Profile: David L. Cohen, Explained

Comcast executive. Rendell confidant. Chamber head. Penn chairman. Obama fund-raiser. David L. Cohen wears more hats and wields more power than any Philadelphian in recent history. Amazing what a guy can do when he knows everybody in town (and doesn’t sleep)

David L. Cohen is a large, genial man who never stops working. He has long been famous for his ability to think fast and keep going, nonstop, around the clock. His mind and energy make him someone most people want to please, and many people are a little afraid of. Cohen is now executive vice president of Comcast, and when people in or out of the company describe his role, it sounds much like his job as chief of staff under mayor Ed Rendell, as Cohen was for five and a half years through the ’90s. It was a time when City Hall had to come up with some answers, when Philadelphia was in dire financial straits, and Cohen didn’t bother sleeping much. He’s now Brian Roberts’s consigliere, the guy next to the guy, the one who, to a large extent, makes things go as the nation’s biggest cable company tries to get even bigger. The guy who pulls the levers behind the scenes. It sounds familiar.

But a lot has changed for David L. Cohen, because Comcast isn’t the half of it. Consider:

On a recent fall day, Cohen took the 7 a.m. Acela from New York back to Philly after attending former Penn president Judy Rodin’s 65th birthday party the night before, at Dizzy’s Club, where Wynton Marsalis blew happy birthday on his trumpet and Cohen quaffed Diet Cokes and chatted with Michael Bloomberg, Alan Greenspan and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. On the train home, he attacked paperwork — Cohen always has a mountain of paperwork — and swept through the Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Inquirer and the Legal Intelligencer.

We met at his office on the 52nd floor of the Comcast Center a little before 11, when he was free of early legal meetings. He’d had a Diet Coke or two but hadn’t eaten yet. I watched him talk on the phone about a panel he would be on at the Jewish Federation the following week, and whip through e-mails (he gets some 400 a day, and works through them all, because there will be 400 coming the next day and because he actually believes he should answer them), and critique a Comcast underling’s second draft of an in-house presentation on “sustainability strategy,” and give a speech at a Trial Lawyers Association lunch urging them to contribute to newly coined Democrat Arlen Specter’s Senate reelection (and, for the right-sized check, get to meet President Obama, coming to town on the 15th to stump for Arlen; Cohen is chairing the fund-raiser), and tape a video in Comcast’s in-house studio urging employees to give to United Way, and answer more e-mails, and slip out into the hall a couple of times to talk in a furtive, important-looking huddle with Brian Roberts for a few minutes.

Now, just before we drive to West Philly for a meeting with the Penn Med board of trustees, which he chairs, Cohen whips through more e-mails. I decide against a quick bathroom break — I’m not sure it fits his schedule, which so far still hasn’t included any food for him. It’s 2 p.m.

Cohen smiles impishly. “It’s really kind of a slow day for me,” he says.

Fast or slow, it doesn’t seem to be centered on Comcast, his day job. About midway through the Penn Med meeting, a two-and-a-half-hour tutorial of numbers and charts and budget projections to make sure next year’s numbers aren’t out of whack, what with our dicey economy, I wonder: Just how much of David L. Cohen is Brian Roberts actually getting?

The answer comes in the form of a trustee mentioning Penn Med’s new proton therapy center, opening this month. The Roberts Proton Therapy Center.

Roberts. As in Brian and his father Ralph, of Comcast. A $15 million gift is a great boost to a cutting-edge cancer center, and given that it might help change the face of treatment and research, the name sends a message about the city’s leading company. David L. Cohen’s company. His day job.

It’s my first glimpse into how one part of Cohen’s world connects to another. For a long time, the Robertses were viewed as civically unengaged and stingy when it came to giving back. So it’s quite helpful to Brian Roberts and Comcast that David L. Cohen is a big wheel at Penn Med, and (as of this month) chairman of the board of the university trustees, and head of the Chamber of Commerce, and still close to Rendell, and a fund-raiser for Barack Obama. Whatever he’s doing out in the world, he’s executive vice president of Comcast. The David L. Cohen brand has become embedded with the Comcast message, which is now heavy on caring and involvement. Right up Cohen’s alley.

