Before his bid to become California governor, John Cox took on some guy named Obama

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The candidate was opposed to entrenched lawmakers doing favors for friends and sold himself as an anti-corruption reformer in favor of limited government. Was it the 2004 Illinois Senate race or the 2018 California governor’s race? For John Cox, it was both.

In the heat of the 2003 Illinois U.S. Senate primary, millionaire Republican businessman Cox stood on a debate stage in Chicago, butting heads with a little-known Democratic state senator named Barack Obama.

Neither candidate was considered their party’s favorite. But things began looking up for Obama, of course, who won the Senate race and then the presidency. Cox dropped out before the GOP primary election. It was his third try for elected office in Illinois and his third defeat.

Now he’s back, this time in his new home of California, running for governor against a trio of Democratic heavyweights. Once again, Cox is a practical unknown. Once again, the Republican is in a left-leaning state reaching for a coveted political office. Once again, Cox’s campaign is being fed by cash from his own bank account.

And once again, Cox is running as a Ronald Reagan-style conservative espousing limited government, lower taxes and a strong national defense, and campaigning as a reformer who would take on Democratic leadership overrun with corruption.

When he announced his Senate run in 2003, Cox told the Chicago Tribune that he was going to end the “politics of corruption and cronyism” in Illinois.

“I’m sick and tired of political decisions being made because of some crony or because it moves money to some guy who’s going to give you a political hand up,” Cox said.

And when Cox announced his bid for California governor, he pressed on with the anti-corruption message.

“Legislators are largely responsive not to the voters but to the funders and the lobbyists whose bills they’re going to vote on,” Cox said. “You couldn’t have designed a system more fraught with temptation or ripe for reform.”

Cox grew up on the south side of Chicago, the area that Obama represented an an Illinois state senator. His first view of politics was a bitter one that he saw through his single mother, a public school teacher.

“My mom would come home at night and she would sit on the sofa and literally cry. Why? Because she had to deal with some of the worst principals you could ever imagine in the Chicago public schools,” Cox said during a recent speech in Fresno. “Why were they principals? Because they were friends of the [City Council member]. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is political corruption.”

Cox went on to earn an accounting degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago and later graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law. The Illinois law firm he founded in 1981 specializes in tax law, estate planning and corporate law, and is worth upward of $200 million, he says.

In the mid-1990s, he was the chief financial officer of a Chicago snack food institution, Jays Foods, helping the family that started the company buy it back from food giant Borden Inc. and putting it back in the black, saving hundreds of jobs.

“I’ve hired people, I’ve fired people. I fought the battle. I borrowed money. I dealt with agencies,” Cox said. “Now that doesn’t make me a saint. There’s tons of other people who have done the same thing. But it does give me certain skills that allow me to look at a situation like California is in right now, and say, ‘Hey, here’s the things we need to do.’”

The silver-haired 62-year-old moved to the posh San Diego County enclave of Rancho Santa Fe about a decade ago, and now belongs to the New Majority, a group founded primarily by Orange County Republican business executives in order to nudge the state party away from social conservatives. In November, Cox voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, saying he harbored doubts about Donald Trump. Cox now says he backs Trump “100%.”

But Cox still describes himself as a Reagan Republican, just as he did in the 2003 Illinois Senate primary during his multiple debates with Obama.

Cox offered a glimpse of his biggest clash with Obama in the 2012 San Diego Union-Tribune article “My debate with Barack Obama.” He was both gracious and self-effacing about their encounter, saying he was the one who “stayed unknown,” but true to form, he went after Obama as a big-government Democrat.

In an interview this summer, Cox didn’t hesitate to take another ideological jab at the former president, styled in the spirit of Reagan.

“He was a guy who parroted the line of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, a whole bunch of people, saying basically, ‘I’m going to have government give you everything, just give me your vote,’” Cox said. “That sounds wonderful. It sounds compassionate. But it’s never worked.”

In California, Cox has been crisscrossing the state interviewing with media outlets, hobnobbing with Republican clubs and speaking to GOP groups including the Tea Party California Caucus during its annual convention in Fresno in August. Cox also seems to be sticking to his anti-corruption message while following what has become standard practice for statewide candidates seeking exposure — sponsoring ballot measures.

Cox launched a ballot measure last year that would have required state legislators to wear the logos of their top donors when they appeared at official functions, similar to sponsor patches plastered on the uniforms of NASCAR drivers. That proposal failed to gather enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Cox is currently pushing a proposed ballot initiative to establish a “neighborhood legislature” that would add thousands of “citizen legislators” to the 80 Assembly members and 40 senators who make up the California Legislature. It would, Cox argues, squeeze money out of politics since candidates who would represent tiny neighborhood districts could easily campaign door to door instead of needing cash for television ads or mailers. He’s plowed $1 million into the effort, which is still in the signature-gathering stage.

To have even a remote shot in the governor’s race, Cox must find a way to persuade the vast majority of Republican voters to back him in the primary and give his GOP rival, Assemblyman Travis Allen, the brush-off. Even though the GOP trails far behind Democrats in voter registration in California, unified Republican voters might give Cox enough support to finish in the top two in the June primary. The top two primary finishers advance to the November general election regardless of their party affiliation.

They are the kind of daunting political odds Cox has faced multiple times. Before the 2004 Illinois Senate race in which conservative political commentator Alan Keyes eventually became the GOP nominee, Cox had already run for office twice against better-known Republicans — for Congress in 2000 and U.S. Senate in 2002. His best showing was in 2002, when he came in third in the primary.

“John was a very serious candidate, and was very studious,” said Andy Bloom, who worked as Cox’s communications director for the 2003 primary race. “But it never really felt doable. It felt like he was a guy who looked the part, knew the part and talked the part, but was just aiming too high.”

GOP Illinois state Sen. Jim Oberweis, who ran against Cox in both Senate races, said he’s baffled Cox has jumped into another long-shot race.

“He must like to campaign a lot more than I do,” Oberweis said. “If I could give him any advice, it would be to run for state representative first. It doesn’t help you to lose at a high level.”

Cox, who has plunked $3 million into his campaign for governor, said he had no interest in being just one of scores of lawmakers in the California Legislature.

“I don’t want to have a career in politics, I’ve got other interests in my life,” Cox said. “I didn’t want to sit there and start at the bottom and work my way up.”

A few years after their Senate run, Cox and Obama crossed political paths again in Iowa. Yes, Cox also ran for president.

That campaign was also short lived, but his name did appear on a few 2008 state primary ballots. Cox nabbed 39 votes in New Hampshire and 83 in South Carolina.

Obama, again, did a lot better.

phil.willon@latimes.com

Twitter: @philwillon

Updates on California politics

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