"I gave people hope. To this day I still give them hope," says Scott Lee Cohen.
Scott Lee Cohen is the Susan Boyle of Illinois politics—a frumpy diamond in the rough who came out of nowhere and catapulted almost overnight into stardom. Except in Cohen’s case, his dream turned into a nightmare after his upset victory in February’s Democratic primary for lieutenant governor.
A wealthy pawnbroker who spent $2 million of his own money to beat out a crowded field of seasoned pols, Cohen built a campaign for the No. 2 job around the need to help others find work and to bring more businesses to struggling Main Street. Of course, he dropped out of the general-election contest under pressure from Democratic Party leaders. The Democrats were worried about fallout from revelations about Cohen’s checkered past: allegations that he forcibly tried to have sex with his former wife; he abused steroids; he once held a knife to the neck of his ex-girlfriend, a prostitute; and he owed his ex-wife child support. (For the record, Cohen admits to using steroids, and he protests that, in fact, he had disclosed his domestic violence arrest, ultimately dropped, early on in the campaign, but nobody noticed. He also calls the allegation of delinquent child support a “misunderstanding.”)
Chicago caught up with Cohen by telephone just days after he officially ended his strange political odyssey. Vacationing in Florida with his fiancée to escape the media bombardment and catch some R and R, Cohen talked about his past, his pain at throwing away $2 million, his bitterness toward professional politicians, and whether his religion played a part in his demise.
Did you always want to get into politics?
I guess the better way of putting it is I always wanted to help people. At first my desire was to become a doctor. My father was sick when I was a little boy, and I saw what doctors did. But as I got older, my father had another heart attack—at that point, [he] couldn’t work. So I dropped out of high school and therefore dropped my plans of becoming a doctor.
You say your life has been so interesting that you might write a book. Give us the Cliffs-Notes version.
Like I said, I had to drop out of high school at 17 to take over my father’s business. Of course, that business was the pawnshop business. So here I was—I’m a pawnbroker—and I made a nice living. I expanded his store from one store to a chain of stores throughout Chicago. And then, you know, I raised my family. I have four kids. My wife and I separated, and I chose a path that wasn’t so healthy for me. That’s when I got involved with this girl, you know, and the steroids. I was living a pretty fast lifestyle.
And then you decided to run for office?
No, no, no, no, no. Then I decided to clean my life up and put my life back on track. I stopped all that nonsense with the steroids. I stopped partying. I knew I wanted a clean life; I didn’t know, necessarily, that it would lead me down the road to politics.
You were a total political novice. How did you know how to get started?
I wasn’t interested in politics, per se, but I wanted to be involved in helping the people. That’s when I met with Phil Molfese from Grainger Terry [the Chicago-based political consulting firm] and I said, “How do I help?” And we came up with a plan. We formed “Rod Must Resign” [a drive calling for the resignation of then-governor Rod Blagojevich]. And it was really awesome because it was a grass-roots campaign. I started all of this by myself. And within a very short amount of time, I had hundreds of people standing beside me. So I knew I had the ability to lead the people because I’m a real person concentrating on real people’s problems. I don’t know if you know what I mean by that.
I gave people hope. To this day I still give them hope. Everybody out there is hanging on my words to see how I’m going to proceed to help them. You know, I got news for you: I wish that this story would’ve broke when I put it out there [last] March; I probably would’ve won unanimously. I was the only one out there helping the people and holding job fairs.
So you think your opponents didn’t understand the pain and the worry that people are feeling?
My opponents don’t get it. The Democratic Party don’t get it. The Republicans don’t get it. I got it. I saw the suffering. They don’t get it. They don’t care.
Before you decided to run, did you think that your past could blow up in your face?
I think, had the media done its job early, it would’ve never exploded like this. I don’t think I was being naive. I think I was being honest. I knew that there would be some fallout from it, but I also believed that the people would feel, for the first time in their lives, that they were getting honest representation from a real person. Who says that you have to have a picture-perfect past in order to be an honest and real representative of the people?
Did you warn your ex-wife, your ex-girlfriend, or your children before you threw your hat in the ring that some embarrassing revelations would likely be dredged up?
