Cohen challenges Grimm



GUILDERLAND — The 29th District in the Albany County Legislature encompasses seven election districts in Guilderland’s Fort Hunter neighborhood.

Republican Mark Grimm has represented the district for the last four years, having bested Democrat David Cardona in 2015 when Republican Lee Carman retired after three terms to run for the Guilderland Town Board instead. Carman is running in November to keep his town board post (see related story).

Democrat James Cohen is challenging Grimm to represent District 29.

Each of the candidates answered a series of issues-based questions outlined on the cover of this edition as well as talking about their goals, backgrounds, and reasons for running. Grimm also discussed his views on the issues in a video that you can watch at Cohen declined the offer to do a video interview.


James Cohen

Democrat James Cohen, 80, made his first run for county legislature almost a half-century ago and is doing so again — challenging incumbent Republican Mark Grimm to represent District 29.

“The age I am, I’m more balanced now,” said Cohen.

He also said, “Unfortunately, it’s a special time we’re in now. I’m more worried about the national [polictiacl scene] than the local … We’re on the verge of losing our democracy. That’s a tremendous issue.”

Overall, Cohen said, “I think the Albany County Democrats have done a good job governing. Some of it’s overreach. I like to look at the social cost when I make a decision.”

Cohen grew up in Albany. He is a member of Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany.

He graduated from the Milne School in Albany, which the teachers’ college used to try out innovative approaches to education.

Cohen went on to get a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University. He started out with an interest in journalism, and had a column in the Daily Orange, the student newspaper, which he termed “a big deal.”

He spent a summer writing obituaries for a newspaper in Troy but eventually ended up majoring in political science with a minor in journalism.

Cohen spent six months, during the Vietnam War era, in an Army training program at Fort Knox in Kentucky. He then spent five-and-a-half years in the reserves. “I was in the combat engineers,” Cohen said.

He eventually took on the family business, Peerless Paper Products but the business hadn’t kept up with the times, he said. He then spent the bulk of his career at Hill & Markes Paper Company, retiring last year.

Born in 1939, Cohen first became intrigued with politics, he said, in the Eisenhauer era. “I was sort of a rebel,” said Cohen. “Politics got into my blood.”

was a political hero for Cohen. “I was a big LBJ fan until I began to see the devLyndon Baines Johnson astation done, the loss of life. He was a flawed man, but a great president.”

Cohen also said, “Obama was a great person and a decent president.”

Reflecting on his youth and political orientation, Cohen said, “Everybody in Albany voted Democrat. If not, you were ostracized … I was a pretty quiet kid. Politics got my adrenaline flowing.”

Cohen moved to Guilderland in 1977 because of the special education-program in the Guilderland schools, he said. He has a son, Michael Alfred Cohen, on the autism spectrum.

“He’s doing very well,” said Cohen. “My son is living on his own. I’m very proud of him.” He also said, “My son is a gift.”

Cohen has two other grown children, Susan and David.

“When we came to Guilderland, I joined the party,” Cohen said. “I considered myself a reformer or a liberal.” But, in the end, he said, the party ended up reforming him.

“I worked my way up,” he said. “I was aware of the machine. It was like a magnet. I wanted to change it.”

Cohen has been a district leader for the Guilderland Democratic Committee and a committeeman on the Albany County Democratic Committee. He also served on the Guilderland Economic Development Committee and is a member of the Guilderland Planning Board.

He made his first run for county legislature in 1971, in a Democratic primary against Hank Denny Jr. Cohen lost by 2 to 1, he said. “Later, we became friends,” he said.

Cohen ran again in 1992 against Kevin Moss, who had been a Guilderland supervisor. This time, Cohen lost, 3 to 2, he said, and felt he’d made progress.

“He was a tough guy,” he said of Moss. “I later became friends with him.”

Three years after that, he ran again, against Paul Laudato, who had been Guilderland’s town attorney. Cohen lost that race by just 17 votes.

Asked why he has kept running, despite repeated defeats, Cohen said, “The reason I’m running this time is personal. My wife, Kathy, passed away four-and-a-half years ago … That was difficult for me. She was a creative person.”

