Dan Cohen bristles at the notion that just because he hasn’t won an election since 1967 he’s out of touch with Minneapolis issues.
“I’m back in City Hall,” Cohen says. “I’ve been back for four years. I’m on the Planning Commission. I’m on the Charter Commission. Those are very active city agencies.”
Cohen is running for mayor. He may be 44 years removed from elected office, but he hasn’t faded from public view. After losing the 1969 mayoral election to Charles Stenvig, the former City Council member worked on political campaigns, won a U.S. Supreme Court case against the Star Tribune, wrote 20 books and, most recently, ruffled feathers on the Minneapolis Planning Commission.
Now 77 years old, Cohen is taking another stab at the mayor’s office, with a proposal to build a downtown casino at the center of his campaign. He says a casino in the city’s core would create jobs, boost tax revenues, revitalize downtown and give the state enough money to pay its share of the new Vikings stadium.
“It’s a job machine,” he said. “It’s a year-round tourist attraction.”
Cohen is running on two other major platforms: Ridding the Planning Commission of appointed commissioners with conflicts of interest and holding the Star Tribune’s “feet to the fire.”
Identifying Cohen by a political party is difficult in this non-partisan mayoral race. He’s running as an independent, but his past politics are all over the map.
He was a Republican when he was elected to the City Council in 1965 and 1967. He ran as a Republican in a primary for the Hennepin County Commissioner seat in 1983, but after failing to make the cut he endorsed Mark Andrew, a Democrat who is now his opponent in the mayor’s race.
Cohen also gave $1,000 to Gary Schiff in his run for mayor. Schiff, however, dropped out of the race after the DFL convention.
“I was very disappointed when he dropped out of the mayoral race,” said Cohen, who described himself as an admirer of Schiff personally and professionally.
Schiff is supporting Betsy Hodges for mayor, and Cohen said he hasn’t been able to thus far get Schiff to back him as his second choice in the ranked choice election.
Other than Schiff, Cohen has primarily given money to the Republican Party and its candidates, although he did donate $250 to Minnesotans United for All Families.
After finishing law school at Harvard, Cohen came back to his hometown of Minneapolis and worked at a law firm. He also got involved with politics, working on the U.S. Senate campaign of Republican Wheelock Whitney Jr. in 1964.
In 1965, at 29, he ran for City Council in Ward 7, which included Bryn Mawr, West Calhoun, Lowry Hill and Linden Hills, among other neighborhoods. He was re-elected in 1967 and was voted City Council president for his second term.
“Unfortunately, the other mayoral candidates lack my age and experience. I have decided not to hold it against them,” Cohen joked.
In 1982, Cohen was working on Whitney’s gubernatorial campaign against Rudy Perpich. Cohen gave several reporters court documents showing DFL lieutenant governor candidate Marlene Johnson had been convicted of shoplifting years before. Cohen did so with the promise that his name would not be printed as the source of those documents.
But the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press editors decided to print Cohen’s name, and Cohen was subsequently fired from his job at the Martin-Williams public relations firm.
Cohen sued both papers and a jury awarded him $200,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed that decision, but the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed part of that decision and awarded Cohen the $200,000 in compensatory damages.
The case, Cohen v. Cowles Media Co., made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the court ruled that First Amendment rights did not mean the two newspapers could ignore a contract that the reporters made with Cohen.
The legal battle waged for 10 years and was the subject of many newspaper articles. Cohen wrote a book about the court case in 2005 and titled it “Anonymous Source.”
Cohen said his current fight with the Star Tribune is unrelated to the 1982 incident. He had pushed for the paper to disclose the sale price of the land it is selling to Ryan Cos. for a development near the new Viking stadium, but stopped once it reported on financial details of the sale. He also wants the paper to disclose who is behind the Star Tribune’s ownership, Wayzata Partners.
Cohen says he likes reporters, but has issues with editors and publishers, who he calls hypocrites.
“This is a newspaper that for 20 years you could have papered the walls with their editorials against the expansion of gambling, but when it came down to the nut cutting, when it cam down to the bedrock, they supported this deal that contains $350 million of the worst gambling proposition since Russian Roulette,” he said.
Troy Wilson is Cohen’s campaign manager. He’s a 42-year-old YMCA employee and pastor who recently started a church that meets in the Washburn High School auditorium.
He met Cohen while he was working at the Downtown YMCA and the two became friends. Wilson has no political experience, but he says he’s been able to organize a diverse group of volunteers — from homeless residents to business people.
Wilson said the job can be difficult because he’s sometimes trying to explain the benefits of a downtown casino to people who are opposed to it.
“We’ve got to get the word out on how this would help the economy, and how this would help the economy in a diverse way, and how it would help all groups of people in Minneapolis,” said Wilson, who is African American.
Cohen has taken out newspaper advertisements with his own money to promote the downtown casino idea. But since the campaign has worn on, he has also made public some of his stances on other city issues.
Cohen is opposed to municipalizing the city’s energy utility, which is a topic of hot debate.
A believer of global warming, Cohen said extreme weather will cause safety concerns that must be addressed by more public safety staffing. He wants to hire about 34 more firefighters, he said.
As a Planning Commissioner, he spoke out against other commissioners who were architects and therefore often had conflicts of interest with development proposal before the panel.
After several incidents where Cohen recused himself from voted over protest, David Motzenbecker, who was president of the Commission and a landscape architect for BKV Group, resigned in January. He did not say why.
Cohen said the city has its own architects, so it doesn’t need more than a couple of them on the Planning Commission. He said he would rather have more minorities on the commission, and he wrote letters to Mayor R.T. Rybak supporting a Somali applicant for the Commission.
Seeing minority groups testify before the Charter Commission during redistricting opened Cohen’s eyes to the changing city demographics.
“All these people that before had never really had a foothold here now are major population factors in this city, and they’re not fooling around,” he said. “They want to be part of it, and it’s really a moving experience.”
At a glance: Dan Cohen
Neighborhood: Bryn Mawr
Profession: Writer, Planning Commissioner, Charter Commissioner, horse owner
Family: Cohen declined to discuss his family, saying he doesn’t want to bring them into the race.
Education: Stanford University, Harvard Law School
Fun fact: A thoroughbred horse owner, Cohn named one of his horses Anonymous Source, a reference to his lawsuit against the Star Tribune. “Terrible horse. Never won a race,” Cohen said.
Editor’s note: This is our ninth profile in our series on the mayoral candidates. We have previously profiled Mark Andrew, Jackie Cherryhomes, Don Samuels, Betsy Hodges, Jim Thomas, Gary Schiff, who dropped out of the race June 19, Cam Winton and Stephanie Woodruff.