Democrat Cohen crosses party lines, backs Pataki

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In a move that could be political suicide, state Assemblyman Michael Cohen (D-Forest Hills) turned his back on the Democratic Party Tuesday and crossed the great divide when he endorsed Gov. George Pataki in the race for governor.

The longtime loyal party member and district leader, who has represented Forest Hills, Kew Gardens, Rego Park, Middle Village and Glendale for the past four years, became the first Queens Democrat to endorse the sitting Republican governor.

“This is a first,” Cohen told a small group that gathered in front of the Forest Hills LIRR station as he was flanked by Pataki and state Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale). “I have always voted for Democrats. This is novel.”

He said he decided to endorse Pataki over the two Democrats in the race, state Comptroller H. Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo, because Pataki had a different vision for the state than the Democrats. That vision, Cohen said, could be seen in Pataki’s legislative and budgetary ability.

Cohen highlighted Pataki’s record as governor as one of the reasons for the endorsement. He cited Pataki’s record on education, his success in holding down taxes for both residents and business as well as big strides in affordable health care and improving the criminal justice system.

“When there was a budget surplus, we urged him to spend the money on different programs,” Cohen said. “He showed superior judgment and refused to spend the surplus. This enabled the governor to infuse those reserves in the economy after the economic downturn and Sept. 11, which staved off really horrific cuts.”

The endorsement was a flip-flop for Cohen, who at the Democratic convention in May followed party lines and voted to give the Democratic nomination for governor to McCall. Political insiders were shocked when they learned of Cohen’s defection to the Republicans.

Some even questioned why he would make such a move and one source suggested Cohen never would have made the move unless he was promised something in return.

Queens Democratic politicians have a recent history of crossing party lines to vote for Republicans. In 1997, then Borough President Claire Shulman turned her back on the Democrats when she backed former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in his re-election bid. Other borough politicians also followed suit.

“It is a tremendous honor to have the support of Assemblyman Cohen,” Pataki said. “Working together — in Albany and here in Queens — we have made a difference for all New Yorkers, making sure our families are safe, providing thousands of New Yorkers with access to affordable quality health care and making the right decisions to grow our economy and create jobs.”

Cohen said it was a personal decision to support Pataki and he did not contact the Democratic Party leadership until after he had made up his mind.

He said he has spoken to a number of his Queens colleagues about his decision and they “were taken aback.”

Political insiders suggested the assembly leadership might come down on him for his move, but Cohen did not think there would be serious repercussions. The decision to support Pataki, he said, was not a reflection on the Democratic Party but on the governor’s ability.

“Mr. Manton was not pleased,” Cohen said, referring to Queens Democratic Party boss Thomas Manton. “If I thought this action would hurt my district, I would not have made it.”

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

Posted 7:16 pm, October 10, 2011
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