The couple had married in 1965. As he’s been campaigning door-to-door, Cohen said, he runs into people who knew his wife, and they share memories.

He also said of his earlier defeats, “I think I’ve helped with the discourse.”

Cohen declined to have a video recording made of this interview. On emergency medical services, paid sick leave, suburban poverty, and the opioid crisis, he declined to comment.

But he did share his views on the homeless and on environmental issues.

On the sheriff’s plan for housing homeless people in a vacant wing of the jail, Cohen said of Sheriff Craig Apple, “I think he’s marvelous … He’s on the right track.”

He noted of the living quarters for the homeless being sealed off from the prisoners, “He’s not throwing them together.” Cohen went on about the project, “There are going to be some mistakes,” but reiterated, “He’s on the right track.”

On the environment, Cohen said he had gone to a public hearing on the county enacting the ban on polystyrene foam containers for restaurants. “I said then I worked for a company for 32 years affected by this; I retired … I’m in favor of it.”

He went on, “In fairness, when you do this, you should know the social costs. It’s not a one-way street. People may lose their jobs … Somebody’s going to get hurt when you have a big change.”

Cohen concluded of his current campaign for election, “I’m looking at it as a character issue. I may not be up on everything but I have balance and experience.”


Mark Grimm

 Republican Mark Grimm is running for a second four-year term because, he said, “I’ve made a difference.”

When he campaigns door-to-door, what he hears most often, Grimm said, is that taxes are too high. “People tell me, once their kids leave school, they’re out of here,” said Grimm. (School taxes make up the lion’s share of local property taxes.)

“We’ve cut taxes,” he says of the county budget, noting he is a ranking member on the Finance Committee.

Grimm also said, “Guilderland does not get its fair share of sales tax.” 

The county gets 60 percent, and 40 percent of the sales tax is divided among the county’s municipalities, based on population.

“The sales-tax formula doesn’t take into account where it’s generated,” said Grimm. He thinks it should, noting that, with Crossgates Mall, Guilderland generates a lot of sales tax.

Grimm also names a half-dozen grants he has secured from the county for the Guilderland Food Pantry, for the ambulance squad, YMCA summer camp, the Guilderland Chamber of Commerce, and for senior bus trips among other things.

He notes that he has a “perfect record” for attending legislative sessions, 50 in all.

Grimm is proud of legislation he sponsored to modernize communication in the legislature. “We’re in the 20th Century,” he said.

Being a member of the minority party, Grimm said, at first, he “got nowhere.”

Then he worked with Lynne Lekakis, whom he described as a “liberal, city Democrat,” and legislators are now using iPads instead of paper in some instances, the website posts voting records, and legislative sessions as well as committee meetings are now televised.

“It makes government much easier to follow,” said Grimm.

He and Lekakis co-chair the Personnel Committee, Grimm said, noting that having a member of the GOP chairing a committee in the Democrat-dominated legislature was “making history.”

“We don’t worry about labels,” he said of himself and Lekakis. “We work together.”

Grimm, who is 63, pointed out that he has worked in the private sector, owning his business, Mark Grimm Communication, for 18 years, and before that was a television news reporter and anchor.

“Business provides the money for social services,” he said.

Grimm was raised in Troy, one of nine children in an Irish Catholic family that was decidedly Democratic.

His admiration of Ronald Reagan brought Grimm to the Democratic party, he said. “He was the face of the Republican Party we need,’ said Grimm. “Trump is not a Republican … He’s a unique personality in United States history,” Grimm said of the current president.

When Grimm is out campaigning and constituents ask him his views on Donald Trump, Grimm said he tells them, “My job as a Republican is to help my constituents.”

Since Reagan, Grimm has stayed with the GOP because, he said, “I believe in the principles of the party: easing the tax burden, and having only the government we need.”

Grimm cites his “15-year record of public service,” beginning with his work as a volunteer on the Guilderland Central School District’s Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee. “I spoke out for the taxpayers,” he said.

From 2008 to 2012, he was a councilman on the Guilderland Town Board. “I stood up for taxpayers,” he said. “People told me they brought popcorn to watch” the televised board meetings.

