Eternal optimist: John Cox, distruster of politicians, keeps bidding to become one
ne month out from the Illinois primary, GOP Congressman John Porter decided something needed to be done about an upstart candidate named John Cox.
It was early 2000 and Porter, a moderate, had opted not to seek re-election in his suburban Chicago district. Cox, a little-known millionaire with the backing of many North Shore anti-abortion advocates, was coming on strong in the polls. With the vote liable to split unpredictably across 11 candidates, Cox could win the primary. But Porter was convinced he would lose in the general.
Cox “was a pretty conservative guy and didn’t seem appropriate for my district,” said Porter, who now works for a London-based law firm. So he reneged on a pledge not to get involved and endorsed his former chief of staff, moderate Mark Kirk, who won.
For Porter, it was the smart political move. But as Cox saw it, this was the corrupt political machine turning against him. The takeaway was clear, Cox would later write in his book Politic$, Inc.: “Never trust any politician.”
Even so, John Cox spent the next two decades trying to become one.
In nearly a half-dozen campaigns for Congress, U.S. Senate and yes, even the presidency, Cox has embraced the persona of the anti-politician assailing a corrupt establishment. The strategy hasn’t worked yet. But as he seeks to become governor of California, the 63-year-old lawyer, accountant and investment manager is hoping 2018 will be different.
It’s his most successful electoral gambit to date. Before the June primary, Cox, a businessman from tony Rancho Sante Fe, snagged the endorsement of his career—the occupant of the White House. Surprising, given that Cox voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson, not Donald Trump, a man who rarely overlooks a slight. (Cox has since said he regrets doubting Trump and has been “pleasantly surprised by our president.”) Likely the president was swayed by congressional Republicans, who coalesced around Cox believing that he had a better shot at making it onto the general election ballot than his more Trumpian Republican rival. It would be difficult for any Republican to win the governor’s seat in November, the thinking went, but at least Cox would gin up turnout for endangered GOP members of Congress in California.
So unlike prior campaigns, where he’s often brought up the rear, Cox emerged as one of the top two finalists and now faces Democrat Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who from resume to hairdo looks every bit the consummate politician.
In short, Cox has finally become a serious contender. Maybe.
His new success speaks as much to the diminishment of the state Republican party as anything, said Dan Schnur, a former GOP consultant and University of Southern California professor.
“It’s not John Cox’s fault that the California Republican bench is so empty, but he certainly took advantage of the opportunity that the party’s plight presented,” he said.
Trim and tan with a shock of white hair and Barry Goldwater thick-rimmed glasses, Cox is earnest and Midwest Nice, if periodically exasperated that not everyone sees the world as he does. Above all, he’s strikingly optimistic—the kind of optimism you would expect of a working-class kid-turned-millionaire, of a Democrat-turned-Reagan Republican, and of anyone who hopes to be California’s first Republican governor in over a decade. To be sure, he faces long odds. But Cox has faced longer odds than these.
ou can learn a lot about him from the anecdotes and quips he’s been honing on the stump over the last 18 years.
There’s the one about how politicians are deceptive: “There’s a whole series of fairy tales, and they begin with, `If elected, I promise…’”
Or the line about education reform: “I want to see teachers paid like rock stars and baseball players—based on how well they do.”
And his biographical note: “If abortion had been legal in 1955, I wouldn’t be standing here.”
Instead, Cox was born on the south side of Chicago, as the candidate often mentions to underscore his hardscrabble roots. His biological father abandoned the family months after his birth. When he was 3, Cox’s mother, a Jewish, Kennedy-loving public school employee with a degree from UC Berkeley, moved to Chicago’s working-class suburbs south of the city. Cox took his stepfather’s last name.
In high school, his lengthy list of extracurriculars befit a kid who might one day run for office: president of speech club and in the thespian society, and on the basketball and football teams—not a player but as team manager. He did play on the tennis team, later teaching lessons to pay for college.
