SOUTH PORTLAND — Linda Cohen has seen up close how the gears of municipal government grind.

In 21 years as a city clerk, first in South Portland, then in Portland, Cohen did what she could to make sure the sausage-making, as some people describe it, went smoothly.

Often no one noticed. When she slipped a note to the mayor suggesting an appropriate motion during a heated public meeting. When she untangled vital city records that had been mishandled for years. And when she forged ahead with planning a city election as her elderly mother lay dying.

“That’s what she would have wanted me to do,” Cohen said. “When I was a kid, she always said, ‘Unless you’re dying, you will go to school.’ So I went to work each day and stayed with her each night until she passed.”

As incoming mayor of Maine’s fourth-largest city, Cohen brings to the job uncommon experience as a former city clerk who won awards for her integrity and professionalism, and as a community leader who is now president of the South Portland/Cape Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce. Elected mayor by her fellow city councilors, she’ll be sworn in at 4 p.m. Monday at City Hall.

As a single mother who was raised by a single mother, Cohen also has a personal understanding of poverty and other challenges that face many of us. And she promises to bring it all to bear as she embarks on a year-long post with a desire to restore trust in government.

Ed Suslovic, a Portland city councilor, said Cohen is ideally suited to be mayor. He was mayor of Maine’s largest city for a year when Cohen worked there.

“Linda will be a phenomenal mayor,” Suslovic said, noting that Cohen is respected statewide as a former leader of the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association and as a clerk who exemplified the highest standards in offering quality customer service and promoting the democratic process.

Suslovic described Cohen as a stickler for following the rules and promoting public engagement. At the same time, she was a friendly boss and a gentle teacher for councilors unschooled in Robert’s Rules of Order.

“Left to our own devices, we probably wouldn’t get it right,” Suslovic said. “She knew it was important for the public to be heard and be able to follow what was going on at our meetings. She understood that a poorly run meeting doesn’t inspire confidence in city government or the officials running it. And she was aware that, for many people, the clerk’s office is their only interaction with City Hall, so one negative experience can color their view of city government.”

GROWING UP POOR IN PORTLAND

Cohen, 59, grew up in Portland, first in a two-bedroom apartment on Market Street in the Old Port, “before the Old Port was chic.” When she was about 9 years old, her mother, Kate Fraley, moved Linda and two of her siblings to outer Congress Street, at the corner of Douglass, in the Libbytown neighborhood.

Her mother was a Southern Baptist from Virginia and her father was a Jewish salesman from Massachusetts, so Cohen’s religious influences were varied in her youth. “I even went to Mass with my Catholic friends at St. Patrick’s Church,” she said.

Her mother worked hard, first as a waitress, then as a stock clerk at the Mammoth Mart. She typically got laid off after Christmas and had to draw unemployment benefits for a while. The family depended on government cheese and other public assistance to get by.

Cohen said she and her mother were close, but their relationship was often complicated by her mother’s struggle with alcohol. Still, she admired her mother as an independent spirit and a creative homemaker who sewed her own drapes and inspired her daughter to excel.

“My mom always said, ‘You can be whatever you want to be, but you have to work for it,’ ” Cohen said. “I still hear her voice when I’m trying to fix something around the house. ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way.’ ”

Kate Fraley also instilled in her daughter a personal pride that Cohen carries with her today, expressing it with an impeccable sense of style and a gracious manner.

“People always said my mother had class,” Cohen said. “No matter how poor we were, we always had that.”

After Cohen graduated from high school, she got an associate degree in law enforcement from the former Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute. An internship with the South Portland Police Department changed her career plans.

“For one thing, I didn’t want to be riding around in a cruiser at 3 a.m.,” Cohen said. “And I was discouraged by the lack of respect that police officers were shown at the time.”

BUCKLING DOWN, HAVING A BABY

Cohen enrolled at the University of Southern Maine and tried to continue her education but dropped out twice, distracted by youthful diversions. Finally, she decided to buckle down and get a business degree. By that time, she was pregnant with her daughter, April, who’s now 34.

“I wanted him or her to be able to look up to me and be proud of me,” Cohen recalled.

But Cohen needed help if she was going to raise a child and go back to school full time. So she left her job as a secretary in a real estate office, signed up for family assistance and subsidized housing, and eventually enrolled April in a Head Start program.

Cohen said the experiences of rising above poverty and helping a brother who was homeless and battled substance abuse inform both her understanding of community and the decisions she makes as a city leader.

“I don’t ever want to forget those things because then I wouldn’t be a good councilor or a good person,” Cohen said. “All those things make me who I am today.”

With a bachelor’s degree from USM, Cohen got a job in South Portland’s code enforcement office. Soon she was taking minutes at City Council meetings and then moved into the assessor’s office. Two years after graduating from college, she became the city clerk.

Cohen decided to run for the City Council after leaving the Portland city clerk’s job in 2011 to sell real estate with her daughter. More recently she has worked as a loan officer at PMAC Lending Services and as development director at Learning Works, both in Portland. On Dec. 22 she starts a new job as branch manager of the Bangor Savings Bank in the Mill Creek Shopping Plaza.

GIVING BACK THROUGH SERVICE

Cohen was elected in November 2012 to a three-year term on the council, fulfilling a long-term goal to help lead the city that has been her home for 38 years. With her in-depth knowledge of city government, the council elected her to be mayor after just two years.

“I always felt I wanted to give back to this community by serving on the City Council,” Cohen said.

Cohen said she hopes to be a cheerleader for all the good things that are happening in the city, a calming influence in the face of controversy or tragedy, and a problem-solver when dealing with the everyday challenges of leading a municipality.

In her inaugural speech Monday, Cohen plans to talk about improving communication between City Hall and the citizenry, especially in notifying neighborhoods and interest groups about upcoming issues that will affect them.

“There’s so much distrust of public officials now at every level,” Cohen said. “I want to restore some of that trust.”

She said advanced notice will be particularly important in the months ahead, when she anticipates city officials may face tough budget decisions as a result of actions taken in Augusta. Because while South Portland has one of the strongest business tax bases in the state, she said, it also has residents and business owners who cannot afford to pay higher property taxes.

“The more you prepare people, the better off you are,” Cohen said. “I think we need to be open-minded and listen to people. The council will have to work well together, focus on collaboration and reach out to our regional partners.”