Then, in 2012, when the Guilderland Public Library put up a $13 million project to update and nearly double in size, Grimm said he put out a robo call, using his name, to “alert people to vote.” “It was the largest turnout ever for a library vote and it went down, 3 to 1,” he said.

Grimm moved to Guilderland 20 years ago because his wife is from Guilderland, he said.

On housing the homeless in the county jail, Grimm said, “We have to learn more about it … If it’s prudent, it’s something we should consider … If it makes sense financially, we should be open to it.”

He also said that the county invests a lot in mental-health services currently, noting that many homeless people have mental-health issues. “We spend tens of millions of dollars on social services,” Grimm said.

“The county is often on the front line to help people who have nowhere else to turn,” he said.

On emergency medical services, Grimm said it is up to the municipalities to decide for themselves.

If a municipality feels it can’t handle emergency services on it’s own, the county may be the best option, he said. “It may make more sense in terms of efficiencies,” said Grimm, stressing “Self-rule is significant here.”

The solution to too many plastic products, said Grimm, is to “press manufacturers to be more conscious of what they package in the first place.” He also said, “There has to be national influence here.”

Grimm was among those who voted against the polystyrene ban for county restaurants, noting neighboring counties are not doing the same thing.

“The question is: How much do we dictate?” he said.

He also said the bulk of Styrofoam is not in restaurant containers but in block Styrofoam used to cushion, for example, electronic equipment that is being shipped.

Rather than banning Styrofoam, Grimm said, it should be recycled.

He concluded of the county, “On green initiatives, we’re doing a lot … Whenever we build or rehab, we ask … Can we go solar?”

Grimm called paid sick leave the “most controversial issue in 2019.”

“What role does the government have in dictating to an employer … what [workers’] benefits should be?” he asked. 

He cited a comment made by someone from Guptill’s Roller Skating Arena with 110 part-time workers, teenagers, saying the bill “went too far.”

He also cited David Brown’s comments. Brown, who heads the Capital District YMCA, told the legislators that it would cost the Y $500,000 in one year to meet the requirements in the paid-sick-leave bill, meaning the YMCA would have to cut from “programs we provide to the poor.”

“The implications are profound,” said Grimm.

He noted opposition to the bill was bipartisan and said, if a revised bill were to be voted on again, “I’d be just as skeptical.”

On suburban poverty, Grimm said, there are two central ways “to break the chain of poverty.” The “number-one step,” he said is a good education. “Hold schools accountable,” said Grimm.

Second, he said, is “create opportunities.” He recommended not “sticking regulations” on businesses so that businesses can grow.

On opioids, Grimm said, Albany County is a leader, with county Executive Daniel McCoy a lead proponent of suing the “opioid demons.”

Grimm said he believes the suits will be successful and will result in the county receiving “a lot of money” that can then be used for both awareness education and treatment of addiction.

Grimm said that the county already spends a lot of money on treatment, and praised the sheriff for his innovative approach, “helping people in the jail kick their habits.”

He concluded, “We have to hold people accountable.”

Finally, Grimm lamented that typically just one-third of his constituents will vote while two-thirds “will sit home.”

He stressed the importance of local elections.

More Regional News

  • “This is an opportunity in this post-pandemic world to let people know, get the skills, go into apprenticeship programs, get trained,” said Governor Kathy Hochul, speaking from the county’s airport on Monday enroute to the White House for the signing of the infrastructure bill. “There’s jobs waiting for you to help rebuild this great state after we were knocked down so far.”

  • Albany County suffered three COVID deaths this week: a man in his seventies died on Thursday, a man in his sixties died on Friday, and a woman in her nineties died on Saturday. Albany County’s COVID-19 death toll now stands at 439.

  • The rubric of vaccination rates being lower in rural areas holds in Albany County as well, according to the state’s tracker, reported by ZIP code.

    As of Tuesday night, for people getting at least one shot, Coeymans Hollow has a rate of 47.5 percent; South Bethlehem, 58.1 percent; and Medusa, 68.3 percent. Clarksville and Berne were in the seventies while Preston Hollow and Westerlo were in the eighties.

    Meanwhile, Delmar, Slingerlands, Guilderland Center, Voorheesville and Altamont ZIP codes all have populations in which more than 99 percent have received a vaccination.

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