Peter Cooke says his years in the military have taught him a thing or two about leadership and duty.
And it was a sense of duty and a concern about the future of the state that drove the retired two-star general to take on the Herculean task of running for Utah governor.
“I’ve had this obligation of service for so many years in the military, and I felt like we were giving up on having this two-party system,” Cooke said in a recent interview while out on the campaign trail.
But Cooke said he may have underestimated what he was up against when he decided to take on Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.
Herbert — who inherited the office in 2009 when Jon Huntsman left to be the U.S. ambassador to China and rolled to a 32-point election victory in 2010 — has an overwhelming fundraising advantage and a comfortable lead in recent polls.
Herbert attributes his success in the campaign to his success as governor.
“Frankly in every measurable way, think about it, every measurable way it’s hard to find that we haven’t had positive movement,” he said. “On the economy, on infrastructure, on water conservation, on education — which is a big deal, on efficiencies in state government, we’re leading the nation in virtually every category.”
Warning signs • Cooke is less rosy on Utah’s future. Education spending continues to be last-in-the-nation and shows no signs of improving. Without a skilled workforce, he argues, the economy will not grow and Utah’s historically poor wages will remain low.
He is concerned the state has borrowed too much — owing about $3.5 billion — and the state’s economic development focus on luring big out-of-state businesses is crowding out Utah’s homegrown small companies and he believes Hill Air Force Base could be on the chopping block.
Through the course of the campaign, Cooke says, he has become convinced that the state’s problems are even more daunting.
“This education issue is a lot bigger problem than I thought it was with no clear solution,” he said. Visiting rural towns has also heightened his concern about economic development in areas where unemployment is still in the double digits and he sees hope fading. “Now I’m really concerned about the future.”
Spreading that message with a shoestring budget has been a challenge. Television ads, produced by volunteers, are scarce. He has called regular news conferences to lay out his positions and pressed his case against the governor in the few debates with Herbert.
But he has largely been forced to turn to retail politicking, as he did on a recent trip to Magna, speaking to the city’s chamber of commerce and then trolling up and down the nearly deserted Main Street, shaking hands and introducing himself to anyone who would listen.
He bounds into Bill’s Lounge, introducing himself with a booming confidence — “Hi, I’m Peter Cooke, I’m running for governor” — to the half-dozen midafternoon bar patrons gathered around the dimly lit bar.
He shakes hands, politely declines their offer of a beer on the house, but asks for their vote in November, instead.
Kelly Brown, a patron at Bill’s, saw Cooke on television and is sold.
“He’s served in the military and he has had his own business and everything. He knows the facts and he knows what’s going on,” said Brown. “I’m definitely on board.”
Next stop: The Veterans of Foreign Wars outpost with a sign on the door that says it’s closed, but Cooke goes in anyway. “I’m a general,” he said. One of his assignments in the Army Reserve was to try to maintain morale and ease the stress on the stretched reservists. “I lost more men to suicide than I did to combat,” he says on the way out.
Road to politics • Cooke joined the Army Reserve while at Utah State University, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. He served in the Reserves for 39 years before retiring as commanding general of the 96th Regional Readiness Command, which oversees reservists in seven states.
He worked in Washington as a staffer for Democratic U.S. Sen. Frank Moss. He later was economic development director under Scott Matheson and was instrumental in working with Robert Redford and others to create the Sundance Film Festival.
For the past 29 years, he has been in business, designing and building affordable housing in the state.
Cooke was approached last year about running for governor, but stayed on the sidelines, waiting for Rep. Jim Matheson to decide on his political future. When Matheson opted to run for Congress again, Cooke said the problems he saw in state government — from botched changes to the state’s open-records law to the 2010 Interstate-15 bid scandal — prompted his decision to get into the race.
“My thought then was, it’s important to really stand up because I felt like with all the stuff going on, we were headed in the wrong direction,” he said.
But Cooke has been frustrated, saying Herbert has refused to engage in a discussion of the issues and agreed to just three debates.
“This power of incumbency has really been amazing to see,” he said. “The fact I can’t get debates, it’s sort of like just turning his back on democracy. You don’t have an open discussion. There’s a real lack of participation, the hubris of it all.”
Low profile, big bucks • Indeed, Herbert has seemed content to run out the clock, generally keeping a relatively low profile for a candidate running for statewide office.
He has raised $2.3 million for his re-election bid — including money he had left over from 2010 — compared to about $360,000 for Cooke. According to a recent poll by Key Research and Brigham Young University, Herbert was leading Cooke 65 percent to 19 percent.
Herbert attended BYU, but didn’t graduate, and made his living as a Realtor in Utah County, becoming the president of the Utah Association of Realtors. He served on the Utah County Commission from 1990 to 2004, when Huntsman, needing to bolster his conservative credibility, picked him as his lieutenant governor. Herbert became governor when Huntsman left for China in August 2009.
Last week, Herbert launched a tour across the state, making campaign stops in a number of cities, his most intensive campaign effort thus far.
On one stop, he greeted the lunch crowd at Hires Big H — although about a third of the restaurant was stacked with former staffers and Republican loyalists. The governor posed for pictures, holding babies and shaking hands, eating a banana-chocolate milkshake while pitching his policies as the secret sauce that helped Utah ride out the recession.
His tenure has not been without problems — a $13 million payment to avoid litigation over a $1.1 billion road contract that went to a campaign contributor continues to linger. And a contracting scandal at the state’s liquor department, a massive security breach that compromised hundreds of thousands of Department of Health records and lax oversight by the state’s Radiation Control Board also have arisen on Herbert’s watch.
Cooke has raised the issues during the campaign, but has not focused on the management problems the same way Salt Lake Mayor Peter Corroon did when he challenged Herbert in 2010, a race that Herbert said was “one of the most negative in our state history.”
Corrective action • “I’m sure the problems don’t help,” Herbert said. “The good news for the public is that when we found them and discovered them we’ve done something about them to fix them. We’ve called for audits ourselves, we’ve taken corrective action. Some things started on someone else’s watch, but we solved them on our watch.”
Lisa Hopkins, of Logan, said she is mainly concerned at the way school budgets are being cut and teachers are being asked to teach more students with less money, but she said she will vote for Herbert.
“I feel like he’s been supporting education, but it’s a hard time to be funding things,” she said.
And Jim Jensen credits Herbert for the state’s above-average economic recovery.
“I think we’ve come out well through the economic hard times and the state of Utah has been able to balance the budget and stay afloat,” he said. “There’s a good candidate this year in the Democratic field. I just don’t see us making the change with all the stuff going on.”
Age » 62
Education » Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from Utah State University.
Career » Spent 39 years in the Army Reserves, retiring at the rank of Major General and was commander of the 96th Regional Readiness Command.
» He has been a congressional staffer for U.S. Sen. Frank Moss and economic development director to Gov. Scott Matheson.
» For 29 years, he has been involved in affordable housing development, military projects and other real estate development.
Family » Married with five children. His wife, Heather, is a former assistant U.S. Attorney and member of the Utah Board of Pardons.
Hobbies » Enjoys skiing, cycling and sailing.
Age • 65.
Education • Graduated from Orem High; studied engineering and accounting at Brigham Young University.
Profession • Realtor; former president of Utah Realtors Association.
Political history • Elected to second term as lieutenant governor in 2008; ran for governor in 2004 before dropping out to be Huntsman’s running mate; 14 years as Utah County commissioner; past president of Utah Association of Counties; narrowly lost Orem City Council race in 1980s.
Family • Wife, Jeanette, six children.
Hobbies • Was a quarterback and third baseman in high school with aspirations to play pro baseball. Now plays tennis and golf.