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'A Consummate Professional': Lawmakers Celebrate Retiring Special Counsel Gerry Cohen

Gerry Cohen
Jorge Valencia
Gerry Cohen

One of the most respected and beloved figures at the General Assembly is about to retire.

Gerry Cohen will soon finish his current job as the special counsel for the state legislature, where he was first hired as a staff attorney back in 1977. Later, he became head of the bill drafting division, where his encyclopedic memory and reputation for fairness made him a favorite among Democrats and Republicans alike.

Gerry Cohen’s office at the state legislature is filled with boxes of mementos and papers dating back several decades.

"Let’s see, here’s a Daily Tarheel story from March fourth, 1970, when I was a staff writer for the Daily Tarheel, and what do I have here? I have a paper about an elementary school class written by the superintendent of education in the West Hartford school systems in 1962. God knows why I have that," said Cohen, as he leafed through his things.

It's been years since Cohen has looked through these boxes. He hasn’t had much time before. As the former head of bill drafting at the legislature, Cohen logged long hours with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as they worked to create legislation. These days, as special counsel, he’s on call to answer questions about a wide range of topics. Cohen isn’t from the area originally. He grew up in Connecticut in a family that loved Carolina basketball.

"Basically, we followed Carolina basketball real closely from Hartford, we’d go to games at Madison Square Garden, when the Heels came for the holiday festival at the Garden, and then I came to Chapel Hill as an undergrad, and stayed in law school largely because of the Morehead fellowship."

As a student, Cohen was interested in politics and the legislative process. He helped compile information on North Carolina’s General Assembly for an influential book ranking statehouses across the country. As a law student, Cohen was elected to the Chapel Hill Board of Aldermen, incidentally defeating Alexander Julian, before he went on to become a famous clothing designer. Then, in 1977, Cohen started working as a staff attorney at the legislature.

"We have a non-partisan central staff, which is the model in like 40-plus states, where central staff works for both parties and both houses," said Cohen. "That was a really good experience, I liked doing that. Some states have separate House and Senate staffs, some states have separate Democratic and Republican staffs."

Cohen has helped draft so many bills over the years that it’s difficult for him to pick out his favorites. But he says he’s noticed a lot of things about the nearly 1,000 legislators he’s worked with.

"There are good members and less good members, and it doesn’t matter what party, House, Senate, race, sex, whatever, any cross section you draw, there’s going to be good members and members that aren’t as good," says Cohen.

And Cohen observes, the ones who’ve been the most engaged in gathering information in order to create legislation really stand out.

"Liston Ramsey, former speaker of the House from Madison County, Joe Hackney, Kenneth Royal, longtime House and Senate member from Durham, Art Pope. He may be a controversial figure, but in the legislative branch he was one of the more serious students and he was good to work with because he -- as did the others -- asked really good questions and looked over the stuff you sent them."

When asked about memorable floor sessions, Cohen says he’ll never forget one that took place years ago. There’s a list of state holidays, which include things like Jefferson Davis’s birthday. So one day, a former House member named Ted Kaplan, got a bill passed to make Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a state holiday.

Cohen remembers that Foyle Hightower, a Democrat from Anson County, asked a question. "And nobody ever knew whether he’s being serious... In any case, what Foyle did, I remember him standing up and saying 'I don’t know much about Yom Kippur, but can you tell me was he a Democrat or a Republican?' That’s probably my favorite floor debate story."

Cohen says Hightower was one of his favorite people at the legislature. So Cohen is quick to defend his friend.

"Everyone else on the list of holidays was a person," said Cohen. "Why wouldn’t he think that Yom Kippur might not be a person, since everyone else on the list of holidays, it was Jefferson Davis and George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. So Ted Kaplan was adding Yom Kippur. Well, I don’t assume anybody knows anything about Jewish holidays."

Cohen says there are lots of things he’ll miss about being at the legislature after he retires. And people there will miss him. Yesterday afternoon, lawmakers and staff members both past and present gathered in the legislative rotunda to say their goodbyes to Cohen.

Democratic Attorney General and former state Senator Roy Cooper was there and reminisced about their first meeting.

"I remember my first meeting with you was in 1976 at Morrison Dorm in Chapel Hill."

Republican State Budget Director and former House member Art Pope had a few words to say to the crowd. He noted that back when Cohen served on the Chapel Hill Board of Aldermen in the seventies, Cohen called himself a Democratic Socialist.

"I don’t know how Gerry Cohen would describe his political philosophy today. I don’t know how he described his political philosophy back in 1989, when I was a freshman Republican. That’s my point, because in his service to the state and his service to the legislature, Gerry Cohen has been a consummate professional, " said Pope.

Pope said he and other lawmakers always knew the legislature’s special counsel was someone whose advice they valued- and who they could trust. On behalf of the governor’s office, Pope then presented Cohen with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, an award for public service to the state.

Cohen officially retires on August 1. After that, he and his wife plan to travel. Cohen says he’s also looking forward to volunteering as an advocate for one of his favorite causes: improving public transit.

Jessica Jones covers both the legislature in Raleigh and politics across the state. Before her current assignment, Jessica was given the responsibility to open up WUNC's first Greensboro Bureau at the Triad Stage in 2009. She's a seasoned public radio reporter who's covered everything from education to immigration, and she's a regular contributor to NPR's news programs. Jessica started her career in journalism in Egypt, where she freelanced for international print and radio outlets. After stints in Washington, D.C. with Voice of America and NPR, Jessica joined the staff of WUNC in 1999. She is a graduate of Yale University.
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