About Ellen Cohen
Ellen Cohen has lived and worked in the city of Houston for the past 40 years. She served for 10 years as the Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, and for 18 years as the CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Center, working with survivors of sexual and domestic violence. In 2006, she was elected as the Texas State Representative for Houston’s District 134. After serving two terms in the Texas Legislature, Ellen decided to continue her public service career at home. She ran for Houston City Council, and was sworn into office in January 2012 as the Council Member representing District C. In 2016, she was named by Mayor Turner and elected by her fellow Council Members as Mayor Pro Tem for the City of Houston. She is currently serving her third term on Council.
During her tenure on Council, Mayor Pro Tem Cohen has championed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, the elimination of the sexual assault kit backlog, the historic Pension Reform Package agreement, and many other initiatives to improve the quality of life of her constituents.
Thanks to the support and participation from District C residents, CM Cohen’s first two terms on Council proved to be both eventful and successful. This fruitful working relationship has resulted in over 15,000 constituent cases closed, helping to address neighborhood issues from water main leaks to potholes to missed trash pick-up.
One of CM Cohen’s first priorities upon her arrival to Council was to address the City of Houston’s backlog of over 6,000 untested rape kits. Given CM Cohen’s background of providing services to sexual assault survivors, it was particularly clear to her that these survivors deserved justice. She championed an ordinance, passed in June 2012, which assisted in providing the critical funding for forensics testing of those kits and incoming kits going forward. Since that point, all sexual assault kits in the former backlog have been tested and some were found to contain vital pieces of evidence that have been used to apprehend violent criminals. CM Cohen’s advocacy on this issue also led to the creation of a dedicated Human Trafficking Unit within the Houston Police Department.
Another important ordinance championed by CM Cohen during her first term was the creation of the Washington Avenue Parking Benefit District. A pilot program that seeks to bring order to the congested parking situation along Washington Avenue, it incorporates multiple solutions uniquely tailored to the Washington area. In the process, a dedicated revenue source was established for neighborhood projects, such as walkable sidewalks, improved lighting, and better security, which will benefit all stakeholders in the community.
The leadership of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church approached CM Cohen to request a 1,000-foot alcohol-free zone to surround their on-campus elementary school classrooms, similar to the alcohol-free zones that public elementary schools enjoy. CM Cohen determined that the safety of young students must be a priority. With the support of the Lancaster Place Civic Association, in which the church resides, she was able to pass an ordinance that will protect these children from having liquor stores built next to their elementary school.
Council Member Cohen began her second term in January 2014 and was appointed by Mayor Annise Parker as the Chair of the Quality of Life Committee. This leadership role allows CM Cohen to bring before Council for consideration new solutions on a wide variety of issues such as equality, public health, animal policy, trees, parks, and libraries.
A major initiative which CM Cohen was able to have reviewed by the Quality of Life Committee was the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. This ordinance prohibited discrimination on the basis of certain protected characteristics, such as ethnicity, race, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status, and others. Due to CM Cohen’s strong advocacy, the Equal Rights Ordinance was approved by Council in May 2014, allowing Houstonians impacted by discrimination in employment or in public accommodations to have a local option to have their situation addressed by the City of Houston. However, the Equal Rights Ordinance was repealed in November, 2015.
Beginning in FY2015, each Council Member was allocated $1 million in a Council District Service Fund to address localized community issues. Since then, Cohen has focused this funding on neighborhood traffic management, overtime funding for Houston Police Department officers to address crime hotspots, and park improvements.
In January 2016, Mayor Sylvester Turner named Cohen as Mayor Pro Tem for the City of Houston, a leadership role that encompasses serving as an acting Mayor when Mayor Turner is unavailable. She was also appointed to serve as the Chair of the Legislative Ad-Hoc Advisory Group, assisting Mayor Turner in advocating for the historic Pension Reform Package. For FY2017, which began July 1st, 2016, Mayor Pro Tem Cohen successfully garnered $430 million in Capital Improvement Project funding (17% of the citywide total over the next five years) for infrastructure improvements in District C. She continues to serve as the Chair for the Quality of Life Committee as well as on the Budget and Fiscal Affairs, Public Safety, and Ethics, Elections, and Council Governance Committees.
District C is home to over 215,000 people and over 70 active civic clubs, and attending their meetings and ensuring that their voices are heard has been an essential objective for the District C team. To help her office track the ideas and concerns of this plethora of groups, CM Cohen created the Cohen Ambassador Program (CAP), which designates a volunteer from each civic association as a point-person for issues in their respective communities. The CAP program has proved to be highly successful by enabling ambassadors to trade stories about challenges and successes in their various neighborhoods, providing one another with guidance on common problems.
