Teaching Retirees to Turn Their 
Votes Into Real Clout on Capitol 

If you were to walk though the door of retiree Jack Cohen’s home in Yorktown Heights, NY, it is guaranteed there is one thing you would not find…that is a passive or inactive retiree. 

It can be challenging to keep up with Cohen’s quick mind and passionate sprit as he sifts though newspapers and Internet sources for updates and news about upcoming retiree legislation. 

Cohen, has spent the last two and a half years serving as the Co-State Leader and a Congressional District Leader with the National Retiree Legislative Network (www.NRLN.org) in New York State. He views his volunteer efforts as an opportunity to reach out to other retirees and as a way to enlighten and inspire them on the issues on Capitol Hill. 

In Cohen’s view, Congress holds the keys for change and reform. He reels off data from the Census Bureau about how voters over age 55 account for 28.3% of voters nationwide, 29% in New York State, and an incredible 45% in the upstate regions of New York where he is trying to motivate retirees to harness the power of their electoral clout in dealings with their elected officials in Washington, D.C. 

“Its surprising, not many people realize how powerful a lobby we retirees are,” he said. With about 45,000,000 young workers without healthcare, and many older people losing their benefits, he feels that it is the time for action over lip service in our nation’s Capitol. 

His focus is on legislative matters related to the erosion of health benefits, pensions, and what he terms as an unsatisfactory Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Plan. 

Cohen spends a large portion of his time giving educational and motivational talks throughout the 54,475 square miles that make up New York State. His travels bring him to communities as diverse as Lake Placid, home of the 1980 Winter Olympics, to the Bronx in New York City. 

His talks focus on significant retiree issues upcoming in Congress, which Cohen says better equips retirees to lobby on their own behalf. Elected officials need to be told by retiree voters that we are watching and expect their support for our issues. 

However, Cohen is not one to wait for perspective audiences to contact him. Instead, he seeks out retiree groups via Internet searches and contacts them to offer his free services. He typically opens by warning his audience that they will most likely find themselves agitated or annoyed, which to him is the ideal way to begin fighting for change. 

“Evil triumphs when good men do nothing. . . I am an enemy of apathy,” says Cohen. Indifference is his idea of a poison to the retiree lifestyle, and he hopes to inspire others to get involved and actively press their Congressional leaders to vote in the favor of retirees. 

One example he mentions was a group he spoke to in Rockland County, NY. One week following his presentation to them, the group of 80 was visited by several members of Congress. According to Cohen, the prep work paid off, and the retirees felt more at ease and equipped to ask their legislators the right questions. 

But what makes his efforts so powerful is the passion he brings to the issue. In October of 2005 he was traveling by car to give a talk to about 70 people gathered at the Roxbury (NY) Senior Club, when he turned on conservative radio super station WABC-AM and host John Gambling, who was discussing the General Motors/United Auto Workers agreement affecting health benefits and pensions to retirees and active employees. 

Cohen said, “John Gambling started equating retiree pensions to entitlements. I got so angry I pulled over to the side of the road and attempted to call the station on my cell phone, but I was in a "dead zone" and had to listen with great frustration while the discussion rolled on with hardly anyone calling the station to complain.” 

When he got up to speak at the retiree gathering hours later Cohen said the anger at hearing broadcaster’s “spinning of the facts” made him more eloquent than usual and the crowd gave him a great response. That talk resulted in a new retiree volunteer for the legislative network team, with possibly a few more to come. When he got home, the first thing he did was e-mail the radio host. 

In his letter to radio host Jack wrote, “The Sioux Native Americans followed the practice of leaving their aged out to freeze to death in the winter. Is the abdication of industry pension liabilities to the PBGC (government run Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation) our form of this practice? The innocents here are those retirees who have to give up that which was promised to them and for which they worked decades expecting that it would be there when they retire. They are the ones caught in this squeeze play.” 

No fool when it comes to politics, Cohen began his professional career at New York Telephone on April 1, 1968, being promoted to a management position and by 1985 was running the expense budgeting and tracking office for the company, where he retired nine years later. 

Since his retirement almost 12 years ago, he has been occasionally called to work with Verizon as a contractor and employee trainer. In his free time, when he is not traveling and speaking to fellow retirees about retiree advocacy, Cohen is renovating the home he and wife Ilene have shared since 1971. 

Jack is very focused on legislative efforts, especially one important piece of retiree legislation in Washington, HR1322, which stresses the protection of retiree health benefits. 

Since taking on an active volunteer role Cohen has been collaborating with other retiree advocacy leaders regionally and nationally. One effort he is most proud of is a coast-to-coast email communications network that can help connect retirees nationwide to work in unison. 

“I love to talk to retirees over the phone and have been successful in adding many people to the network,” Cohen said. “We…need members from regions throughout the country to play an active role and expand what we are doing.” 

However, he recognizes a trend in retirees that he hopes to help combat. Many are still not comfortable with using a computer. This he says can be problematic, since email and the Internet are quickly becoming key and highly effective tools in fighting for retiree issues. Nonetheless, he always offers alternatives in his speeches, like having a family member manage an email account. 

Though he is passionate about politics, Cohen expressed no desire to run for public office himself. He prefers working behind the scenes to enlighten voters. “It’s all a mind set, if you put your mind to sleep, then you’re dead. You need to be involved and active,” he said while thinking of advice he would share with other retirees. “If we don’t protect out own interests we have no one to blame but ourselves.” 

With 2006 a vital mid-term Congressional election year the retiree turnout will be closely watched. If Cohen and retiree advocacy leaders can make their point and sway the opinion of enough retiree voters before Election Day, it could send a powerful message to the major political parties.