Student Candidate Brings Unique Outlook to Councilmember Race

Henry Cohen, the leftmost person in the second row, among Ward 3 councilmember candidates on an April 12 virtual forum. Screenshot by Sadie Foer.

Henry Cohen, a senior at Jackson-Reed High School, formerly Wilson, was rehearsing for the school’s production of Much Ado About Nothing on a rainy day when the roof began to leak. One of his friends turned to him and suggested jokingly that he run for D.C. Council, the city government’s legislative body, and fix the roof. Cohen laughed off the suggestion at the time, but the conversation sparked an idea that grew into a full-fledged campaign.

“I did a little bit of research, and we found out that it was totally possible,” Cohen told the Bit. “So why not give it a go?” He announced his candidacy for Ward 3 councilmember in social media posts on March 9.

Nine Democratic candidates are currently running to fill the seat of long-serving representative Mary Cheh, a former GDS parent, who dropped out of the race in February to retire. Residents of Ward 3, which extends from Palisades to Friendship Heights and includes Tenleytown, will cast their ballots in the June 21 primary.

Cohen is running to make more prominent the issues that affect students in D.C. and to engage young voters. “One thing that I found is that everybody who talks about voting is 40 years or older,” he said. 

And according to other candidates in the race, Cohen has succeeded in bringing issues that affect high schoolers, like education, into the political conversation in the ward with the highest percentage of elderly residents. Beau Finley, 42, a lawyer who is also running for Ward 3 councilmember, said in a phone interview with the Bit that Cohen “is bringing a pretty massive spotlight to issues in our schools.”

Matt Frumin, another candidate, agreed. “In terms of having an impact on the race, changing the discussion and getting attention for things that he thinks are important,” he said, “Henry’s won.” Frumin cited a moment when Cohen tweeted about the broken air conditioning system at Jackson-Reed during sweltering heat, bringing funding for public schools to the attention of voters and candidates. 

As the self-proclaimed “student candidate,” Cohen emphasizes issues that young Washingtonians face. His priorities include increasing public school funding, lowering the voting age in D.C. to 16 and expanding public transportation. 

Graduating senior Maddie Feldman, the departing head of GDS’ Student Action Committee, has been working to register voters in anticipation of the D.C. primaries as part of her senior Quest. Of the 20 Jackson-Reed students who stopped at a registration table she was running in Tenleytown in May, none were registered to vote.

Feldman met Cohen at an affordable housing canvassing event organized by students from Jackson-Reed High School and GDS. “There’s always more work to be done,” Feldman said. But, she added, “He’s engaging a really large group of young students.”

In order to get on the ballot in D.C., a candidate needs 250 signatures from eligible voting adults. By the time Cohen decided to run, he only had a week and a half to reach the deadline. So he enlisted the help of Issac Simon, a friend and Jackson-Reed student, to manage his campaign. Simon, Cohen and other student volunteers stood outside grocery stores, libraries and local schools in order to reach the necessary number of signatures, Cohen said.

The campaign does not fundraise. That decision exempts them from having to comply with finance requirements, but it puts Cohen at another disadvantage in a crowded and well-funded field. The campaign is operating mostly through social media and word of mouth. Cohen has also been attending public forums and speaking to voters at events.

Other candidates in the race have larger budgets, in the tens of thousands of dollars, to employ to reach voters. But Dru Dunn, who works for Phil Thomas, another candidate for Ward 3 councilmember, said one-on-one conversations are the most effective way to persuade voters. “You can pay for endless ads that can reach thousands of people or pay for endless yard signs that you can just set up all over Ward 3,” Dunn said, “but that’s not necessarily effective at getting their vote.” 

Although Cohen doesn’t have the financial resources to send mailers or run ads, he has generated name recognition through media interest in his unconventional campaign. The Washington Post in April published an article about Cohen that Frumin said introduced the student candidate to many voters. Cohen has also been active on social media, particularly Twitter, where he has over 1000 followers, more than all but two of the eight other candidates. Frumin characterized Cohen’s approach as “a non-traditional path to reach a large number of voters.”

According to Cohen, balancing his lives as a student and candidate has been “a bit hectic.” Cohen finds that he does most of his campaign work at school, fitting it into lunch and free periods. In order to attend a public forum at the University of the District of Columbia, Cohen left his journalism class and, after the event, walked back to school in time for environmental science.

Cohen acknowledged that he is not as knowledgeable about policy as other candidates and that his campaign lacks the structure of his opponents’. “It is a very disorganized campaign,” Cohen admitted. “And I know that that’s gonna put some people off, but there’s a certain charm to a disorganized campaign like this.”

In his time talking to voters, Finley, one of the other candidates, said he has observed that although voters may know of Cohen and support his campaign, many are reluctant to vote for someone with so little governing experience.

Although no polling has given a clear indication of Ward 3 voters’ preferences in the race, Cohen doesn’t think he’s likely to win. Still, he believes that his campaign has been a success. “If just one person registers to vote because I’m running, then this campaign has been a complete victory,” Cohen said.

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