Baltimore Votes 2016 Q&A: Zeke Cohen


Zeke Cohen is a Democrat running for Baltimore City Council – District 1

(Additional reporting by Christian Bielski)

Q: Background info

I’m a former Baltimore City teacher. I taught in Sandtown-Winchester and Curtis Bay. The schools lacked heat, air conditioning, and safe water for kids to drink, due to lead. I taught in neighborhoods that had over abundance of funeral homes, bail bondsmen, and heroin dealers. The textbooks we used were old and not up to snuff. My biggest issue was not enough emphasis on teaching kids leadership skills, and to participate in your community. Five years ago I started a non-profit where we teach civic leadership and community organizing to high school students.


Q: Do you think there are two Baltimore’s? If so, how would you help reconcile them?

I think there are MULTIPLE Baltimore’s. I think there is a large and troubling disparity in wealth between the better off communities and the less well off. The challenge for Baltimore coming out of the death of Freddie Gray and the unrest and the DOJ report, which found all sorts of police initiated violence, is to do some self reflection, and think about who we are, and where we want to be.

It will take a lot of work. Part of it is building bridges between communities. Part of it about how do we work together across lines of race, class, age, gender, literally geography. One of the ways the City stays segregated is you have these fourteen different districts, and they function as silos. One of my contentions during this whole campaign is that we should care about people outside of our Districts. We haven’t sat down  and advocated for each other. This is a moment where citizens  expect us to come together, and advocate for them, and not just the people who come here to visit. They’re great because they spend their money, but I think people expect the new Mayor and City Council to do more this time.


Q: Were you for or against the proposed Red Line? Why or why not?

I was a big proponent of the Red Line. One of the ways in which this city is way behind is public transit. We can’t just create parking garages all over Southeast Baltimore. I do believe high quality cities have high quality rail. It was an EXPENSIVE project, and I think the challenge was no one stepped up to pull the trigger. Whether it be Governor O’Malley, Sheila Dixon, Stephanie one stepped up and made the investment…fast forward to Governor Hogan, who killed it.

These types of projects will be messy. There are always potential for cost overruns. In these times of fiscal austerity, people aren’t excited to spend money like that. At the same time, we have to remember this was a $1 billion investment that Baltimore will NEVER get back. The Feds have a LONG memory and when you choose not to take money that’s been set aside, they don’t forget that. It was an ENORMOUS mistake from a business perspective and also from a human perspective. I’ll tell ya Nick, none of my students have cars, and the bus system is terrible. It can take an hour and a half to get a half a mile. I do not think City Link is an adequate solution, stop cutting from The Charm City Circulator. I think the more we can do to encourage Bus Rapid Transit, which actually means designated bus lanes, and not just some stupid purple painted lane on Pratt Street which no one respects, could be the way to go. But it has to be done correctly.


Q: How would you help improve transit in Baltimore?

Ultimately, we need rail. However, until we get a new Governor, we have to work with what we have. I’m a big believer in bike lanes, extending sidewalks to make streets more walkable. I know dedicated bus lanes will make a lot of people angry, but again, people won’t ride the bus unless they know they can get to point A to point B quicker than they can with their car. I’m glad Mr. Plank bought the Water Taxi, I would love to see an extension of that. I’ve even had people talk to me about a freakin’ Gondola over the Harbor and some other places..whatever! Anything we can do to get us to a point where folks aren’t using their car as much, I’m in favor of.


Q: How often would you like to see City agencies audited?

Every year, which may be unrealistic, so I’ll go with every other year. Financial AND performance. Having been a teacher that lacked some of the very basic things kids need, North Avenue needs to get their act out. DOT needs to get their act together. Part of the challenge is that City schools are in this weird partnership with the State, so we don’t really have full authority.  Same with the police department.

Q: Which agency do you think is the worst offender in avoiding audits?

I think they’re all pretty bad. ::laughs:: I have to say the Health Department is doing a great job. I think Dr. Leana Wen is a genius. I’m glad we’ve got her here in Baltimore. The one that comes up the most in Southeast Baltimore, is DOT. Folks are very frustrated, especially in Fells Point, about the lack of responsiveness. They went through this whole complete streets plan, where the residents give suggestions,and DOT essentially  ignored everything.


Q: How would you propose making the Charm City Circulator cost effective?

The whole model of the Circulator is supposed to be City funding and sponsorships. Hopkins was funding the Green line, but now they’ve stopped. I think it will be the job of the next Mayor to court the business community to help. I feel that some of the developers that have profited handsomely should step up and contribute. Also, raise the parking tax. I’m not sure why the council is so resistant to do it.

Q: Do you agree with the elimination of the Green and Banner Routes?

