Third-time candidate and longtime LGBTQ activist Sherrie Cohen is dropping her bid for City Council, sparked in part, she said, by a rift her campaign manager caused in the LGBTQ community last month after questioning the ethnicity of another candidate.
Cohen, who is gay, was in the midst of her third Council race when her campaign manager, Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, attended a transgender pride rally and accused Deja Lynn Alvarez, a transgender woman and Council candidate, of misrepresenting her ethnicity. At the rally, Muhammad interrupted Alvarez, yelling: “You’re white! You’re white! You’re white!”
Muhammad stepped aside shortly after the incident, but its damage lingered. Cohen said that the same day news of the rally broke, she lost the endorsement of the Victory Fund, a national organization dedicated to electing LGBTQ people, and that she struggled to reclaim her base. She said she does not blame Muhammad for her early exit from the race, which was also affected by a lack of endorsements and a crowded field.
“It was certainly not my intention, but my campaign did contribute to tension within the LGBTQ+ community this election cycle,” Cohen said in an interview. “My intentions are to help heal both the harm caused to Deja Lynn Alvarez and, also, I want to acknowledge a history of anti-blackness within our community.”
Cohen said she brought on Muhammad, who is a cofounder of the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, to help her reach black and brown LGBTQ people who have protested against a history of harassment and a lack of inclusion, specifically in the city’s Gayborhood. That remains a big issue, she said, as does the need for more transgender voices, like Alvarez’s.
(Muhammad, in an interview, said, "Deja has always identified as a white woman.” Muhammad believes other factors contributed to Cohen’s decision, including lack of support from political leaders in the LGBTQ community who favored Alvarez.)
Cohen’s announcement came hours before the Liberty City Democratic Club, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, was set to have its endorsement meeting.
The group voted Wednesday night to endorse Alvarez, Erika Almirón, Justin DiBerardinis, and incumbents Helen Gym and Derek Green in the at-large race. The club’s members voted down the endorsement committee’s recommendation to endorse Lauren Vidas, a lesbian attorney running in the 2nd District. Members voted to endorse incumbent Kenyatta Johnson instead. Incumbents Mark Squilla and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez were also endorsed. The club opted not to endorse in the 3rd District race between longtime Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and former heard of the Fairmount Park Conservancy Jamie Gauthier.
Cohen was the most experienced LGBTQ candidate in the race, having run in 2011 and 2015. A self-identified democratic socialist who works as a tenant’s rights lawyer, she also was one of the more progressive candidates in the race. Cohen was the first out Democrat to run for City Council, in 2011. That year she came within 2,000 votes of ousting then-Councilman Jim Kenney.
But this time around, Cohen struggled to find a base in a crowded field of 29 Democrats, with many younger, first-time, progressive candidates, including two from the LGBTQ community. (Alvarez is a transgender woman and Adrian Rivera-Reyes, who also identifies as a democratic socialist, is gay.)
“I helped lay the groundwork for there being open LGBTQ candidates,” Cohen said. “But it did make it a more challenging field because there were so many choices that people identify with.”
For all of her activism — Cohen was part of the early gay-rights movement and the women’s movement — she has also been seen as something of an establishment candidate, party-backed in 2015 and part of a family of active Philly politicians (her father, David Cohen, was a longtime councilman and her brother, Mark Cohen, is a Common Pleas Court judge and former state representative).
It’s past the deadline to withdraw from the May 21 primary, so Cohen said she’ll petition a judge to get her name taken off the ballot. She would not say whom she will support of the remaining 28 Democrats vying for five at-large seats.
Philadelphia’s 17-member Council has never had an openly LGBTQ member.
Cohen noted as a sign of progress that there is such a wide choice of candidates from the community. And in almost all cases, sexual orientation or gender is just a biographical note, not a campaign issue, which also shows a sort of evolution, she said. But true progress won’t come until someone from the community gets elected. Asked if she thought Alvarez or Rivera-Reyes, both first-time candidates, could make history, Cohen sighed.