The Voice recently caught up with Councilman Barry Lee Cohen, R-10, the first West Haven Republican in three decades to be elected to a district council seat.
A business owner and previously a global director for Enthone (now MacDermid Enthone), Cohen is a high-energy guy who has an impressive resume as a business and community leader, which includes various philanthropic activities. A relative newcomer to the political arena, his convincing victory last November took some by surprise, including Cohen.
“I just kept knocking on doors, listening, texting, calling—and repeat! Election night was a somewhat surreal experience,” he said.
Cohen’s prior foray into politics was in 2017 when he unsuccessfully ran for a Board of Education seat. He subsequently was elected Vice-Chairman of the West Haven Republican Town Committee in 2018, a seat which he will not seek re-election this coming March.
“All my focus must be on being the very best councilman possible. It’s time to put politics aside and govern,” he said.
We wanted to learn about Cohen’s priorities for the next two years, as well as his thoughts on being in the minority.
During the campaign, Cohen talked about “common sense responsibility for the city. He believes such a philosophy would mean a new way of thinking – and doing.
“My focus for the next two years will be fiscal responsibility. We must live within our means and eliminate potentially wasteful or redundant spending wherever it exists. Where best practices are lacking, they must be created and enforced,” he asserts. “If right sizing or outsourcing of certain municipal operations is mutually beneficial to the city coffers and taxpayers, then we need to closely examine and execute in a humane, expeditious, and professional manner.”
He has called for an economic development plan, that plan, he believes should be all-encompassing.
“To be fiscally responsible also entails accelerating economic development. In addition to The Haven which has been extensively covered by this publication, there are ‘diamonds in the rough’ throughout West Haven that, once developed, will increase our tax base, and positively impact the quality of life via reduced blight and vandalism, as well improve safety for our families, police, fire, and other emergency responders. An increased tax base will also enable enhancements to our educational system, as well as recreational areas and parks,” he said.
He enumerated some of the locations and neighborhoods he thinks needs to be part of the vision.
“From the long-dormant downtown arts center plan to the vast potential of the Boston Post Road and Beach Street, opportunities abound. In addition, we must further engage UNH and Yale, as well as move forward with privatizing the Savin Rock Conference Center. These are just a few of many projects I’d like to see before the council,” he said.
He took his plan in another direction as well
“As the former global director of marketing communications for an advanced technology company, I’ve advocated for a ‘technology corridor’ for well over a decade that would extend from Frontage Road to Railroad Avenue. Between the railroad station and Yale West lies an extremely desirable area that I believe can be successfully developed in collaboration with the nearby residents. Bottom line: Homeowners have been disproportionately overburdened with maintaining and increasing our tax base. We must maintain and grow business,” he asserts.
Last summer and leading right up the November election, his presence was well documented via print and social media. Since being elected, he has engage at community events, maintain a strong presence on Facebook, and is known to knock on neighbors’ doors and make calls unsolicited. He doesn’t plan to stop now that he’s elected.
“I have and will continue to proactively reach out to my neighbors throughout the 10th District and citywide. I make it a point to place calls, email, publish social media, and schedule visits regularly. Listening and not just hearing concerns is essential,” he said. “While knocking on virtually every door possible in my district, it immediately became clear that communication was lacking and even worse, most of my neighbors didn’t know who their councilperson was. Of course, if you have a problem you may call the mayor’s office, Public Works, etc. However, if your concerns are not being addressed—that’s why you have a councilperson to be your advocate or at the very least help to facilitate answers. An election shouldn’t be a popularity contest. Being councilman is a responsibility and trust that I hold dear and remain committed to earn every day, not every election cycle.”
For the first time in three decades, there are now two Republicans in the minority, allowing the party along with Councilwoman-at-Large, Colleen O’Connor, to second each other’s motions, enabling discussions at council meetings. Cohen said the two have discussed the new reality.
“Being in the minority doesn’t really phase me one way or the other. I don’t and never have focused on party labels. Like I stated numerous times during the campaign, ‘I couldn’t care less if there’s an R, D, U, or I next to your name.’ For the council to succeed, we must work together to create value for our constituents. Of course, there will be times that there will be disagreements, however, my expectation is that any conflicts will be based on a review of the project or issue at hand,” he said.
He believes part of the problems in the city are caused by affiliations tainting or prohibiting discussions.
“Party politics on both sides of the aisle have handicapped our wonderful West Haven for far too long. We can and must do better. In my short time on the council, I am truly impressed and thankful to be working with a diverse team with distinct talents that each of us will and should leverage in the best interests of our city,” he said.
In closing, Cohen said hard work and cooperation are key to the next two years.
“There are many challenges and difficult decisions ahead for this City Council. I am determined and yes, passionate, to roll up my sleeves and offer solutions. Should it be proposing changes to an upcoming parking study to ensure residents are not disproportionately monetized, proposing unpopular but needed ‘sacred cow’ spending reductions, waking up at 4:15 am to see if the streets are being plowed or touring the 10th District to make sure trash is picked up or a pothole is filled, I feel truly blessed,” he said. “Although some may call my goals for the next two years overly ambitious, I consider them necessary and essential to move West Haven.”