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Cohen closes term in Annapolis and looks toward an uncertain future

Josh Cohen says he was at the sink doing dishes when his mind began to wander.

His thoughts landed on Annapolis' failing dam at Waterworks Park. Should it be repaired? Should it be breached to allow water to flow through into a stream?

As he contemplated the options, it suddenly dawned on him: The dam isn't something he needs to worry about any more.

"It hit me," Cohen recalls. "I'm not going to be mayor."

After 12 years in public office, the last four as mayor of Annapolis, Cohen will leave office Monday as Mike Pantelides is sworn in as the capital city's next mayor.

"The two hardest things about not winning is: I won't be in office to continue working on these things; and saying goodbye to the people I worked with, because we had a good team," Cohen said.

Cohen, a Democrat, lost a nail-biter election by 59 votes to newcomer Pantelides, a Republican.

In an interview at a downtown coffee shop as his term wound down, Cohen acknowledged last week that he never thought he would lose.

"I thought I would win. I thought it would be close," he said, "but not that close."

Since Pantelides was declared the winner Nov. 8, Cohen has been packing up his office at City Hall, wrapping up his final official duties as mayor and looking toward an uncertain future.

Cohen has tried to be helpful to Pantelides, having lunch with him and texting to coordinate the transition.

He said he's been careful not to step on Pantelides' toes. For example, Cohen ordered city staff to halt reviews of the controversial Crystal Spring development on Forest Drive at the edge of the city that Pantelides has spoken out against.

At the same time, though, Cohen is leaving his mark on his way out the door. In an announcement of the annual tradition of making downtown meters free during the holidays, Cohen slipped in a mention that he asked the city's transportation director to draw up proposals for a new pricing plan for parking. He did note, however, the proposal would be considered by the next mayor and city council.

Cohen also has been looking for a job.

Being mayor of Annapolis is a full-time position. Before that, when Cohen served on the Anne Arundel County Council and as an alderman on the Annapolis city council, he worked in criminal justice at the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center and as a parole and probation officer.

As of Monday, he'll find himself between jobs. He said he's looking for a good fit, whether it's the private sector, a nonprofit or government.

"I need to feel like I'm making a difference," he said.

For the past 12 years — since he was first elected as a 28-year-old alderman in 2001 — Cohen said he's strived to make a difference for Annapolis, his hometown.

As mayor, he focused on righting the city's listing financial ship, reopening the landmark Market House and planning for the long-term future of City Dock.

He acknowledges that his focus on those issues was, at times, unpopular. He laid off city employees with his first budget, raised water rates and cut trash service to once a week.

His vision for City Dock, including replacing a vacant building with a tall, modern building, earned him criticism throughout the election year.

Cohen ultimately succeeded in getting the city council to approve a new master plan for City Dock, but it took significant effort to do so. The council held several extra meetings in October to consider scores of amendments to the plan before voting for it one week before Election Day.

"I'm proud of what we accomplished the last four years. I was more focused on governing than campaigning," Cohen said. "To me, it was more important that we get stuff done."

Looking back, Cohen realizes he may have made a tactical error by not focusing more on the campaign. Pantelides campaigned hard all summer and fall, he said.

"With a 59-vote margin, 10 votes here or 10 votes there," Cohen said. "If I had known I would lose by 59 votes, there were things we could have done differently."

Cohen said his campaign team was top-notch. "It wasn't for lack of effort on the part of the campaign," he said. "I bear sole responsibility for coming up short."

Dan Nataf, director of Anne Arundel Community College's Center for the Study of Local Issues, said more of a personal touch on the campaign trail could have helped Cohen in parts of the city.

Cohen's strategy appeared to rely on votes from predominantly African-American wards, but it didn't pan out that way. Perhaps more door-to-door campaigning in those neighborhoods would have helped, Nataf said.

"When you're looking at a few dozen votes, little things make a difference," he said.

In addition to City Dock, Cohen also lists among his proudest accomplishments the creation of the Circulator bus route, reopening the city-owned Market House, improving permit processes and launching a renovation of City Hall.

But there are things that Cohen wishes he had finished. The Hillman Garage downtown needs major repairs or replacement, the former Fawcett Boat Supplies building on the downtown waterfront remains vacant, the Crystal Spring proposal remains unresolved and there are plenty of parking and transportation issues that need to be addressed.

Now, Cohen will step back and let Pantelides take a crack at those issues.

"I feel really good about what we accomplished in four years," Cohen said.

"I feel confident I'm leaving the city in much better shape," he said, "and that, to me, is more important than the outcome of the election."

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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