I didn’t talk to my ex-girlfriend. I did talk to my ex-wife, I did talk to my fiancée, I did talk to the children and tried to brace them. Basically, what I had said was: “Listen, I have these things that I have done in my past that I regret. So I want you to be aware of it when this hits the paper that the media is gonna want to come and speak to you, and there’s gonna be some attention paid.” And they were fine with it. And I think had the media picked up on it [earlier], they wouldn’t have been out to crucify me as bad as they did after the fact.
Do you feel like you’ve been wronged?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely I do.
You could’ve stayed in the race. It must have been agonizing to quit.
Every night still I wake up and ask: “Did I make the right decision? Who’s gonna represent the people? Who’s going to get them jobs?”
Your tearful press conference during the Super Bowl, when you announced you were dropping out, was tough to watch.
Not only was it tough to watch, it’s tough to think about today. My family sacrificed just as much as I did. It was extremely hard on them. They look at their father and they see . . . how badly I was treated by my own party. They see how badly I was treated by the media. And it broke their heart.
Was a bar at halftime during the Super Bowl really the right venue and time for this?
I couldn’t take the pressure of the media anymore. My kids couldn’t take the pressure of the media anymore. It was suggested that I was trying to get back at the media by doing it then [because reporters covering the story would have to miss the game]. That had no impact. I’m not a vindictive person. It was a good ending to a tragic story. I was a real person just going to watch the Super Bowl with my kids.
Several days passed after your announcement before you actually filed your resignation letter. Why the delay? Were you still having second thoughts?
Listen, I’ll have second thoughts for the rest of my life. The whole weight of the world was on my shoulders. Word got down to me that this was the year they were going to do remapping nationally. And the Massachusetts debacle—the Democrats lost the Senate seat to a Republican—there’s strong belief that [Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alexi] Giannoulias is going to lose to [Republican Mark] Kirk. And if the gubernatorial [race] would be lost to a Republican, that would change the political landscape nationwide, because Illinois would become a red state in the mapping.
But even after Democratic heavy hitters like Governor Quinn, Senator Durbin, and Giannoulias called on you to quit the race, you remained defiant. It wasn’t until after your long conversation with Speaker Madigan that you ultimately agreed to drop out. Was that the tipping point?
During our conversation he explained to me about how my being on the ticket could be a distraction for the Democratic Party in the general election. He explained to me that the people would lose focus on the real issues and focus only on me. He believed that my being on the ticket would sink the ticket.
Well, you know what, if the Democrats lose in November, I don’t want the people of Illinois to say it was Scott Lee Cohen’s fault. I don’t want that responsibility.
Did Madigan say that you would be scapegoated like that?
He never came out and said it, no. But if you analyze the situation, you would realize that I would’ve been the scapegoat and I would’ve been blamed. The only thing that tipped the scale was the fact that the media was constantly badgering my children and my fiancée’s children. They were calling my children’s cell phones. They appeared at their school. They were constantly at my ex-wife’s house. It just wasn’t fair to them.
Has your experience scared you away from politics?
It made me cynical of the process. It made me feel that people’s votes don’t matter, because the people vote one way, but if the party don’t agree with those votes, they do whatever they can to get you out of office. [But] if I just walked away and never ran for an office and never did anything in politics again, then I feel that not only am I a loser, but the people of this nation—of our great country—are the losers. And I will not let that happen.
Your campaign was basically self-funded, essentially to the tune of about $2 million. Is the pawnshop business that lucrative?
Actually, I sold one of my buildings to fund the campaign. Do I believe I could do it without my money? You know, when a person wants to do something bad enough, he always finds a way.
Dropping out must have been extra painful because you spent your own money.
Anybody that invests that kind of money, if they lose the money, it’s heartbreaking. Do I believe that I deserve to be compensated or that I should be given my money back by the party? Absolutely. Listen, I won fair and squarely. I won by running a good campaign, an honest campaign. They all knew about my past.
Do you have any legal remedies?
Oh, I don’t know. To be honest, that’s something we’ll explore when I get back.