David L. Cohen has come a long way from those early Rendell years, when he spent sleepless nights drilling down into contract negotiations with the unions, when most everything he did emanated out of City Hall. The busyness hasn’t changed — he finally takes time to eat, at the Penn meeting, by loading a paper plate with potato chips from a small buffet table. But now his influence is spread out into the local world — and beyond — in a much different way.

HOW DOES HE do it?

Partly it’s the ongoing puzzle — how does he have the time? — but really the question is: How does Cohen get inside all this stuff? How does he end up running Penn Med and the Chamber of Commerce and (still, to some extent) Ed Rendell’s life? How did he become the go-to Democratic fund-raiser in the state? The world is full of smart people who work hard. Why this guy?

Take Penn Med: First of all, Cohen attended law school at Penn, so he’s in love with the place. He got to know Rodin back when he was Rendell’s chief of staff. (Rendell and Rodin were in student government together as Penn undergrads.) When he left City Hall, Cohen practiced law at his old firm, Ballard Spahr, where he’d done considerable legal work for Penn. Cohen had also been on many Penn boards, so it was natural for him to join the board of trustees in 2001; Rodin herself joined the board of Comcast a year later, shortly before Cohen started at the company. Nothing remarkable in all this, just typical (if high-level) connections.
Here’s how Cohen takes it to another level:

When Penn Med was getting financially healthier several years ago, and the Perelman Center and the Roberts Proton Therapy Center and the Fisher Translational Research Center were becoming feasible new projects, Cohen got Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and then-mayor John Street on board. Those connections reach back to the early Rendell years, when Rendell and Cohen created "cabinets" that held policy meetings to which City Council members and other stakeholders were invited.

"I still remember the look on John Street’s face," Cohen will tell me, "when I told him I wanted somebody from Council on all these cabinets: ‘Oh my, I don’t know if anybody asked for that before.’" And there was Jannie Blackwell on the homeless cabinet, sitting in with administrators as policy was developed.

So when David Cohen came calling, a decade later, wanting to get Councilwoman Blackwell on board with Penn Med digging holes in her district, and wanting to convince Mayor Street that the finances at Penn Med had turned a corner, that jobs would be created in West Philly, they didn’t take much convincing. Judy Rodin believes it’s an underappreciated piece of how David Cohen gets things done, recruiting all the stakeholders to weigh in on his side.

Cohen listens to people endlessly — even when he doesn’t find value in it. He and Ed Rendell once emerged from yet another City Hall meeting a decade and a half ago, and Buzz Bissinger, who chronicled the early Rendell years in the book A Prayer for the City, heard this exchange:

Cohen: That was interesting. And totally useless.
Rendell: Like most meetings.
Cohen: No. Most meetings aren’t interesting.

Cohen was renowned for meeting with department heads, back in the Rendell era, and knowing more about their departments than they did. But taking advice isn’t the point — it’s bringing people in, at least allowing them a voice at the table. Getting them to believe they’re being heard.

David Cohen is a convener and a collector. A collector of people, of relationships.

And some very large relationships dovetail in his worlds: Arlen Specter — who hired Ed Rendell four decades ago to work in the D.A.’s office, and whose career Cohen is trying to help save at the moment — has been a strong proponent of funding the National Institutes of Health, which is a hot topic at the board of trustees meeting I listened to, and of stem-cell research, an important Penn Med initiative. One part of David Cohen’s world relates to another.

There’s something else brewing, that’s very hush-hush, over the few days in mid-September when I spend time with Cohen. It was a looming deal that would hit the press soon: the Comcast/NBC merger. Part of Cohen’s Comcast assignment is overseeing the company’s D.C. office of lobbyists and cable-industry regulatory experts. Another arena that’s all about relationships.

DAVID L. COHEN’S method of accruing and using his influence is unusual for this city, to say the least.

