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Almost Famous: The Extraordinary Career of
David L. Cohen L’81
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Philadelphia is a city of insiders where it’s sometimes difficult for an outsider, that is, someone whose grandparents were not born and bred there, to break in. But it’s also the perfect size for someone who wants to make a splash in a big way, a place where it’s still relatively easy to become known. A connection to Penn is sometimes enough for an outsider to become an insider, as it was for Cohen (it was also enough for his friend Rendell, who was born in New York and lived there through the end of high school, coming to Philly to attend college at Penn in 1961.)

Cohen’s choice of Philadelphia may have been mere luck (for himself and for the city), but if it had been carefully calculated, it could not have been more right. As Cohen himself says, many who knew him expected him to move to Washington after law school and stay there. In Washington, he’d have been a success, but of a different kind: he’d be another top-notch lawyer with a thirst for politics, but it would be hard to be recognized as “most powerful.” Also, Washington reinvents itself with every change of leadership, a problem that Philadelphia has not faced since 1948, when a Republican (Bernard Samuel) last graced City Hall.

Instead, Cohen is at the power center of a city that has a true establishment, not a transient population that suffers a seismic shift every four years. Cohen is very much a part of that establishment; he’s even a member of the Sunday Breakfast Club, which meets every month to give the city’s business and political leaders a chance to socialize and network off the record. As he demonstrated when he turned Amherst down for college, Cohen’s attitude is the antithesis of Groucho Marx’s; If there’s a club that wouldn’t be thrilled to have him as a member, he knows it’s probably not worth joining.

After five-and-a-half years in City Hall, Cohen returned to Ballard Spahr as Chairman Elect, though he continued to be an active presence in the Rendell administration. In one of Rendell’s best moves, he appointed Cohen cochairman of Philadelphia 2000, the organization charged with attracting one (or both) of the 2000 Presidential Conventions to Philly. The effort was an unqualified success, in spite of strikes that plagued the city during exploratory visits from both Democrats and Republicans. When the Republican National Committee announced that Philadelphia would be the site for their convention, Cohen’s work had just begun. Philadelphia 2000 morphed into the official Host Committee for the Convention. The RNC was, as Cohen puts it, “as close to a flawless effort as you can have in the hospitality and tourism industry.” He says that looking back, he wouldn’t have changed a thing.

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