When Bernard S. Cohen first took his seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, he wanted a spot on the powerful Courts of Justice Committee. oSo he went right to the top.
Cohen, an Alexandria Democrat, enlisted the support of committee Chairman George Allen, whom Cohen has known as a fellow trial lawyer. Allen, in turn, lobbied his friend, House Speaker A. L. Philpott, for Cohen's appointment.
That Cohen -- a civil libertarian, consumer advocate and environmentalist in a legialature that often appears to have little use for any of the three -- convinced the General Assembly's conservative leadership to bestow such a plum on a freshman delegate is one indication that Cohen is learning the legislative game quickly.
Because he is from Northern Virginia and because of his relatively liberal views, Bernie Cohen should be an outsider here. But the 47-year-old legislator has attempted to overcome those potential liabilities by hard work and deference to his legislative seniors -- and he is proud of the results.
"It takes a long time for you to build your reputation here," saysCohen, who began his first term last year. "The first step is to convince them that you are honest and intelligent. Then you've got to get them to the point where they'll work with you and support your efforts on behalf of your area. I have no doubt in my mind that I'm past step one and somewhere in the middle of step two."
As evidence of his progress, the House of Delegates this week over-whelmingly passed a potentially controversial bill that Cohen had sponsored. The bill would give condominium owners' associations the power to file lawsuits against developers on behalf of association members. Cohen helped short-circuit opposition by persuading a developers' lobbyist to back the bill.
Cohen is also in the process of steering out of committee an equally controversial measure that would require smoke detectors in older buildings with four or more separate apartments or offices. Last year, the bill got nowhere. But this time around Cohen has managed to convince the state's influential construction industry to go along with the measure.
Then there was last week's vote by a House subcommittee on another Cohen bill, one that would allow local governments to add a surcharge on telephone bills to pay for 911 emergency phone systems. The bill passed 2 to 1, after subcommittee Chairman Lewis Parker (D-Mecklenburg), a key member of the inner circle of rural legialators who still control much of the action here, abstained despite his opposition to the measure.
"That was a courtesy that I don't think he would have done for me last year," says Cohen.
One reason Cohen gets along with the conservative leaders is that, in some ways, he thinks like them. For instance, he defends many of the actions and rituals of the Courts of Justice Committee, an all-lawyer panel that critics contend spends much of its time guarding the prerogatives and fee-earning capacities of lawyers.
"That's an unfortunate perception that stems mostly from ignorance," says Cohen. "They (the committee members) are really on there as guardians of the rights of people, and the fact that they represent people in their practices doesn't make what they do any less important."
Cohen's membership on the committee and his emphasis on constitutional liberties have sometimes cast him in an unpopular role. Last year he sponsored a bill that would have eliminated as a crime some homosexual acts between consenting adults and downgraded penalties for others. The bill passed the House, but died in a Senate committee.
This year, Cohen has raised questions about the constitutionality of a popular bill to ban the sale of drug paraphernalia. Although he plans to vote for an amended version, Cohen says he considers parts of the bill too vague to pass constitutional muster. And he wonders if the bill will have any real impact on the teen-age drug abuse it intends to stop.
"The goal is admirable and I'm very sympathetic," says Cohen, "but I'm equally sensitive to my responsibilities to the Constitution."