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Paul Fraughton | Salt Lake Tribune Governor Gary Herbert chats with supporters at a lunch-time campaign stop at Hires Drive In in Salt Lake City. The Republican incumbent has run a low-profile campaign, but has a large campaign fund in case things heat up.
Mission improbable: Cooke takes on Herbert

Democrat with little money is frustrated at the lack of open debate and engagement.

First Published Oct 29 2012 01:01 am • Last Updated Apr 24 2014 05:52 pm

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.

At a glance

Peter Cooke

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.

Gary Herbert

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.

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"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.

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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.

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