Josh Cohen grew up a saxophone player, studying music at the University of Maryland. Then Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, and Cohen switched paths at the age of 18.
"That was the first national presidential campaign that I really followed, and it just engaged me in a way that nothing had engaged me before," said the Annapolis native who's now in the race for mayor. "I realized that people can actually devote their time to working on issues that make a difference."
The next semester, Cohen dropped his music classes and ended up graduating with a degree in economics. After College Park, he moved back to Murray Hill and jumped into local politics, winding up on the board of the Ward One Residents Association.
There, he faced a classic struggle that has come to define his campaign: the balance between business and residential interests. It was about 1994, and the community was afraid to allow sidewalk cafes, for fear that new diners would crowd out the local residents.
"I wanted to see if we could find some way to compromise, so we could support the sidewalk cafes under certain conditions rather than oppose them altogether," said Cohen, who chaired a committee that decided to allow the cafes, but with a few restrictions.
Cohen has spent the 15 years since then fighting for local issues, even as he rose to politics on the county level. He moved to Eastport and joined the civic association, served as chairman of the city's Democratic Central Committee, represented Ward 8 on the city council and won a seat on the County Council in 2006.
In Eastport, he worked on zoning issues to ensure that neighborhood character stayed intact while the community evolved, this time debating "McMansions" instead of sidewalk cafes.
"What really makes Annapolis special is the sense of community that we have here because we are a living town," he said. "People work here, they live here, they play here. It's a wonderful, rich community. We need to hold onto that small-town feel even as we continue to grow."
Cohen speaks from experience, recalling his childhood days of swimming in Spa Creek and chicken-necking for crabs in remarkably clear water. But that doesn't mean he'll make politics personal if he's elected, he says.
"Throughout my entire time in public office, I have tried to conduct myself in a respectful and professional way that encourages a healthy debate even from opposing views without letting things get personal or nasty," he said.
Kevin Brooks, a community activist in Eastport who's known Cohen since the mid 1990s, said he's always noticed Cohen's agreeable attitude.
"Josh is open for ideas, and that has been a key to our communication," Brooks said. "We sit down over coffee and openly talk - not always agree, but openly talk about items."
The items on Cohen's agenda start with maintaining that civil tone, but he said his first priority in office would be to conduct a thorough review of all city expenditures, making sure every dollar goes to good use. He'd also post all contracts online so taxpayers could see where their money goes.
Keeping the community informed and engaged is key, he said, throughout all of the issues he wants to tackle. Cohen works with public safety at a nonprofit, and when a teenager was assaulted while he was alderman, he made sure everyone cooperated.
"The community pulled together," he said. "That's how it should work: when the Police Department is engaged and you have a community that's not just reactive but wants to be proactive."
In this election, some community members are rallying for a city manager form of government, but Cohen doesn't support that proposal.
"Our Ward One association has endorsed enthusiastically the idea of a city manager," said Doug Smith, the president of the association. "We'd very much like to have Josh embrace that thinking as a candidate."
Cohen argued that the city manager would create confusion, because the position would report to the entire city council instead of the mayor.
"When everyone's in charge, no one's in charge," he said. "I'm running for mayor because I want to be accountable to the voters."