Sherrie Cohen has decided to drop out of the race for Philadelphia City Council-at-Large following a public disagreement between her campaign manager and fellow LGBTQ candidate Deja Lynn Alvarez.
On March 26, the campaign manager, Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, heckled Alvarez as she was speaking to a crowd of supporters at a Trans Day of Visibility rally at City Hall.
Muhammad yelled above the crowd that Alvarez, a Latinx transgender woman, was faking her Mexican-American heritage, and that she was actually white.
The move drew criticism from the community and blame was inevitably placed on the entire Cohen campaign. Before the end of that day, Muhammad was out as campaign manager and Cohen was left to play damage control.
The candidate said she personally apologized to Alvarez (“which she accepted graciously”) and wrote statements of regret to community groups.
But after nearly a month of reflection, Cohen said she believes sorry isn’t enough. So she pulled the plug on her campaign.
“This is one way that I can be accountable and help repair this damage,” she told PGN. “It’s a very hard decision to make, but I think it is an example of how we can be accountable when harms are committed that we are responsible for — even though I never condoned these statements. It had nothing to do with my campaign. It got associated with my campaign because this person was my campaign manager.”
Before she decided to leave the race, Cohen said she consulted with several members of the community and even Alvarez herself about ways to find healing after the conflict. Withdrawing her bid was one idea that kept coming up.
“I’ve gotten a range of feedback,” she said. “Many people feel that it’s unfair that our campaign got tagged with this and was blamed for the conduct of one person within my campaign. But nevertheless, it seemed to be the feeling of many people that my campaign was in some way responsible.”
Also with her relationship with the community jeopardized, her chances of winning were slim. Cohen said she hopes the sacrifice she’s making by leaving the race will be a major step toward mending that discord.
“This is what I’m seeking — to repair and rebuild bridges to many people in the community,” she said. “It is my hope that people will appreciate the step that I have taken.”
Cohen — the daughter of late Philadelphia Councilmember David Cohen — has dreamed of a seat in the chamber for years. This will be her third unsuccessful attempt to get there. The first time she ran was 2011, when she made history as the first openly LGBTQ candidate to run for Council in Philadelphia. Her second defeat came in 2015, though she lost by narrower margins.
Could 2019 have been her year? That’s something she’ll never know. Instead, she’ll step into the voting booth on May 21 and choose among a record-breaking number of LGBTQ hopefuls running for Council, including Lauren Vidas, Adrian Rivera-Reyes, Daniel Orsino and Alvarez, whom Cohen said wished “ the best in her run for office.”
“It’s so exciting to have a trans candidate in the race,” she said. “Deja is a committed activist in our community and a leader on transgender issues. [By entering this race], she’s providing long-overdue representation for the trans community and her impact is profound — not just for the community, but for the community at large.”
She also noted Alvarez’s courage to run at a time “when there is so much transphobia — especially now that it’s being stoked by No. 45. I think her candidacy is a great antidote to that.”
With that said, Cohen told PGN that she won’t officially endorse Alvarez because of “instances where she did not side with people of color within our community.”
She specified Alvarez’s support of former director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs Nellie Fitzpatrick, who was fired from her position in 2017 following claims that she did not properly address issues of racism in the Gayborhood.
If Alvarez or any of the candidates wins, it will be the first time an openly LGBTQ person will serve on Philadelphia City Council.
While achieving that history-making moment may elude Cohen, the activist and tenant attorney said she will continue to be an outspoken voice for important issues in the community.
“I am a steadfast activist for racial, economic and social justice. I certainly intend to continue all of that work,” she said. “I will continue to be there and speak out on issues important to our LGBTQ-plus community, plus communities throughout Philadelphia who feel voiceless and powerless.”
That work, she said, will be done through her involvement with many nonprofits and coalitions, such as the Women’s Community Revitalization Project, where she serves on the Advocacy Committee to increase low-income housing in Philadelphia; and POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild), an interfaith organization focused on ending mass incarceration and holding police accountable.
These were the kinds of issues that were central to her campaign, which could resuraface if she decides to run for a fourth time — an idea she’s not ready to rule out.
“I can’t say for sure that I’ll never run for Council again. Right now, my focus is working to heal our community — in being accountable, as a public person, to our community,” Cohen said, adding a proverb: “I’ll make the road by walking.”