that’s one of the first things they’ll say about me.”

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