Former St. Paul Mayor Larry Cohen, who died Sunday at age 83, was such an able and committed public servant that he achieved a rare leadership trifecta. Before serving two terms as mayor, 1972-76, he had been chair of the Ramsey County Board. After his 1988 appointment to the judiciary, he was chosen chief judge of Ramsey County District Court. He also served 11 years on the Metropolitan Airports Commission.
To each of those roles, Cohen brough wit, grace, deft administration, and a commitment to racial and gender inclusivity. He did much to shape modern St. Paul.
As Ramsey County Board chair, Cohen presided over the establishment of a county parks and open space program. As chief judge, he established sentencing options that allowed defendants to make restitution with their communities. In all of his roles, he championed environmental protection and insisted on fair employment practices for women and minorities.
His most significant accomplishments may have been as mayor. Cohen took office just after the voters changed city government from a weak-mayor to a strong-mayor structure. It fell to him to bring under mayoral supervision city departments that had been the political and personal fiefdoms of individual City Council members. As he orchestrated that change, he upgraded and professionalized staffing and budgeting.
During his second term, Cohen spearheaded a highly inclusive process that put the city's 17 neighborhood development districts on the map and launched a citywide planning process that continues to this day. "That was a very big deal," said Cohen's successor as mayor, George Latimer. "It was very influential in shaping how the city looks and thinks of itself."
Cohen was a career public servant but not a career politician. He did not seek reelection in 1976. Friends say he especially loved being a judge, a role that allowed him to strive to improve lives, case by case. It's fitting that an art installation is being planned in his memory outside the City Hall/County Courthouse building where he played so many roles. Check tinyurl.com/zb8otd4 for information about donating to that project.