No, I don’t. I’ve been going to all of these public a City with a public transit crisis, how are you cutting the ONE mode of transportation is running effectively? The perception of the Circulator, which I admit I had at first, was that it’s the ‘tourist bus’ or the ‘rich white people’ bus. Totally false. I rode the Green route a couple of times. It was one of the most diverse experiences I’ve had in Baltimore. You had people coming and going to Hopkins, people going to work in Fells Point…so no I wouldn’t cut any routes. In fact, I would extend the routes.


Q: What was going through your mind during the unrest of April 2015?

I spent most of that day picking up my students and making sure they were safe. What was going through my mind was that this is accumulation of disinvestment in mostly poor, and black neighborhoods. If we don’t deal with the structural damage as a city, that will not be the last riot or uprising. The next day, my students and I held a listening session in Remington. About a week and a half later, a few of my neighbors and I co-lead a One Baltimore rally from Patterson Park to City Hall, where we chanted “Black Lives Matters” and “One Baltimore.” We wanted to show city leaders that we weren’t going to be divided.


Q: Now that the six officers in the Freddie Gray trail have been acquitted, how can Baltimore heal?

I think Freddie Gray and his untimely death in police custody was really the straw that broke the camels back. We now have definitive proof via the DOJ report that police have aggressively interrogated mostly poor people of color. This is what policing became after the zero tolerance regime. I saw it when I taught in West Baltimore. They would go in, crack some skulls, throw the kids against the car, find their drugs, and bring them back. It’s not only bad for our communities, is also bad for our officers. What our next Mayor and council will try to rebuild faith between community and police. For a city that’s incredibly cash strapped, it looks like we’ll be spending $10 million on the low end fixing what we need to in our Police Department. There are many Freddie Gray’s out there..if we don’t do something, we’ll lose them the same way he was lost.


Q: Do you support the Port Covington TIF, why or why not?

On the one hand, I think Kevin Plank has been a great corporate citizen. Under Armour is some of the best clothes I own. He’s made some great investments, such as a field for City Springs. It’s exciting to see what’s happening with City Garage.I love seeing a major company that was started in Baltimore growing. I think where Port Covington became challenging for a lot of our city, is that in this political moment of unrest and anxiety, and the continued deprivation of East and West Baltimore..the question became how can we support a $660 million TIF for a very wealthy business man in Freddie Gray’s Baltimore. I think BUILD and some of the other groups did an excellent job of calling the question and advocating. They wanted to see Sagamore thrive and develop, they wanted to see Under Armour kick the crap out of Nike..but we want all of our citizens to benefit. People want to see this next council and Mayor to be their advocate. There shouldn’t be an expectation that we develop class A waterfront property for high end condos, and use public money without some expectation of reciprocity. Whether it be local hiring, prevailing wages, or affordable housing.

I think in the end it’s a tough call. First and foremost, as a councilman, I have to fight for the citizens of Baltimore.


Q: Do you support a  $15 minimum wage?

I do, and I’ve gotten killed in this district because of it. ::laughs:: In the richest country in the world, it’s an absolute shame that people who work full time hours live in poverty. We’re seeing the call around the country, and even in Maryland, to raise the wage. If we don’t want to continue to subsidize places like WalMart, who pay their employees below a living wage, therefore they live on food stamps and in public housing. they make a SICK amount of profit.

I’ve gotten slammed by any number of people for having that opinion. Look, when I used to teach in West Baltimore, I saw people who busted their butt on $8 an hour..Nick, you CAN’T raise a family, let alone yourself on that salary. You can’t do it. I realize this won’t win me a ton of votes. However,I would love to protect small businesses. Some of the amendments pertaining to them, I’m okay with. People that serve bar, or wait tables, pay them $5 an hour..exempt businesses with 25 employees or less..

Either way, it’s not going to win me a lot of votes here::shrugs:: ::laughs::


Q: Light City was a huge success this year. How would you help cultivate the Art and Entertainment districts in Baltimore?

I’m NOT an artist, but I’m a huge fan of Light City. It brought people together in a unique, Baltimore way. I know in Highlandtown, there’s a wonderful thing on over there with the Creative Alliance. The more unique, funky, Baltimore festivals we can have, the better.


Q: What is the biggest challenge in District 1?

Parking? No, I’m just kidding ::laughs:: However, I know a lot of people would say that. I think it’s the disconnect between communities. Lived experiences differ from O’Donnell Heights, to someone in Canton, or someone in Greektown. The Hispanic community has a very specific set of needs as well. Both the great strength and challenge is it’s diversity. You really run the gamut from the very rich, to very poor, black to Latino, and variations of German,’s tricky to try and please everyone. I would love to see more coherence.


Q: What is one core issue you will fight for if elected?

Universal Pre-K.


Q: Why should people vote for you?

I think I bring a unique skill set. I’ve been a teacher, I’ve started a business. I’ve been involved in the legislative process as well. I also have a very deep commitment to building an active and engaged citizenry…teaching folks to have some ownership over their government. As a councilman, I would want to give people more avenues to participate, and feel like they’re moving the city forward. I want to see more people do what you’re doing here, and keep everyone informed.


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