On August 14, 2009 on a hot afternoon in Westbury, NY, I met with Jon Cooper who is the majority leader in the Suffolk County Legislature. At 54 years of age, he is the president and owner of Spectronics, Inc. He is, in addition, married to his partner of 29 years, Rob, and the father of 5 children ranging in age from the twin daughters who are 14 to their eldest son who is 24.
Jon Cooper has had a particularly interesting political life that got much more interesting when he was asked to join the team helping to raise money for then Senator Obama's run for the presidency. Much of what he learned while helping to elect Obama seems to be informing the "mulling" time he is putting in now: Whether to accept the risks and benefits of challenging Kirsten Gillibrand in the 2010 primary for the Democratic nomination for the US Senate. This seat was vacated by Hillary Rodham Clinton when she became Secretary of State in the Obama administration. Gillibrand had the unfortunate distinction of being elevated to Clinton's Senate seat by Governor Paterson, whose flips and starts over who should fill that seat made many New Yorkers uncomfortable. In addition, the fact that Paterson was not elected to his office (Governor Spitzer resigned over a sex scandal) has made the whole issue of the legitimacy of Gillibrand's Senate seat a question in the minds of many New Yorkers. Now Gillibrand is up for re-election and what had been a race against a possibility of 8 opponents has dwindled down very quickly. Partly that is due to the word out of the Democratic leadership that they do not want to drain resources in a race they think they can win easily if Gillibrand is not bruised in a primary fight.
I was curious to meet the man who is mulling a run against Gillibrand. Having read about him because of his consideration to perhaps run against the wishes of the Democratic leaderships and because he is an openly gay candidate, I made a date to talk with him and see what he might be bringing to the table.
Cooper likens this scenario to the advice given to Obama when he decided to go up against Clinton in the presidential contest. Why waste resources when it was thought that Clinton was the clear favorite and would win no matter who was up against her? But is Cooper's analysis of the situation on target? That of course is part of what he has to mull.
Part of what he is thinking is if someone whose legislative record is more progressive than Gillibrand's record challenges her what kinds of responses will she make to questions about how she came to her new positions. One could assume that because Gillibrand has now become a strong advocate of many of the same progressive policies that Cooper has fought for that we do not need another progressive challenging her.
This, therefore, is the way in which Jon Cooper is engaged in his mulling process. It is an interesting and well studied analysis. Cooper assures this interviewer that he has had a life long commitment to a number of progressive issues ranging from his support of labor to his stand on environmental issues to his concern about the health and well being of us all to his stand on civil rights issues especially as they apply to the LGBT community. However, as he said to me, "I am guided by what I believe in my heart is right. Not by political expediency." Then Cooper offers a variety of progressive stands and measures he has taken during his career as both a businessman and a legislator.
Beginning with his views on labor, Cooper says that his company has never laid off an employee. Even in these tough economic times, his company, Spectronics, Inc. has not laid anyone off. Pointing to the real problems with operating a manufacturing company on Long Island--the lack of affordable housing, high property taxes, high energy costs--this company begun by his father and uncle has been in business since 1955. They employ 150-200 workers and are a union shop and always have been (IBEW, Local 1922). He is also on a non-binding labor relations board (Long Island Jobs for Justice) where he says he may be the only member who is a business owner.
There is much to be said about a politician who prides himself on being a progressive and does not mind using that term in referring to his position on the issues. He is currently in the process in Suffolk County of trying to pass legislation that would ban the sale of e-cigarettes. His proposed legislation is drawing fire from those who would like to use this issue to keep him from being re-elected in November. Not unlike another of Cooper's signature pieces of legislation-- the ban on cell phones while driving--this ban on e-cigarettes is one of the first of its kind and will be copied by other municipalities just as the ban on cell phones while driving served as a model too.
Cooper easily talks about this mulling process. He raises his hands to show that at one point there were eight candidates lined up to run against Gillibrand. Now there is only Jonathan Tasini (who ran against Hillary Rodham Clinton before) and perhaps Jon Cooper.
He told me that he had spoken with Tasini about the race, and it appeared to Cooper that Tasini "has two issues, two good issues that he cares about--labor and single-payer health care--but . . " And he raises his hands again as if to say how much else needs to be done legislatively to help us all.
So where does this leave Jon Cooper? As he explained in the two hours we talked, it may boil down to these questions: How did Gillibrand make so many sharp left turns in her short tenure in the Senate? How did she go from being this lawyer who had defended Philip Morris, gotten a 100% approval rating from the NRA, been an advocate of cop killing bullets and assault weapons to now seeing the errors of her way? In fairness to the voters in New York State, it would be good to know.
Cooper further explains his thought process. He recounts why he supported Obama for the presidency. One of the issues he held against Senator Clinton was her vote in support of the Iraq war. Being a Democrat in New York State and not supporting her could have been political suicide and yet he is still in office. He helped to elect the president. In these very abnormal times in which we now live, Jon Cooper presents himself as a very normal guy--married to his partner of 29 years, the father of five children, the owner of a successful manufacturing business, a long-term member of the Suffolk County legislature. Yet that married man is gay, his children are all adopted, his business is located in one of the most difficult areas for manufacturing and he is now deeply involved with people all over New York State due to his work on the Obama campaign. This very ordinary, normal seeming guy is out of the norm. He forthrightly acknowledges that he is not willing or needing to bow to what is expedient or prudent in the going along to get along political scene. He is able and willing to buck the conventional wisdom and do the unexpected. And he seems to enjoy his entire life and puts it all out there with a puckish sense of humor and good will.
Will he run against Gillibrand and take a campaign to her that is about the issues and at least give her the opportunity to hone her campaigning skills state-wide? Will he buck the norm and become a loud and vocal leader for gay rights in the Senate, a body that could surely use such a leader? We will not know until he has finished the mull. Until then, he is certainly a Democratic politician worth keeping an eye on. We certainly could use more of his kind in the fray right now.