If John Cox wins the California governor’s race next month, he’ll immediately become one of the nation’s most prominent Republicans: the leader of the world’s fifth-largest economy who upset a nationally known Democrat in one of the bluest states in the country.
But whatever you do, don’t ask him about Donald Trump.
“I don't have time nor the inclination to talk about what's going on in Washington,” the San Diego businessman said in a recent interview with Capital Public Radio aboard his campaign bus. “I'm going to talk about fixing California, and let Washington fix itself.”
Yet for all his reluctance to talk about the president ahead of the general election in a state that voted for Hillary Clinton by a two-to-one margin, Cox nevertheless sees a direct connection between Trump’s outsider, anti-establishment campaign and his own.
During the gubernatorial primary campaign, Cox’s slogan was “Clean out the barn!” — an echo of the president’s “Drain the swamp!” and a backhanded reference to the Sacramento political class he scorns.
In fact, he’s spent decades railing against corruption in politics — always from outside the political system, and long before Trump emerged as a presidential hopeful. He traces this underdog spirit back to his mother, whom he describes as “an ardent Democrat” and teachers union member — and his challenging childhood in Illinois.
Cox certainly is the underdog in the California governor’s race. Polls suggest he trails Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom by a wide margin — although he’s closed the gap to some extent since the June primary. And the Cook Political Report rates the race as “solid Democrat.”
But as he nears the end of the most successful campaign he’s ever run — and he’s run a lot of unsuccessful campaigns, including for president — Cox believes his message finally fits this moment in American politics.
“The times have actually caught up with me,” he says.
‘What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger’
Just months after Cox was born in Chicago in 1955, his father left, never to return.
His mother, Priscilla Edna, “told me that she was date-raped, and she married him because she wanted to give me a name, per se,” Cox said.
“To hear her tell it, and I believe her, she was impregnated against her will and he married her and he left,” he said in a 2006 interview.
At first, he says his mother raised him and his older brother by herself in “a very small apartment” on Chicago’s south side. The two boys went to daycare, and Cox says his mom “had us be child models to raise some extra money for her to live on.”
She later married Cox’s stepfather, who worked nights as a postal worker but did not earn as much money as his mother, who taught in the Chicago public schools. They moved to a suburb, had two kids together, and raised Cox in what he describes as a “lower middle class” upbringing.
“Neither of them made very much money,” he said. “Trying to raise four children on their two incomes was very, very difficult. It was a struggle.”
Cox said his stepfather was “physically abusive,” so he kept away from him as much as he could.
“My mom was a very domineering woman. And he and her clashed on many occasions. And I think he probably took out some of that anger on me as opposed to taking it out on my mom.”
Asked to look back at his childhood, Cox says it has helped him identify with Californians struggling to make ends meet, and that he has “a little bit more compassion for people because of the lack of compassion I suffered.”
“I'm fine today,” he said. “What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, as far as I tell my kids. And I survived very well.”
Cox overcame his childhood struggles to become a multimillionaire. He graduated early after paying his way through college. He then worked as an accountant, went to law school, and opened a real estate business that buys, builds, fixes and manages apartments that he says are worth more than $200 million. He serves on the boards of charities, and founded his own that repairs the homes of low-income elderly and disabled people.
Now married with children of his own — four daughters, three of whom are adults — he says he makes sure they know he loves them — “something I never got from my father, or my stepfather.”
‘You've Got To Give Me Points For Perseverance, Don't You?’
As he campaigns for governor, Cox makes a point of saying he’s a businessman, criticizing “the political class in Sacramento” and Newsom in particular. But his political career spans nearly his entire adult life.
His first campaign was in 1976, “barely 21 years old,” he recalled, part of a slate of Democratic National Convention delegates that opposed the slate put up by then-Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.
“I viewed Mr. Daley as corrupt,” Cox said.
His mother believed many of the Chicago Public Schools principals she worked for were unqualified but got their jobs because they were friends of the aldermen — the members of the city council.
“That always stuck with me, because my mom really hated that,” Cox said. “She felt, as appropriate, that a principal of a school is a very important position, and it really dictates a lot about whether those kids learn or not. And when you put a principal in there who is unqualified, you're not going to have a good school.”
