Retired general poised to take on Herbert in gubernatorial race
Peter Cooke is a retired two-star general, a businessman, a real estate developer and a Democrat. Now he appears almost a lock to take a shot at becoming Utah's next governor.
"I would say it's very, very, very probable," Cooke said Monday, although he won't make a formal announcement until after the holidays. "I've been approached by many businessmen and a lot of my military veterans, and I'm very seriously considering it. There's a good chance I'm going to move forward with it."
Cooke spent 39 years in the U.S. Army Reserve, retiring two years ago as a major general, and has been in business for 29 years. Cooke said he would run to unite Democrats and Republicans who feel they aren't represented in the state's current GOP-dominated system.
"Democracies really can't function when you don't have a two-party system," he said. "You don't have open debate, open discussion. I don't think any issue that comes out is fairly listened to or heard by average people."
He said economic development and education would be crucial issues as well.
Republican Gov. Gary Herbert is running for re-election, but already has two GOP opponents: state Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, and former state Rep. Morgan Philpot, who lives in Orem. Both are running to the right of the governor, challenging him for not being conservative enough.
On the Democratic side, Sam Granato, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate last year, and state Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights, also are considering running for governor.
Tim Chambless, a political scientist at the University of Utah, has known Cooke for decades and says, in the right circumstances, he could mount a serious challenge.
"Peter Cooke can be looked at as somebody who is a wealthy Democratic candidate, who has a military background, so you can't say he's soft on the military issues," Chambless said. "But he's also connected to organized labor. â¦ He has another skill: He is a tactician and a very detail-oriented person."
But the path for Cooke or any Democrat, Chambless said, could be considerably harder if Mitt Romney is the GOP presidential nominee, spiking GOP turnout across Utah and hurting Democrats.
Cooke said he is friends with Herbert and sees him as a "great guy," but thinks he can do the job better.
"What I'm amazed about is the Republicans that want me to run, as well as the Democrats," Cooke said. "The Democrats want a candidate who can win and start bringing balance, and my Republican business friends are saying, 'We'd like to have an option. We'd like to see democracy work with a two-party system.' "
Cooke, 62, is a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Frank Moss and ran for Congress himself in 1978, losing the Democratic primary to Ed Firmage. He was director of economic development under then-Gov. Scott Matheson before starting a real estate development business 29 years ago.
In that business, he said, he has built more than 4,000 units of affordable housing.
Cooke retired from the Army Reserve two years ago as commander of the 96th Regional Readiness Command, overseeing mobilization and deployment of reserve units across six Western states at a time of extraordinary demands.
He said helping veterans remains important to him.
"Commanding over 10,000 troops and taking care of a lot of these soldiers and their families is really what got me thinking I needed to get back into politics," he said. "It's a 99-and-1 thing. Ninety-nine percent of Americans were watching 1 percent fighting this fight, and they've come home and not been able to acclimate."
He said there are 5,000 Utah veterans who are working through issues of unemployment and finishing their education.
Cooke said his background in the economic development and in the private sector and business community positions him to bring jobs to Utah. But it would take a stronger commitment to education.
"Without solving education, without getting our workforce educated," he warned, "I think our state is going to fall behind."
Cooke said he also favors term limits, believing the governor should serve eight years and that state legislators should be term-limited, too.
Cooke is married with five children, four of them living at home. His wife, Heather, is a University of Utah graduate, a former assistant U.S. attorney and former member of the Utah Board of Pardons. He enjoys skiing, cycling and sailing in his spare time.
Granato said he will make his decision whether to run during the holidays and announce it next year. He said it is not contingent on what Cooke does, creating the potential for an in-party showdown.
"It's been very flattering since my Senate race to have so many people approach me from both sides of the aisle asking me if I'd run," Granato said. "I have a lot of respect for Peter. I've known him for probably close to 40 years, but I feel that if I decide to get in, I will go and enjoy it and get out among the people â¦ and bring some victory home."