SPRINGFIELD - Consumers have a new advocate in Illinois, but the man in the job already knows a thing or two about the topic.
After failing to get Senate approval for his nomination to chair the Illinois Commerce Commission over fears that he would be biased against business, Martin Cohen is settling into his new job as the state's director of consumer affairs.
"I'm working hard every day and there's a lot to be done," said Cohen, a 54-year-old Chicago resident.
Critics say his $112,000-a-year post was created as a favor from Gov. Rod Blagojevich after the Senate scuttled Cohen's ICC appointment. But Cohen doesn't see it that way.
"I don't think that's true at all," said Cohen, who started the job three weeks ago. "The governor owes the people of Illinois good government and I'm pleased to be part of that. He certainly doesn't owe me anything."
Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, R-Greenville, has a different way of looking at the Chicago Democrat's decision to hire Cohen.
"The administration hung him out to dry and I think that was unfortunate. Now maybe this is kind of a quid pro quo," Watson said. "We're in a budget crisis, and have been for a very long time, since 9/11, and to create a new position of this magnitude isn't really being fiscally responsible."
The position also appears to mirror someone else's job responsibilities. The Illinois attorney general usually is seen as the consumer advocate among the state's constitutional officers, not the governor.
Melissa Merz, spokeswoman for Attorney General Lisa Madigan defended the new post.
"It's a very, very different job," Merz said. "His is a policy job, and policy is part of what we do, but we prosecute, we legislate, we litigate."
Cohen hasn't worked with anyone in Madigan's office yet, Merz said.
"I have a long relationship with the attorney general and many people on her staff and we're going to work collaboratively whenever possible," Cohen said. "My new job is complementary to the work of the attorney general's office on consumer protection."
As the former executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, Cohen dealt with consumer issues all the time " but his focus primarily was limited to electric rates and telecommunications.
"This new position gives me an opportunity to advocate for consumers on a range of issues," Cohen said. "That's exciting to me."
Right now the hot topic for Cohen is telephone records.
He said he would like to see legislation protecting the privacy of cell phone records get through the General Assembly this spring. The issue became a hot topic after a recent report in the Chicago Sun Times showed that personal cell phone records could be bought off the Internet.
At CUB Cohen testified before committees and worked with many legislators.
"I know how things work in Springfield, so that's certainly helpful experience to have," Cohen said.
Although his office is based in Chicago, Cohen said he would be visiting the capital and other parts of Illinois regularly.
"I'm in Springfield, as many people on the governor's staff are, whenever we need to be," Cohen said.
Working on the governor's staff, in Springfield or Chicago, means the job depends on the boss getting re-elected.
"There's always a risk in any position that you take," Cohen said. "That's not something that I can worry about. I don't do politics at all and neither does anybody here that I work with. So whether there's a second term or not our work is cut out for us and will be very demanding for the next year."