Steve Bithos, now a pastor in the Greek Orthodox Church in Illinois, was a tennis teammate and a friend of Cox’s. Like other classmates, he remembers him as smart and good-natured, but direct.
“He would tell you if he was upset with something or if he agreed with you or didn’t agree with you,” he said. Bithos also recalls that Cox was bullied in school, something the candidate has spoken about.
“He was tiny and he looked very young,” said Bithos.
Cox went on to earn a political science degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago (Another favorite zinger: He graduated in two and a half years, he says, “because I was paying for it….All of my daughters who went to college took five years because I was paying for it.”)
He was a liberal through the mid-1970s, running to be a delegate for President Jimmy Carter. He attributes his GOP conversion to Ronald Reagan and conservative economists at the University of Chicago across town. But he also points to his own professional experience. By the end of the decade, Cox had a law degree and started his own tax advising and legal practice helping businesses wrangle regulations and navigate a labyrinthine tax code. With Reagan in the White House, Cox became a true believer.
Around this time he married his first wife and joined her church. He remains a Catholic today and cites his faith when discussing his opposition to both abortion and the death penalty. (Two decades and three children later, that marriage, he said, ended in an annulment. He married his current wife, Sarah, in 2002; they have a daughter.)
In 1988, Cox joined the presidential steering committee of New York Republican Rep. Jack Kemp, a former pro football player who became one of the county’s eminent proponents of supply-side economics. To this day, Cox describes himself as a “Kemp Republican”—to the bewilderment of anyone too young to have followed politics in the late 1980s.
“Self-reliance, personal responsibility, lower tax rates and (a) ‘rising tide lifting all boats” is how Cox described the philosophy in his book.
Cox’s own boat was certainly rising. In 1994, he helped his clients, the Chicago-based Japp family, reacquire their family potato chip company, Jays Foods, and manage it back into profitability. He cites it on the campaign trail: It’s the story of a turnaround artist, the likes of which Illinois, the United States and California so desperately need.
But as the Los Angeles Times reported, Cox paid a $1.7 million settlement to the Japps for alleged self-dealing while working as their advisor. Cox described it as a “frivolous lawsuit” that he settled to rid himself of the legal trouble.
When he ran for Congress in 2000 and for U.S. Senate the next election, the reaction of Illinois’s Republican establishment was mixed. Former Cook County GOP chair Chris Robling described Cox as “independent, single-minded, maybe kind of iconoclastic.”
“He wasn’t exactly warm and cuddly with folks who disagreed with him,” said Robling. “I think he saw things very clearly, and I think he was frustrated with the milquetoast variety of Republicanism.”
“In a political party there’s always a certain amount of dissembling going on,” said Stephen Boulton, a Chicago lawyer who has represented the Cook County Republican Party. “John was always seen as a person who was very straightforward.”
Cox also began hosting a twice-a-week AM radio show—championing capitalism alongside guests like conservative activists Phyllis Schlafly and Grover Norquist, National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre and right-wing rock musician Ted Nugent.
In 2004, Cox once again ran for the U.S. Senate, a race eventually won by a state senator named Barack Obama. Later Cox ran for the more modest position of Cook County Recorder of Deeds, and lost.
“One might say he was impulsive. ‘I’m going to run for Congress! I’m going to run for Senate!’ ” said Robling. “Why don’t you take on some thankless task that will get your name around?”
Whenever Cox is asked some version of this question—Why not start with something a little less ambitious?—he simply replies that he doesn’t want a career in politics and therefore doesn’t have time to work his way up.
Evidently not. In 2006, he filed papers to run for president of the United States—the election from which his old opponent Obama would emerge victorious.
Steve Kush, a GOP political consultant and talk radio host, briefly managed Cox’s campaign. He also described Cox as unusually bright, a hard worker and “an incredibly sensible guy.” But the odds were not lost on Kush.
“You have some long-shot candidates in every presidential cycle and, you know what, they serve a purpose,” he said. “They hold the feet of the big money guys to the fire.”
But according to Kush, Cox didn’t see it that way: “You don’t spend millions of your own dollars to not believe you can catch fire.”
