JONATHAN J. COOPER
John Cox, the Republican candidate for governor of California, had his political awakening in grade school.
His mother, a high school librarian, worked for incompetent principals in Chicago who got their jobs, Cox says, because they were politically connected. He could see her frustrations with bosses who demoralized her by stymieing efforts to start reading programs and other initiatives.
“That really soured me on politics,” Cox told The Associated Press. “I was idealistic. I wanted honesty. I hated corruption.”
The grievance against cronyism is one Cox has returned to time and again on the campaign trail for offices in his native Illinois and now California, where he faces long odds as a Republican in a state controlled by Democrats.
Cox, 63, has followed a crooked path to largely self-financed contender for governor of the most populous state, 2,000 miles from where he spent most of his life. He started out poor in a Chicago housing project and at one time made money with child modeling gigs. He paid his way through college to earn two degrees and became a multimillionaire while wearing different professional caps — accountant, lawyer, part-owner of a potato chip company, investment manager and real estate magnate before turning to politics.
His pitch to California voters is centered on using his business acumen to fix the state’s high cost of living, taxes and regulations, and opposition to a gas tax hike that went into effect last year. The state GOP is trying to repeal the hike through a November ballot initiative and hopes in the process to motivate Republican voters and attract independents to vote for Cox and others on the party ticket.
After initially distancing himself from Donald Trump, Cox has embraced the president during the campaign. He says he regrets not voting for him in 2016 and favorably compares their business backgrounds. An endorsement tweet from Trump before the June primary helped Cox consolidate support among Republicans and make it to the general election.
When asked, Cox says he’d welcome a campaign visit by Trump but quickly pivots to more comfortable ground, ticking off the panoply of challenges facing California — stable water supplies, homelessness and housing affordability.
Cox’s campaign has leaned on his humble background and business success.
“I didn’t have any billionaire that my parents knew that was ready to finance my lifestyle,” Cox said, taking a shot at his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. “I had to study, I had to work, I had to do it on my own.”
Growing up, Cox says he was a physically small kid who avoided conflicts with the bigger kids by helping them with their homework. His mother idolized John F. Kennedy and loved when her young son would dress in a shirt and tie and act out the president’s most famous lines. In high school, he played tennis and performed in plays.
In his 2006 book “Politics, Inc.,” Cox said he was conceived when his father “took advantage” of his mother and “it might have been an easy decision to terminate me” had abortion been legal in the 1950s. That thinking led to his staunch opposition to abortion under any condition, bolstered by a later conversion to Catholicism.
His father married his mother but left shortly after Cox was born, leaving her alone to raise him and his older brother. She later married a postal worker who was, according to Cox, “no help. He was not a very nice person.”
Cox majored in accounting at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a field he chose because his older brother said it would be in demand amid the shaky economy of the early 1970s. After graduation he worked as an accountant during the day and went to law school at night, earning a degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
He worked at a big accounting firm doing taxes for rich people and said his clients included comedian Dick Gregory and Olympic champion Jesse Owens. Seeing the tax loopholes secured by lobbyists further soured him on government and regulation, he said. And working with conservative accountants opened his eyes to new views after a childhood surrounded by Democrats.
Cox himself was a Democrat but switched parties and supported Jack Kemp for president in 1988. He likens himself to Kemp, a former NFL quarterback and so-called “bleeding-heart conservative” renowned for his magnanimity.
Cox’s business career started after he spent two years as the “lone conservative” at a prestigious Chicago law firm. He opened a law and accounting firm in 1981 and was hired to do legal and accounting work for the Japp family, owner of Jays Foods and maker of Jays potato chips, a powerhouse Midwestern brand.
In 1986 Cox helped the family sell the company for $30 million. Much of the money was entrusted to Cox to invest. Eight years after the sale, Jays Foods was bleeding money and Cox put together an investment group that included the Japp family to buy it back for $10 million. Cox assembled a management team and within a year the company went from a $17 million loss to a $3 million profit, he said.
However, his relationship with the Japps soured. The family sued him in 1996, alleging he mismanaged their investments and overbilled for legal and accounting work. As he battled the lawsuit, Cox filed for divorce from his wife of 20 years.
The case eventually settled. The terms were not disclosed but records from Cox’s divorce suggest he agreed to pay $1.7 million over seven years to buy out the family’s interests.
Cox later married his current wife, Sarah, bought a house in California in 2007 and moved to the state full time in 2011. They live in Rancho Santa Fe, an upscale community north of San Diego. Cox has three daughters from his first marriage and one from his second.
His income these days is largely passive, much of it from 23 apartment complexes with 2,615 units in Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Two of his regional property managers, Suzanne Hopson and Mary Pat Cooper, said Cox visits every property three or four times a year and makes a point of getting to know the staff. He’s known to call the leasing offices on Saturdays to check in on sales.
“He meets with every individual employee,” Hopson said. “He remembers their names. He remembers what’s going on with their family.”
Cox owns at least $3.35 million in stocks and bonds, and potentially much more, according to his candidate financial disclosures, which only require him to list the values in large ranges such as $100,001 to $1 million. He listed the value of most of his apartment complexes as $1 million or more.
For all his success in business, Cox has struggled in the political arena, losing every race he’s entered.
Starting in 2000, he ran for the U.S. House and twice for the U.S. Senate in Illinois but fell short in crowded Republican primaries. Illinois political operatives and some of Cox’s rival candidates said he ran energetic campaigns rooted in fiscal and social conservatism.
“He was a little, I thought, inexperienced at the time and credulous. He sort of believed the last person that told him something,” said Steve Rauschenberger, a former longtime Illinois GOP state senator who, along with Cox, ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2004.
But, Rauschenberger said, “John was a quick study. Conservative. Spoke pretty well.”
During a crowded televised debate during that race, Cox was paired with then-state Sen. Barack Obama to debate one-on-one about the Iraq war, which Cox supported and Obama opposed.
He and Obama would run for the same office four years later when both sought the U.S. presidency. Cox traveled frequently to early primary states hoping to register enough support that he could get into a Republican debate.
“We weren’t delusional,” said Dan Herren, who managed Cox’s presidential campaign. “We just knew at some point … if we were given a fair shake side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder with the other candidates, we could come out ahead and win.”
He never got on the debate stage and dropped out.
Associated Press writer Michael Tarm in Chicago and researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed.