Mind Your Own Business

When Multnomah County Commissioner Jeff Cogen’s two-year relationship with Sonia Manhas became publicly known recently, it was astonishing to see the public immediately go on a vicious attack. Cogen, a once respected politician who had served Portland’s community of low-income and under-served populations had been attacked and called all manner of horrible names on various Internet chat rooms, falling from grace to become the city’s number one pariah.

What I find so interesting is the manner in which Americans consider infidelity conducted by an elected official to be the most unforgivable sin. Often, if the person accused is not willing to withstand a media firestorm (like that of Mayor Sam Adams’s scandal with Beau Breedlove), they will agree to resign in order to lesson the scandal and shame that their conduct has brought upon their office, and their family.

We Americans like to consider ourselves independent in the manner that we approach sex and intimate relationships. Should an elected official’s career be doomed if they engage in a sexual relationship outside of marriage?

Cogen has stated repeatedly that he did nothing improper with regard to his position as the county chair and that his relationship with Manhas did not affect county business. “My personal private relationship with her was inappropriate, but it didn’t cross over into helping her in an inappropriate way at work.” What reason do we have to doubt him?

Has Cogen ever demonstrated that he had anything but the best interests of Portland Oregon in mind during his time on the Multnomah County Board of commissioners? Does he or has he ever had a history of any manner of wrongdoing? From my research it seems that he has not done anything immoral or dishonest, and certainly not with regard to his professional conduct as an elected official and leader.

During Cogen’s tenure in his position, he has overseen the following efforts: The opening of the Gateway Center for Domestic Violence Services, created in 2010. This agency offers on-site services to women and children affected by domestic violence and helps with crisis and safety planning, access to specially trained police officers, restraining order applications, prosecution services and support, civil legal assistance, along with offering children and teen support services. This program represents a vitally important part of Portland’s commitment to helping those in crisis and was clearly a priority of Cogen because of the serious issues with domestic violence Portland struggles with, that affect the most vulnerable, being low-income women with young children.

Cogen also helped with the creation of CROPS Farm, which is two acres of county owned land that is used to grow fresh produce for the Oregon Food Bank.  This farm supplements the Oregon Food Bank with produce, which is often the one thing low income families are deprived of, due to the increased cost of fresh produce. If we want low-income children to do well and flourish, shouldn’t they have access to produce as well?

Cogen was instrumental in opening the Mental Health Crisis Assessment center (CATC) in June of 2011. The center which is located at 55 NE Grand Ave in Portland is a 16-bed facility which serves homeless and severely low-income persons experiencing mental health crises. They are then guided to other long term services, for instance, finding access to better housing, treatment, education and/or job training.

Jeff Cogen was a committed and dedicated pubic servant with compassion for those less fortunate. He was also a creative leader who brought original and effective ideas to make Portland a better place, especially its under-served populations. And by virtue of one extramarital affair, all the good he helped accomplish for this city seems to have been suddenly forgotten.

It seems to me that in Portland’s case, Jeff Cogen never demonstrated he was anything other than truthful, engaged, and compassionate in his role as a county commissioner. And its clear he’s done a great deal to make Portland a place where the needs of at-risk persons are a priority. Despite his resignation, the city of Portland will enjoy the changes he helped facilitate and the ways in which he’s improved the lives of low income people for years to come.

But what does the vitriol directed toward Cogen in the aftermath of this scandal say about Americans as a whole? The fact is, more than half the population of Americans, both male and female, engage in extramarital sexual affairs, and 51% of all marriages end in divorce. The hypocrisy I see in the vicious treatment of Jeff Cogen, is that so many of the same people who have attacked him, have committed the very same errors in judgment and are certainly no better or no different.

The preoccupation in all matters sexual, within the lives of our elected officials, is another way in which Americans demonstrate their pathology, with regard to sex, its expression, and the unconscious social mores we demonstrate through our thoughts, actions and comments. The Jeff Cogen “sex scandal” is a perfect illustration of this dynamic.

When the public decides the private sexual lives of its elected officials are their business, one can also expect to lose some skilled policy-makers who, by virtue of their education, drive, and commitment, could do some wonderful things to improve the lives of at-risk persons. In Portland, we lost a dedicated advocate for the poor and the mentally ill because our culture believes it has the collective right to dissect its leaders private lives. I disagree with this decision wholeheartedly.

In losing Jeff Cogen as a civil servant, Portland has lost a talented and dedicated leader. Our city and our nation must reevaluate its idea of what constitutes morality, and just how far we can tread into the private lives of others, elected officials or not.

2 thoughts on “Mind Your Own Business

  1. You’re making a good point, and it’s important to adress the issue, but we must not forget that, as a politician/civil servant you are constantly in the spotlights, something you must not forget when taking up the job.This way you just can’t act the very same way the “normal” people do, you simply have an extra obligation. Of course it’s a shame to lose a good and dedicated leader, but he must have been aware of what would happen if his affaire became public. As a people’s leader, whether that’s for a city or a whole country, you bear that responsibility of being the representitive of all the people living under your wing: a personal fellony like infidelity hurts your reputation and your credibility as a representitive.

    Either way, I agree that it is ridiculous how media interferes with people’s privacy and it is an important and interesting question how far the media should be allowed to go.


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