How does “an incredibly sensible guy” come to the conclusion that he ought to run for president despite having absolutely no national name ID?
A profile in the conservative Weekly Standard summed up that conundrum in a piece titled “The Sane Fringe Candidate.” It described Cox in sympathetic, if condescending, terms, laboring “under the mistaken impression that presidential campaigns are about ideas”—a serious man trying in vain to be taken seriously.
“I don’t think he was happy with that headline, said Kush. “But it was true, he was the sane—I would have preferred lower-tiered—candidate.”
In a speech to the Iowa GOP a few months after coming last in the state’s straw poll, he blamed his failure on the media.
“The money-makers, the pundits, the Beltway consultants, they join the celebrity candidates, they join the career politicians, they report on the wealthy and the already well known,” he fumed at the Republicans gathered to eat dinner. Recalling how he had been denied access to many televised debates, he asked: “How do you get name recognition if you’re not in the debates? Somebody answer that question for me.”
ox bought a house in California, nestling into a Republican enclave north of San Diego, where he set about boosting his name recognition in other ways. In 2011 he began funding bold initiatives that garnered him intermittent, if bemused, coverage. It also put him in the odd position of having to repeatedly insist he wasn’t a lunatic.
Take the neighborhood legislature ballot measure, which Cox floated four times as the solution to the corrupting influence of political donations. His proposal: Divvy up the state into thousands of pint-sized districts, ballooning the number of elected state legislators from 120 to roughly 12,000.
“I’m a voice in the wilderness, maybe,” Cox said in 2012, explaining the idea. “I’m no nut case.”
Or there’s the “California is Not for Sale” proposal, which would have forced legislators on the Senate and Assembly floor to wear clothing emblazoned with the logos of their top funders—Nascar-style.
“This is a very serious initiative,” he said about that one. “This is not a joke.”
In his current bid for governor, Cox has reigned in his more eccentric ideas.
To be sure, he has flirted with the idea of abolishing the state income tax, supports education vouchers and endorses Trump’s Mexican border wall—positions out-of-step with the majority of Californians.
But he has more tightly tethered his campaign message to Proposition 6, the effort to repeal last year’s increase in the gas tax, which like Cox is polling only in the high 30s. And he’s advocated reducing government “waste” and reforming the DMV.
Here’s John Cox at the Department of Motor Vehicles office in San Diego, then Sacramento, then in Long Beach. He’s shaking hands, passing out cold bottles of water, and kvetching with those waiting in line about the shameful inefficiency of government bureaucracy. When Gov. Brown ordered an audit into the DMV a few months later, Cox is able to take credit for drawing attention to the issue.
As campaign stops go, it’s peak John Cox: a little bit cheeky, designed to draw attention to public sector waste, and lacking the polish of a more professional politician. In August, he was recorded relaying a story about a Holocaust survivor who told him that the DMV wait lines were worse than concentration camps. As Cox would later say, he misspoke. But needless to say, the last thing an underdog candidate needs is a Holocaust-themed gaffe.
Still Cox is sticking with his campaign hashtag “#InItToWinIt” and insisting he can and will be the person to fix California. And in the words of Steve Kush, his presidential campaign manager, he’s still hoping to “catch fire.” Cox has donated $5.7 million to his own gubernatorial campaign, a little bit less than half of his total haul.
“There’s a lot of mismanagement and a lot of improvements I can make,” Cox told CALmatters. “I’m gonna have fun turning around this state because we call it low hanging fruit in the business world. There’s a lot of low hanging fruit in this state to improve, and I’m looking forward to building a team of business people like myself that will come in the government and re-engineer it and reinvent it.”
Such poll-defying hopefulness is vintage Cox. But his projection is not shared by many, even in his party.
“Any Republican running for governor of California has to know he’s likely going to lose,” said Jason Roe, a GOP political consultant in San Diego. But then again, he said, stating the obvious, Cox “isn’t dissuaded by what the conventional wisdom is.”
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