Freshman Councilman Andrew Cohen might work in the former Riverdale office of his three-term predecessor, Oliver Koppell, but he’s looking forward to literally heading down the hill to set up a new District 11 shop in Kingsbridge.
“I just want the office to be more accessible to the entire district and I think being near bus lines and having access to the No. 1 train will [do that],” Cohen said.
A specific Kingsbridge space he’s seeking, in the vicinity of West 231st Street and Broadway, is in negotiation. But Cohen, 44, says it’s “going well.”
The district’s neighborhoods vary economically and ethnically from affluent Riverdale (home to many Jewish and Irish residents) on its hillside to the west, down the hill to Kingsbridge (Latino) and back up to the northeastern parts of the district – first Van Cortlandt Village (large home to the elderly) and then Norwood (Mexican, Dominican, Bangladeshi and more), Woodlawn (Irish) and Wakefield (Caribbean).
“We talk about tremendous diversity in the district in almost every meaning of the word — [ethnically], economically, etc.,” Cohen said. “But I found that a lot of the concerns are universal. As I campaigned, most people approached me about quality-of-life issues — noise complaints, bad streets, school issues more related to a specific school. It’s not super-macro policy. People wanted to tell me about their block, their streets.”
While all of the above is a Cohen focus, he knows he has to push for city budget attention to the district. “Providing constituent service is my number one priority,” he said. “But making sure the district is treated fairly and is moving front and center as we start the budget process,” is also key.
He does weigh in on citywide issues, including Mayor de Blasio’s quick push for extended paid sick-leave legislation, which he supports.
But like all other Bronx Democratic members of the Council, except for fellow freshman Ritchie Torres , he has not joined the Progressive Caucus, which only has 11 members .
“My plan is to see how it works out,” he said. “I consider myself a progressive. And my voting will be close to caucus members. I don’t see the need, but I certainly haven’t ruled it out.”
Are Bronx Democratic leaders trying to keep him out of the Caucus?
“That’s definitely not the case,” he said. “If I wanted to join the caucus, I’m sure [Bronx Democratic Party boss] Carl [Heastie] would be supportive. We have a speaker, we have committees. It’s going to be about policy now. I don’t think I need to be a member of a Progressive Caucus to be an effective legislator. I’m going to have a voice either way. I’m just going to go down there, see the dynamics, and make a decision over time.”
One key issue that has little to do with political ideology is dirt … in Van Cortlandt Park’s lengthy Putnam Trail. Many passionate nature-lovers want it left alone, despite occasional path flooding, making it difficult for walkers, runners and bikers (who use paved paths just over the border in Yonkers and heading through Westchester). The Parks Department has long wanted it paved so all users can have an easier way to get by, especially after rainstorms.
But Cohen supports a compromise he believes will work well. “I’m in favor of compressed, crushed stone,” he said, echoing his campaign position and stressing that he wants the trail to be ADA compliant — in other words, accessible to the disabled. The mayor hasn’t hired a new parks commissioner but when he does, Cohen wants to set up a meeting with him or her on this issue and more.
He also looks forward to involving residents to help determine what a pile of city money should be used for.
“Starting in the fall, even though I’m not in the Progressive Caucus, for next year’s budget I’m going to give participatory budgeting a try,” Cohen said, referring to a grassroots process where Council members can work with their constituents to decide how to spend $1 million of city funding in participating districts.
It’s hard to know exactly what got Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to name Cohen chair of the Mental Health Committee. He didn’t support her push to become speaker; among the Bronx delegation, only Torres did. And she removed a couple of other Bronx non-supporters from their committee chairmanships — incumbents Annabel Palma and Andy King, whose 12th District borders Cohen’s — last week.
Maybe that’s one sign that where he’s headed — participatory budgeting — helped. Mark-Viverito participated in the program’s launch a good bit prior to her political promotion.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” he said, referring to Mark-Viverito’s naming him chair of Mental Health, which was led by Koppell until his departure. “I’m an incoming freshman. That doesn’t lend itself to becoming chairman. She wants to bring everybody together and that’s what she’s doing. Appointing me to a committee chairmanship is indicative of that.”