One of the big knocks against you, in terms of your campaign spending, was that at the time you were tens of thousands of dollars behind on your child support obligations. You say this was all a misunderstanding. What’s the story?
I had an agreement with my wife that I would pay her—she had enough money to go throughout the campaign without me giving her any money—and that at the end, when everything was said and done, I’d cut her a check. Well, she got mad at me during the campaign, and, you know, filed the order [a lawsuit seeking the back-due child support]. My children have never wanted for anything. I’ve always been a good provider for my children. And, of course, had I decided to stay in [the race], that’s the first thing I would’ve rectified.
Did she warn you she was going to file?
No! No! I was shocked.
Some people have said that while, technically, you never lied about your past to the public, you didn’t disclose everything either.
Wait a second! You know what, I didn’t call [the media] up the night I won and say, “Hey, listen, here are more things about me.” I put it out there. They had the opportunity to dig back in March. They chose not to. They chose to after I won the election. So why couldn’t they dig back then when I told them, “This is what’s out there”?
But even some of your supporters, such as the aldermen Bernie Stone and Dick Mell, seemed taken aback by the disclosures. Did you talk to them about your past before they gave you their support?
Sure, sure. I mean, I don’t know if I ever went into it every detail by detail. Certainly they look at the type of person I am now, and I think that’s what surprised them—that I had this in my past.
Did you talk to any of the party leaders before you threw your hat into the ring?
We talked to some senators. I don’t remember exactly who they were. We did not speak to [U.S. senator Dick] Durbin. Although we did try to call him and the call was never returned. I spoke to Madigan when I first decided to run. We spoke to some state reps.
Did you talk to Governor Quinn?
You know what? I had seen him many times on the campaign trail, and we had spoken. I mean, he knew what my intentions were. He saw me out there at almost every spot he was at. His words were, you know: Just keep running. Keep going strong. Let the people see you.
Were you surprised at how quickly other Democrats turned on you?
Yes, I was very surprised. I was hurt. And looking at somebody like Alexi Giannoulias—I don’t think he’s anybody that should be pointing the finger at me. He has his own skeletons in his closet with his banking.
Are you still a Democrat?
Do you still feel connected to the party?
I never had a connection to the party. If I were connected to the party, then they would’ve stood beside me. I wouldn’t have run as a political outsider. So I was never really connected to the party.
Do you feel like you were ready to be, potentially, a heartbeat away from the governor’s office?
Let me tell you something: In 1997 I bought a building on Wabash Avenue. It was a 39,000-square-foot building. And it put me into financial distress. I came very close to losing everything I owned. Everything went into foreclosure. And if you look back over the records, you’ll see that there were many foreclosures on my home, on my businesses—very much the way the state is operating today. But you know what? I never filed for bankruptcy. I pulled myself out. Everybody got paid back, every dime. I never stiffed anybody for anything. And I did that by being creative, by using my business sense and my business experience. It mirrors what’s going on in the state. The state is not paying its bills. It has a $13-billion deficit. Do I believe that I was qualified and ready to take over for the governor if something were to happen to him? Absolutely.
What were the biggest lessons that you took away from all of this?
Well, I think there’re a couple of things. First of all, we don’t live in a democratic society. People’s votes don’t matter. The party, the career politicians, are afraid of an outsider.
Only how much of an effect my religion had on being part of the party. Listen, I’m Jewish. I’m only the third Jewish person to ever win the nomination for a statewide office. And I believe that that had some influence on the party not wanting me.
What gave you that impression?
The elected officials would never say that they don’t want me because I’m Jewish. But it did come up in chatter and in backroom meetings. And a lot of the papers kept using the word “pawnbroker.” You know, being a pawnbroker is predominantly a Jewish business. My opponents kept attacking, kept saying, “the millionaire pawnbroker,” which a lot of people took as saying, “the millionaire Jew.” Jewish people, you know, have been persecuted our whole existence, and again, this is 2010, and maybe I’m naive, but I don’t believe it was an issue with the people as much as it was with the party.
Clearly the voters didn’t think it was an issue; you won.
I won—211,000 votes.
Photograph by Tom Maday