Cox lost that campaign. He would go on to win a local school board race at age 27, but that remains his only successful political effort to date.
In the years that followed, Cox mounted failing races for an Illinois congressional seat in 2000, and for U.S. Senate in 2002 and 2004 (sharing a debate stage in the latter race with a young state senator named Barack Obama). He briefly entered the 2008 Republican presidential primary for a few months in 2006 before dropping out later that year.
Then, he moved to California and turned his attention to the state’s initiative process. He wrote ballot measures and began collecting voter signatures for two provocative — and, to say the least, unusual — government reform proposals.
In each of the last four election cycles, Cox submitted a proposal for a “Neighborhood Legislature” initiative. It would have divided California into 12,000 micro Senate and Assembly districts, although only 120 of the elected lawmakers would travel to Sacramento to craft legislation. Only one of those times, however, did he actually turn in signatures. It narrowly missed qualifying for the November 2018 ballot.
Cox also submitted what he called a “NASCAR-style campaign finance reform” measure. It would have required California lawmakers and other state elected officials to wear the logos of their top 10 campaign contributors while they testify or vote on legislation. Cox began gathering signatures in 2015 but stopped midstream, citing cost concerns.
Asked if he can only campaign as a non-politician because he’s lost his previous races, Cox smiled.
“I don't give up! You've got to give me points for perseverance, don't you?”
He said he’s not ashamed of his failed campaigns for ballot measures and political office.
“I have fought battles against corrupt politicians, for the most part,” he said. “And usually, corrupt politicians are pretty powerful, so I haven't won yet.”
‘We Didn’t Elect A Pope’
On the campaign trail, in interviews, and in TV and radio ads, Cox stresses California’s poverty rate, its housing crisis and last year’s gas tax increase.
“This state has become unaffordable and unlivable for a lot of people,” he said.
And he argues that its government is not serving its people, pointing to challenges in public schools and campaigning regularly at Department of Motor Vehicles offices, decrying the hours-long waits.
“We're spending $100 billion a year on these schools, and our K-through-12 are not performing,” Cox said. “Half — half — of the six million public school kids can't read to their appropriate grade level. That's an incredible failure. That's got to be fixed!”
The closest Cox came to talking about national politics during the 40-minute interview was when he rattled off examples of recent elections worldwide that he sees as revolts against corruption: the 2016 “Brexit” vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, the victory of French president Emmanuel Macron over entrenched politicians last year, and the “different kind of president” that Americans elected two years ago over the “corrupt” Clinton machine.
He never uttered the word “Trump.” He even declined to offer an opinion on the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. But Cox praises the president when asked.
And he concedes that he should have voted for Trump in 2016. “It was a mistake. I plainly admit it,” he said during a CapRadio interview weeks before the June primary when asked about his vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson. “I like what [Trump has] done.”
At the time, Cox was locked in a battle with conservative Orange County Republican Asm. Travis Allen, who repeatedly touted his vote for the president.
“I have a different personality,” Cox added in that interview. “I don’t necessarily agree with some of the things he says and tweets. But we didn’t elect a pope. We elected someone who was gonna be putting good policy in place. And he’s done that.”
He also praised Trump for cutting taxes, eliminating government regulations and appointing conservative judges.
The president, for his part, must not have taken Cox’s vote for Johnson personally. He endorsed Cox before the primary — reportedly at the urging of Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, who believes Cox represents the GOP’s best bet of turning out enough voters to hold the party’s competitive California congressional seats.
Cox regularly hints at big plans to address the corruption he sees in Sacramento — but he’s not ready to talk about it yet.
“I have some definitive ideas on it,” he said. “I’m not going into them in this campaign. I'm going to work on them after I'm governor. But I think the takeaway that all voters should know is that I'm not satisfied with our current political system.”
His campaign would neither rule in nor rule out Cox’s Neighborhood Legislature and NASCAR-style campaign finance proposals.
Cox is hoping Californians will send him to the state Capitol to do something about it.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story unclearly attributed a quote from John Cox to a 2006 interview. It has been clarified.