Council Member Cohen’s personal life and career have prepared her well for overcoming challenges and for advocating for under-represented groups. Before she reached the age of 30, she received the diagnosis of breast cancer. She was living in her late husband Lyon’s hometown of Montreal at the time and, as a wife and a mother of two young children, was devastated but resolute. This was a time before treatment options such as chemotherapy or radiation, and Ellen had many questions that her doctors could not answer. Despite these obstacles, she persevered and survived, and determined that no other woman should have to endure the diagnosis of breast cancer alone. She founded Reach to Recovery of Canada, a self-help post-mastectomy group, which was the first of its kind in Canada. The program was in nearly all Montreal hospitals by the time the Cohen family left Quebec in 1977.
Ellen could have returned to her native Ohio when the family, including daughter Marcie and son Eric, decided to relocate to the US. Instead, she and Lyon chose Texas, in part because, “things were settled with a handshake.” With its black gold under the ground and intellectual black gold above, the state was on the move. Houston offered unlimited possibilities, resulting in another advocacy role as Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). There she worked with leadership from Houston’s diverse religious and business communities to foster mutual understanding and tolerance for one of the nation’s largest human rights organizations.
After a decade with the AJC, Ellen was asked to serve as the President and CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Center (HAWC). HAWC is dedicated to eliminating sexual and domestic violence. When Ellen joined this organization it consisted of 50 employees and a $1 million annual budget. Under her leadership, HAWC grew to employ a staff of 120 with a $6.2 million budget, serving over 6,000 women, men, and children annually.
Following almost 20 years at the Women’s Center, Ellen was presented with the opportunity to become an entirely different kind of advocate -- that of an elected official.
In 2005, following the passing of her husband, Ellen was encouraged by a group of leaders in the community to consider running for the position of State Representative for Houston’s District 134. She felt it was a natural extension of the work she had been doing in Houston for the past 28 years. In November 2006, Ellen was elected to the Texas House of Representatives with the largest margin of any challenger to an incumbent in Texas at that time. During her two terms in the Texas Legislature, Ellen worked diligently to restore balance and integrity to the Texas Legislature and her record reflects this commitment. She is widely respected by her former colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, for her ability to work “across the aisle” and bring reasoned discourse to Austin.
Ellen served on various committees during her time in the Texas Legislature, including: Appropriations; Higher Education; Public Health; Rules & Resolutions; Select Committee of Federal Legislation; and Urban Affairs.
Ellen worked on significant legislation as a member of the Texas House of Representatives. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, she helped to craft a $182 billion biennium budget which unanimously passed the House. In addition, continuing her advocacy for sexual assault survivors, she authored and passed legislation with the goal of providing $25 million in services for these adult and child survivors. Another of Ellen’s achievements during her time in the Legislature was co-authoring the bill creating the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission. She was also the joint-author on the bill which created more Tier One research universities across Texas, including the University of Houston.
Ellen’s career choices are a reflection of her deep commitment to public service. She is dedicated to continually advocating for her community and giving back to the City of Houston.
Ellen was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the National Violence Against Women Advisory Council. She accepted this role because of the need for comprehensive language dealing with domestic violence and sexual assault. She was also appointed to the Governor’s Planning Council for the STOP Violence Against Women campaign. The Supreme Court of Texas appointed Ellen to the Gender Fairness Implementation Executive Committee. In 2012, Council Member Cohen was selected to serve as the Honorary Grand Marshall for the Houston LGBT Pride Parade.
For her service to Houston and Texas, Ellen has received a multitude of awards from a wide array of local, state, and national advocacy organizations. These include the Harris County Women’s Political Caucus – Shattered Glass Award (2002); the National Council of Jewish Women – Hanna G. Solomon Award (2007); the Texas Council on Family Violence – Texas Visionary Award (2012); the Out and Equal Houston – Trailblazer Award (2014); the Anti-Defamation League – Civil Rights Hero Award (2016), among many others.
Ellen dedicates her time to serving on various boards with a significant impact on the Houston community. She serves or has served on the boards of:
American Cancer Society
American Leadership Forum Executive Committee
American Jewish Committee
City of Houston Housing and Community Development Consolidated Plan Advisory Task Force
Congregation Beth Israel
Faith Trust Institute
Houston Area Adult Protective Services
Houston Area Women’s Center
Houston-Galveston Area Council
Leadership Houston, Board Chair
Medical Center Hospital, Board Chair
Memorial Park Conservancy
Montrose Grace Place
Museum of Fine Arts Houston
Park Plaza Hospital
Police Advisory Board
Trees for Houston