Perhaps the best way to start the story of Marilyn Cohen, the former chairperson of the West Hartford Democratic Town Committee, is with a table.
Cohen’s kitchen table at her home on Stoneham Drive in West Hartford, to be more precise.
For while Cohen passed away in Maryland last Saturday at age 74, those close to her during her days as a Democratic insider spoke of the strategy sessions that took place at her table.
“My mom’s house was always open,” Cohen’s daughter Shelley Cohen said in a telephone interview. “We sat at that table, ready to go every night. She’d strategize about politics. That’s where the business got done with people like Kevin Sullivan, Harry Kleinman and John Droney.”
She ran those de facto meetings consistent with her political philosophy. Everyone had a seat at the table - literally and figuratively.
Scott Slifka, who is the longest-serving mayor in the history of the town, was just a teenager when he first sat in on those meetings as an intern.
“The incredible part was she never told me to leave the room,” Slifka said. “I got to have a seat at the table. For someone my age, it was almost an unspeakable experience. I absorbed it.”
Marilyn Cohen led the Democratic Town Committee for 13 years until 1998, with the Democrats holding a majority on the Town Council and Board of Education for over a decade during that time, according her obituary.
After 13 years, Marilyn resigned as the town chair to focus efforts on state and national campaigns. She served as the political director for Barbara Kennelly’s gubernatorial campaign in 1998 and was the state director for the 2000 Gore/Lieberman campaign, her most coveted position.
“That was the pinnacle of her career,” Shelley said.
Surprisingly, the controversial loss of that ticket did not represent her greatest disappointment, according to Shelley.
“It was not being able to vote for Hillary Clinton for president in the next [election] cycle [that was her biggest disappointment],” Shelley said. “She wanted to get better for the next campaign."
Still, Cohen’s career had taken her further than she probably could have expected when she first “stumbled” into politics - her obituary’s description - because “she was looking to add excitement to her life as a housewife and mother.”
Her initial forays into politics included the decidedly unglamorous jobs of stuffing envelops for local campaigns.
Her influence grew because of her intelligence and drive, Shelley said.
“She was a powerhouse,” Shelley said. “She was fiercely political and very devoted to West Hartford. She was spectacular. Her idea of fun was attending a political fundraiser. We went to two conventions together. I got to watch her in action.”
Slifka recalled that Marilyn Cohen’s best asset was that she recruited good people. While that may sound axiomatic, political strategists often fall in love with their own tactics. Cohen first believed in getting great representatives of their community, Slifka said.
And Marilyn Cohen was a tireless recruiter, said Slifka, noting that she would attend town recreation basketball games that her daughters weren’t playing in to search for good candidates.
“She was there as part of the recruitment process, just being out in the community,” Slifka said. “She led by example.”
Yet for all of the accolades laid on Marilyn Cohen as a political strategist, she was also a good, decent person.
“There’s no question she was a larger than life political figure and a mover and shaker,” said John Droney, who was the West Hartford Democratic Town Committee chairman when Cohen was vice chairwoman. “But she was a kind and compassionate and caring person who took time to help other people and not take credit for it. She was an inspiration to all of us.”
Marilyn Cohen is survived by her daughters - Stephanie and Shelley - two sons-in-law, Benjamin Outt (Stephanie) and Michael Gala (Shelley), and six grandchildren, whom she adored.
“She loved spending time with her grandchildren,” Shelley said. “She thought they were amazing.”Cohen’s funeral will be held at Judean Memorial Gardens, 16225 Batchellors Forest Road, in Olney, MD at 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 29. A reception will follow the funeral at 2901 South Leisure World Boulevard, Creekside Building B, Olney, MD.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that friends and family contribute to a scholarship fund being set up in Marilyn’s name for young women aspiring to enter politics. More details can be obtained by contacting the family at firstname.lastname@example.org.