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posted: 2/6/2010 12:01 AM

Pressure mounts on Cohen as questions go unanswered

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  • Scott Cohen

    Scott Cohen

By Timothy Magaw

Embattled Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Scott Lee Cohen told reporters Friday that if they wanted answers regarding his future they were welcome to meet him at a family gathering at a Chicago nightclub.

But by late evening, neither Cohen nor other guests had arrived, and the public was left to wonder how long he can stand up to the calls for his departure from the most powerful voices in his party.

Criticism of Cohen mounted throughout the day as more troubling details continued to emerge from the Chicago pawnbroker's past. A 2005 domestic battery charge, stemming from a fight with his then-girlfriend that allegedly resulted in Cohen threatening her with a knife, was the first glimpse into Cohen's past erratic behavior. The charge was later dropped.

Allegations of anabolic steroid use and other violent acts surfaced from his divorce file, only causing more headaches for the Democratic ticket.

While Democrats struggled with Cohen, Republican lieutenant governor nominee Jason Plummer was preparing to report to Naval Reserve service this weekend.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Springfield, weighed in, saying Cohen should spare himself, family and friends by getting out of the race, and Durbin urged the people that Cohen trusts politically to make that clear to him.

"Mr. Cohen is not going to be the lieutenant governor," said Durbin, who also criticized his own party and the media for not doing a better job vetting candidates before the election.

State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, has similarly called for Cohen to step aside.

But Cohen's brother Randy said his brother is being unfairly attacked.

"Scott Cohen is very smart and very underestimated. He wants to help people. Scott is a very honest person," he said.

Meanwhile, a Quinn campaign spokeswoman said the governor has not talked to Cohen, and there were no new developments Friday. A spokesman for House Speaker and Democratic Party Chairman Michael Madigan also said there was nothing new to report regarding Cohen and his presence on the statewide ticket.

Cohen's campaign office said he wasn't doing interviews or releasing any new statements. A campaign staffer did say Cohen would be partying with his brothers at the Vertigo Sky Lounge nightclub in downtown Chicago Friday night "trying to relax after a long week," if reporters wanted to talk to him. But by late evening, ABC7 news reported that none of the Cohens had arrived.

Little was widely known about Cohen's past before his Tuesday win, and many had dismissed him as a fringe candidate. Cohen, who is 44 and owns a South Side Chicago pawnshop, pumped millions of dollars of his own fortune into his campaign, going straight to the voters with direct mailings and large billboards.

Cohen is still trying to appeal directly to Illinoisans, insisting he has done nothing wrong and that he is now a "different person" than the man described in court documents five years ago. He says details of a troubled time in his life are being exaggerated, saying he never touched his ex-girlfriend and did not know she had been charged with prostitution.

However, court and police record show that he and the girlfriend, now 29, were living together in his Gold Coast home just days before she pleaded guilty to prostitution on charges from a Glenview massage parlor where she had worked.

And his ex-wife, Debra Cohen, stood up in his defense Thursday, to agree he was a different man in 2005 than he is today. She did not deny, however, statements in divorce records that indicate she received a restraining order against him because she and their children were afraid of his sudden fits of rage caused by steroid use.

So far, Cohen has said he has no plans to step away from the nomination he won.

One of the state's leading groups on combating violence against women isn't convinced by Cohen's explanations of past behavior.

Vickie Smith, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said Cohen's excuses are "things we've heard for decades of why men use violence against their partners."

"It's not just about him. It's about the behavior and this continued acceptance of excuses and reasons," she said. "We have to stop making excuses for this kind of behavior."

Cohen took over his father's pawnshop when his father died while he was in high school.

David Shane, president of the Illinois Pawnbrokers Association, said Cohen was a member in good standing and pays his dues.

"I'm not aware of him having any issues with his pawnshop," Shane said. "His personal life is his personal life. Some of us have more than one business we're involved in. He's chosen to go into politics, and that is fine."

Cohen has never held elected office, but got into politics after forming an activist group, Rod Must Resign, to get rid of scandal-plagued former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Cohen, who owns a South Side pawnshop, has said he is working on getting his bachelor's degree from DePaul University. A university spokesman confirmed Cohen was a student but said he hasn't taken a class since last summer. Cohen, however, is still enrolled in DePaul's School for New Learning, which is a program designed for adult learners.

If Cohen does indeed decide to resign, state party leaders would decide who to replace him with. But if he does not, Durbin and others say Quinn can consider the possibility of running without him by leaving the Democratic Party.

It's happened before. In 1986, Democrat Adlai Stevenson III created the Illinois Solidarity Party to avoid running with a lieutenant governor candidate who was a follower of frequent presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche. Stevenson lost to Republican Gov. Jim Thompson.

Daily Herald staff writers Ted Cox and Robert McCoppin and Daily Herald wire services contributed to this report.