Vince Fumo just treated us to a grand tutorial on the classic exercising of power in Philadelphia. The point here, though, doesn’t concern Fumo’s abuses, but his methods: Over the years, the political landscape was dotted with the bodies of those who earned Fumo’s enmity for crossing Vince. "What do the Jews do when their daughter marries a Catholic?" he once said. "They say, ‘You’re dead to me.’ That’s what I do." Then he’d exact retribution, because those who crossed him were going to need something from him. Of course, they’d never get it.

Power for power’s sake. Cohen’s not built that way. When he was a young Ballard Spahr lawyer two decades ago, just beginning to break into Rendell’s inner circle, Ron Rubin was the model for what he wanted to become. Rubin is a high-rise-turned-mall-developer with a hand in civic affairs — he was instrumental in creating the Center City District to clean up downtown — and in Democratic politics as a fund-raiser. He knows his way around City Hall. He’s viewed as honest, forthright, a guy to make deals with. He partners with stakeholders instead of intimidating them.

Much of this sounds like Cohen, except for a crucial difference: Rubin’s mission is to build his company. Everything stems from that basic, unchanging goal. Cohen has no base of operation that accrues to him; he serves masters: Rendell, Ballard Spahr, Brian Roberts. Now the city reaches out to Cohen in his seat high up in the Comcast tower. He’s a fixer, a problem-solver. (He also made almost $9 million last year from Comcast, though that seems to be largely beside the point, assuming that $9 million can ever be beside the point.) It appears he’ll take on anything, large or small. Fumo’s level of detail was securing Oreck vacuum cleaners and tailing girlfriends. When I watched Cohen walk an employee through the revisions he wanted on that draft for sustainability strategy, he critiqued graphics and balance of message and at one point said, "And by the way, this word should be customer instead of consumer."

This is the same guy who holds a fund-raiser for Barack Obama at his house, who has been at the center of regulatory battles with the FCC over Comcast’s aggressive engineering of applications that allegedly compromise an open and free Internet. Joe Torsella, who was issues director on Rendell’s ’91 run for mayor, recalls Cohen asking campaign workers to bring in writing paper from home — supposedly more to make the point about fiscal discipline than for actual savings. And they had an endless debate about ellipses — whether ellipses in reports should be set off by spaces or run hard into the adjoining words.

Maybe we should wonder how David Cohen ever gets things done. While getting the details right is good form, it isn’t the hallmark of a visionary, a guy out front waving a banner of change. (Late last year, in a notable departure, Cohen gave a bold speech to the Chamber outlining an initiative to improve the education of kids in this city; alas, any real help in that direction from the Chamber seems scuttled by current economic woes.) Cohen himself informs me that the correct question to ask, when I harp on his busyness, is, "When do I have any time to think?" When indeed? (Early in the morning, he claims.) Cohen’s comprehensive method-"extraordinary follow-through," Judy Rodin calls it-makes him that guy people go to when there’s a problem, to get advice, to raise money. The guy who understands how everything works and will share that knowledge. Michael Nutter and a half-dozen top city administrators have had scores of conversations and meetings with Cohen in the past two years, picking his brain about the city’s bottom line, especially. That David Cohen is the most powerful man in the city tells us a lot about both Philadelphia and how good he is at helping out. It’s not about a vision for the city. Once again, it’s all about relationships.

THE GENESIS OF David L. Cohen’s power goes back to Ed Rendell becoming mayor in 1992. Cohen had met Rendell through current Ballard head Arthur Makadon; Makadon taught Cohen at Penn Law. Something caught the teacher’s eye immediately: Cohen’s eerily mature sense of judgment, his ability, even while still a student, to discern how the world works. Rendell remembers how "when I first met him, David was in his late 20s, and had a wisdom, an equilibrium, of a person in his late 40s." Makadon and Cohen often ended up talking for hours at a time — about sports, politics, law — and Makadon brought him to Ballard in 1982, where Cohen’s star rose fast.

He had wanted to be a lawyer virtually all his life; Rendell once remarked that if Cohen entered a motel room and there was a beautiful naked woman on one bed and a legal brief on another, it would be the legal brief that would get a working-over.

