John Cook knows he has a tough task ahead of him.
He’s a Democrat, running for office in Texas, where a Democrat hasn’t won a statewide election in 20 years.
He’s running for one of those down-ballot offices – Texas land commissioner – that doesn’t get the kind of attention showered on the high-profile races like governor and lieutenant governor.
And to top it off, his opponent’s name is Bush.
The Republican nominee for land commissioner is George P. Bush – nephew, grandson and namesake of two U.S. presidents.
But Cook is convinced he’s the best man for the job, and his resum is impressive.
A native of Brooklyn, he came to Texas in 1967 courtesy of the U.S. Army. He’s a Vietnam combat veteran and a seasoned businessman who retired after 25 years of setting up facilities and networks for the company that became Southwestern Bell.
He ran for and won a seat on the El Paso City Council, then ran for mayor and won, leading Texas’ sixth-largest city for eight years.
He was president of the Rio Grande Council of Governments and the Texas Municipal League, and he co-founded and serves as volunteer executive director of the 37-member U.S.-Mexico Border Mayors Association, advising the administration on border issues.
His record of political involvement goes back to 1963, when as a high school senior he joined the march on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He has volunteered with nonprofits, taught public school and helped launch a successful eggroll company.
He was mayor of El Paso when the city got into a battle with the Texas General Land Office over a mining operation the state had issued a permit for – next door to a state park and a 2,000-acre master-planned community.
After he testified against the permit before a Senate committee, Cook said Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson told him, “If you don’t like it, run for Texas land commissioner.”
So he did.
Patterson ran for lieutenant governor and did not make the runoff in a five-person race, leaving the slot wide open.
Nevertheless Cook, who stopped by Decatur Wednesday evening on his “F-150 Tour” of Texas, knows he is facing an uphill battle.
“My opponent has very little business experience and very little political experience, other than he comes from a political family,” Cook said. “He’s never worked in a large organization in his life.”
Cook pointed out that when he was mayor, El Paso had 6,200 employees, including 2,200 police officers and 875 firefighters.
Noting that Bush bills himself as “pro-life, pro-gun and pro-energy independence,” Cook laughed.
“I have six children, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, so I must be the procreation candidate,” he said.
“Honestly, I’d prefer we just stick to the issues about the land office, how you work in a big bureaucracy and get things done, and what the responsibilities of the office are.”
Cook’s campaign slogan is “Not just a name – real experience.”
“This is an extremely important office to the people of Texas,” he said. “It’s not a place for somebody to learn how to do stuff.”
Cook noted one of the primary jobs of the General Land Office is administering an array of veterans’ programs – including nursing homes, a land-purchase loan program and four state veterans’ cemeteries.
“My dad was a World War II veteran, and I have a son who just retired after 25 years in the Air Force,” he said. “We have a proud tradition in our family of military service, and I’m very passionate about how we treat our veterans and the veterans’ programs.”
The land commissioner’s job description also includes maximizing income from Texas’ public lands, funneling that money into the multi-billion-dollar Permanent School Fund for K-12 education and the Permanent University Fund for state-supported colleges.
“I’m also very passionate about funding public education so our kids can compete in a global environment,” he said. “Funding universities, funding public education is, absolutely, a good cause – and part of the fiduciary responsibility of the commissioner is to maximize the revenues on it.
“But he also has to do it in an environmentally conscious manner. I’m an environmentalist at heart.”
That leads into Cook’s third passion.
“I’m very passionate about our environment and the state of Texas we end up leaving to our children and grandchildren,” he said. “If I’m elected Texas land commissioner, I’m going to make sure we’re good stewards of the land and that we leave a clean Texas to our children and grandchildren.”
Cook notes that aside from himself and a former city staffer who volunteered, his campaign staff consists of his wife, a granddaughter who just graduated from Texas A&M and a grandson who just finished his freshman year in high school.
“One thing I’m not going to have people do is say the reason you didn’t win is that you didn’t work hard or you gave up,” he said. “I’m not going to give up. I will stand my ground. I’m never going to back down.”
In his 2005 run for mayor, he and his wife knocked on 7,132 doors. He’s approaching the Texas land commissioner race with the same plan – and has already put 10,500 miles on that truck, visiting more than 100 of Texas’ 254 counties.
“Anytime I can talk to five or six Democrats in a Republican county, I’ll go,” he said.
Republican counties are easy to find. Democratic voters? He’ll find out when we all do – on Nov. 4.