PORTLAND — Linda Cohen said she tries not to think “lasts.”
Not the last time she will climb the winding staircase at City Hall. Not the last birth, marriage or death she will certify.
But Friday, Jan. 7, will be full of lasts, when Portland’s city clerk for the last decade steps down from municipal government to pursue a career in real estate.
In an interview last week, Cohen, a South Portland resident, talked about her efforts to reform the way the city handled sensitive documents and ran its elections.
In a press release, city officials credited Cohen with restoring public trust and confidence in City Hall.
Her opportunity came after Cohen spent 12 years as South Portland’s city clerk. She became Portland’s clerk in 2001, a year after a bitter and divisive presidential election between then-Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore.
Cohen said Portland made headlines for problems that occurred during that historic election, when thousands of names were purged from the city voting rolls without due process.
Voters showed up at polling places, only to be told they were not registered. Since there was no deputy registrar at the polls, each person was sent to City Hall to straighten out the mess, she said.
“I heard the line stretched around the corner,” she said. “A lot of these voters were disenfranchised.”
Karen Geraghty, a former mayor and city councilor, said she remembers being at City Hall that night, trying to sort out the situation.
“I just know it was absolute chaos,” Geraghty said.
After the election, the newly hired Cohen, along with clerks from across the state, set out to cross-reference voter registration cards and voter rolls. It took two full days to complete, she said.
The next election was smooth sailing, even though Cohen’s mother died the weekend before Election Day.
Her efforts did not go unnoticed in 2004 presidential election.
Estelle A. Lavoie, an attorney asked by Democrats to observe the polls, said there was a marked difference the how the election was handled, including the increasing numbers of absentee votes.
“Passions run high during elections,” Lavoie said this week. “After she took over there were no such problems.”
Lavoie was so impressed, she sent a letter to City Manager Joe Gray, complimenting how the election was handled.
The disorder in City Hall stretched beyond elections, Cohen said. With the exception of the Planning Board, no one at City Hall knew who served on which boards and committees, nor did they know when their terms expired.
Looking forward, Cohen said what she will miss most are her City Hall employees. And, while council inaugurations are always a great honor, she said she takes the greatest pride in swearing in new police officers and firefighters.
“They’ve got a heck of a job,” she said.
But Cohen said she is excited to work in real estate full time with her daughter, April, and her son-in-law, Lenny, who is also a firefighter.
Cohen has been dabbling in real estate for the last three years, and she expects business at Cohen Tracy Properties to increase.
Like being a city clerk, Cohen said real estate still allows her to be involved in significant events in people’s lives.
“There’s nothing like seeing that look on people’s faces when they put a house under contract and when they close,” she said.
But Cohen is also looking forward to exploring some Monday night television, as well as listening to music.
The 55-year-old said she has a 1962 Seeburg Jukebox loaded mostly with 45s from the 1970s and 1980s in her basement.
Her musical knowledge came in handy last year, when a major pop music icon visited the city. “I knew who Lady Gaga was when she came,” said Cohen, joking that the city manager did not.
As a child growing up in relative poverty on Market Street, which was filled with warehouses and bars, Cohen said she played on the front steps of City Hall. She never imaged herself as a public servant earning nearly $85,000 a year.
She also doesn’t want to imagine saying goodbye.
“I don’t do thank-yous very well,” she said. “I get choked up. In this job, if you don’t have a little army helping you out, you wouldn’t be able to do it well.”
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Portland City Clerk Linda Cohen, right, visits with Vital Records Clerk Shelley D’Alberto, who was licensing City Councilor David Marshall’s dog, Mocha, last week at City Hall. Cohen is retiring on Friday, Jan. 7.
Portland City Clerk Linda Cohen, pictured in her office last week, will step down on Jan. 7.