Rhonda Cohen, David’s wife, laughs about that. And says: "I think to some extent that’s probably true."

His obsessiveness — and success — was made famous in Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City: Cohen left Ballard to become Rendell’s chief of staff and principal strategist just as the administration stared down the city’s unions in contract negotiations, in order to avoid a complete economic collapse — thus paving the way for downtown’s comeback and Rendell’s emergence as America’s Mayor. Cohen often worked around the clock, leaving no stone unturned.

Which meant his family life had to be carefully controlled. Rhonda had met David when they were both students at Swarthmore, and he was like most students: He slept until noon. "I had to readjust my expectations," Rhonda says of the guy who shifted gears once he hit law school. By the time he was working for Rendell, "I got used to assuming he’s not going to be there." As for their sons, now both in college, Rhonda would carefully schedule whatever time David could squeeze out to see them: "Because if he doesn’t have a place to slot it in — we’re going to the movies at 5:50 — I think it gets difficult for him."

The early Rendell years were the perfect mating of crisis and obsession for Cohen. He’s so genial, and tends to speak to everyone in such pleasant baths of words — he’s so naturally embracing — that it’s easy to miss how purely competitive he is. "David wants to be the best you ever saw," says Kevin Feeley, who was Mayor Rendell’s spokesman. Cohen’s obsession for control and success manifested under Rendell in two opposing ways. For those in the administration not cutting the mustard, Cohen would "nick them to death with memos," remembers Feeley, gradually frustrating them, limiting their influence, and forcing them out.

But far more common — and important — was Cohen’s mastery of bringing important players into the Rendellian fold. Of building relationships. From day one, Cohen made Vince Fumo — back then, of course, at the height of his power — and City Council president John Street his pet projects. He would woo them. If Willie Mays comes to town, make sure John Street is invited to meet him — a strategy not lost on Street himself: "Ed and David tried to do what they could to make me feel good," he says today. Fumo was just as important. Cohen became personally close to both men, especially Fumo. Cohen’s wife Rhonda and their sons and Fumo’s family even vacationed together on the Vineyard, and took excursions on the yacht of the Seaport Museum. (Fumo was a board member there, and his misuse of that yacht became one of the 139 charges in his trial.) David and Vince were a curious Jekyll-and-Hyde pairing — one close observer believes the friendship "was David’s way of going to a hooker. It was the one naughty thing he did. It wasn’t a relationship that made sense." Hospitality czar Meryl Levitz remembers a fishing vest given to Cohen by Fumo that he sported proudly, as if he’d joined a cool club. Perhaps it really wasn’t so complicated: The senator was brilliant and charming and great fun. In the end, though, a revelation at the Fumo trial would generate the only truly serious public hit Cohen has taken in Philadelphia.

In many ways, the Rendell/Cohen connection is another curious relationship. Many people say that when Rendell and David Cohen are together, it’s Cohen — a decade younger — who seems the older, more mature man. By dint of position, as mayor and now governor, Rendell holds the upper hand. By temperament, judgment and intellect, control sways the other way. To Bissinger, who observed the administration on a daily basis for four years while researching A Prayer for the City, the dynamic is clear: "Ed is intimidated by David. He acted differently with David than he did with everyone else. He never acted out. There were never explosions of temper with David, never a humorous slide into the perverse. David used to say, ‘The reason politics is so fucked up, there’s a leader and 85 sycophants.’ He would say, ‘Ed, this is what we need to do.’ I should have put that in the book."

Cohen, for his part, understood the importance of maintaining his value to Rendell. Many offers to join the casino game came to Cohen from around the state after Rendell, as governor, helped push for legalizing slots parlors. But Cohen stayed clear of casinos. "I never wanted to put myself in a position where I could not provide totally unconflicted advice to Ed," Cohen says. "Where he didn’t have to worry that the answer would be affected by making millions of dollars."

They remain close, and the Governor says he still seeks Cohen’s advice on big things. They talked every day during the recent state budget crisis. Rendell claims now that if Hillary Clinton had been elected president, he would have called her up the next day and told her, "I know you don’t know David as well as you’d like to know a chief of staff — you should bring him on as a deputy." Chiefs of staff, Rendell says, always leave after a few months, and then Cohen could have stepped right on up.

HOWEVER. A DOCUMENT was pushed across a desk, and a serious question was raised about David L. Cohen.

It came out in the Fumo trial. Dan Whelan testified that as head of Verizon back in 2000, he requested a meeting with Cohen and Arthur Makadon, both then at Ballard Spahr, to discuss an alleged attempt by Fumo to shake down his company. Whelan said that when he tried to pass the lawyers a three-page document enumerating Fumo’s demands, they refused to read it. "They didn’t want to see the paper," Whelan testified. "They said, ‘Find a way of working it out with the senator.’"

It’s a story the Inquirer ran with, the implication being that Cohen and Makadon should have been surprised or concerned or even alarmed by the way the senator operated. They didn’t advise Whelan to run to the feds alleging extortion, and they certainly didn’t brief the authorities themselves.

What the story did was make Cohen look like one of them — part of the way business has been conducted forever in Philadelphia. He refused to talk about Whelan or the Fumo trial — and still does.

The question is still out there: Was some secret of how David Cohen really operates exposed?

Not if you attempt to consider the meeting from his perspective. Whelan showed up that day at the Ballard Spahr offices with his lawyer. He wasn’t looking for legal representation; he was looking for a better deal. He wanted Cohen and Makadon to go to Fumo and intervene on his behalf.

For Cohen, that would have run counter to how he’d always worked with Fumo; they got things done, together. Cohen was well aware of how Fumo operated, because, as one insider puts it, "If you were with Fumo for 20 minutes, you saw how unsavory he was." But maintaining a productive relationship with Fumo was far more important to Cohen than Vince’s excesses.

Perhaps in some other world, Cohen would have gone running to the feds. But not the one he works in. For nearly 20 years, Cohen has been nothing if not a pragmatist. He plays hardball, whether taking on the unions for Ed Rendell, or the net–neutrality proponents trying to thwart Comcast’s expansion, for Brian Roberts. He gets things done. Just as Cohen isn’t a visionary, he’s not a reformer, either.

The real question the Fumo/Whelan episode raises is whether we allow David Cohen too much power through all his relationships and initiatives. For example: As Michael Nutter fought against laying off 3,000 city workers two months ago, and came up with the bill to raise the sales tax and delay payments to the city’s pension fund, Cohen acted as a conduit between the State Senate and the city government, between Dominic Pileggi and Michael Nutter and their staffs, and while he was at it wheedled senators regarding the bill in his role as the city’s Chamber head. The Chamber itself put out a statement of support for Nutter’s initiative. Plus, there were those daily conversations with Rendell on the state budget impasse.

That’s a lot of influence for one local businessman. But there’s a vacuum of power — of involvement, even — in Philadelphia, and David Cohen naturally slips right in.

THE FIRST DAY I spent with Cohen, back in mid-September, I waited for him in his small conference room off his office at Comcast. It’s teched out with a nice TV and video equipment, and has a spectacular view of the river. On the bookshelves were nine copies of Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City.

I remember that last fact when Rhonda Cohen takes me up to his office on the second floor of their home in Mount Airy, which was built in the ’30s by the head of Philco. On a long, high shelf is a row of binders, at least 15 feet of them. They’re filled with clippings. Thousands of clippings.

Rhonda pulls one down, apologizing for being a little behind for ’09, and I flip through. The notebooks are filled with every mention of David L. Cohen, whether it’s the Wall Street Journal or the Chestnut Hill Local. Sometimes David brings articles about himself home; Rhonda puts the binders together. He has, she says, gotten wonderful press over the years.

The clips begin about the time Cohen first got together with Ed Rendell. The relationship that launched him. On up to Brian Roberts. Cohen’s the guy next to the guy. The guy who makes things go, the guy people come to, to help them get things done.

Rhonda muses that the binders will be a record, a legacy, something for their sons to one day peruse, perhaps. To read the story of their father and what he did for his city.