Interview with Republican Presidential Candidate John Cox
at Vision America's
"The War On Christians" Conference
Washington, DC
March 28, 2006

*first political memory      *growing up       *political philosophy        *campaigns for Congress and Senate       *writings      *figures who have influenced you       *the tax system       *politics is broken           *why run for president        *how are you campaigning         *biggest challenge        [photo]

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: What's your first political memory, going way back when you were a wee lad, and maybe you saw something on television or went to a parade or --

COX: Six years old.  We have pictures to prove this.  Family gatherings where I am the only one dressed in a white shirt and tie; everybody else is in casual clothes, polo shirts and things like that, and I'm walking around the house -- this is in 1961 -- saying, "Ask now what your country can do for you, but what you should do for your country."  My mother was in love with JFK.  She was a Democrat, a Chicago public school teacher.  And at an early age she had me involved in politics.  And she always used to brag that I would give this imitation, that I would do it for attention at parties and things that, at family gatherings.

And then after JFK was shot I stopped doing it.  And...I was very, very shattered by that experience.  Not a mental thing, but I mean it was just troubling at 8 years old to have a president that I admired so much --

Frankly that informs what I am today...  JFK, I think, would be a conservative Republican today.  He cut taxes; he believed that marginal rate reductions would result in more tax revenue, which they have time and again as President Bush has proven that.  He also discussed that a rising tide lifts all boats, that government cannot be the arbiter of who succeeds and who doesn't succeed.  That when you grow an economy in its totality you bring everybody along, the rich and the poor, and the economy is not a zero-sum game.  You've heard that expression.  Just because Bill Gates got rich doesn't mean he took it from some poor person.  He brought a lot of people along with him and made them wealthy, but more than that spawned industries that created jobs, from people that make flat screens for computers to people who write the code.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: ...what did your dad do?

COX: Well my real father left when I was three months old -- never saw him again -- which informs my belief that abortion is a bad thing and that men need to take responsibility for their children.  My mom was a single mom and to hear her tell it, and I believe her, she was impregnated against her will and he married her and he left.  She didn't have a choice but to have me and I had a right to live and so I am pro-life to my fiber in that respect.  But my stepfather came into the picture when I was six years old and he was a postman.  And he was okay.  He was not a great stepfather, but he had two kids with my mom so he kind of treated them very differently.  And that's fine; I understand how that works.  And he was a postman, and he worked nights and he taught me the value of hard work.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: And where'd you grow up?

COX: South side, south suburbs of Chicago.  I always say that I spent the first six years of my life in Barack Obama's district.  Barack Obama didn't even grow up in his district; he grew up in Hawaii or something like that.  But I grew up at an integrated housing project, son of a single mom in the South side of Chicago, and today I operate five businesses that do about $100 million so I'm very proud of the struggle that I've had.  I paid for my own education and my own law school all the way through and without government help.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: And your political philosophy.  I was looking at your brochure and I saw "progressive conservative solutions;" I saw "true conservative..."  Can you talk a little bit about how your political philosophy evolved?  You talked about John F. Kennedy, and how you believe he might be a conservative Republican, but was there an evolution?  When you were young were you a bit more liberal?

COX: Yes.  Oh, definitely.  I don't like to admit this too much but I'll be honest with you I voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976.  I hate corruption.  I grew up in Chicago absolutely despising the corruption of the Chicago political machine.  I ran for delegate to the Democratic Convention in 1976.  Grew up a Democrat because my mother was a Democrat.  And I hated the corruption and certainly I hated Richard Nixon's corruption and the whole idea of using FBI and CIA and using those for corrupt purposes, and I think that was the key aspect of Watergate.

So Jimmy Carter coming along and saying he was going to be honest and truthful was a very attractive thing to me at 21 years old.  Obviously after that I began to read more and understand more.  I entered the workforce, I became a CPA, I started doing tax returns, and I started seeing how much the government did take.  Prior to that time I really didn't pay much attention to finance and accounting, but I started doing tax returns and started listening to a former governor of California who talked about growing the economy and unleashing our entrepreneurial spirit and providing a platform for people to invest and save and grow and do things in the private sector, as opposed to government influence.  So I would say that Ronald Reagan certainly brought me to the Republican Party.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: And are there any other recent political figures who --

COX: Jack Kemp.  Jack Kemp started to run for president in 1987, and I started my businesses in '81 so I was pretty busy from '81 to '86 trying to raise my family and start my businesses, and I started to get more comfortable about '87 and Jack Kemp came along running for president.  Ronald Reagan obviously is now in his 7th or 8th year and we're looking for a successor, much like what's going on today, and Jack Kemp came to the fore.  And he sounded even better than Ronald Reagan.  Talked about entrepreneurship, talked about enterprise zones, talked about providing opportunities to African-Americans and Hispanics and people at the lower ends of the economic ladder; that people wanted a hand up, not a hand out.  You teach, you give someone a fish and they eat for a day; you teach them to fish they eat for their whole life.  These are the phrases that just drew me to Jack Kemp because they paralleled my own life.  I mean I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and started my business just with me and what I was able to save and I achieved a good level of success, so the idea of Jack Kemp coming along using those principles I thought was a very good thing.  So I was on his steering committee in '87.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: And you yourself have run for Congress and Senate.  What did you -- can you talk briefly about those races?

COX: I learned that politicians don't tell the truth often.  I also learned that it's more important to have political contacts that to have political principles.  Having said that I will continue to have political principles, which is why I'm running for president.  I didn't get elected in those battles in Illinois because I did have principles.  And unfortunately the Illinois Republican Party, under the leadership or so-called leadership of George Ryan at the time, didn't really have principles.  Their principle was where's mine.  Corruption.  And that again continues to rear its ugly head.  That pretty much informs why I'm running for president is because I believe that that corrupt element needs to be addressed in Washington as well.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: So what were the races?

COX: Congress and the Senate.  I was also president of the Cook County Republican Party and as part of that job I ran countywide as a favor to the chairman of the party, the elected chairman, who wanted me do help lead a rebirth of that party.  We made some strides.  We didn't quite get rebirth.  We're kind of still in the birth canal per se, to use a term, but we've got some work to do in urban areas in the Republican Party.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: And you've also written a couple of books and have another one on the way?

COX: Well the first were basically monographs; I wouldn't call them books.  The first one I did when I ran for the Senate in 2002.  I called it the Campaign for Progress and Renewal, and I had a clever campaign director who thought we needed CPR in Illinois so that's how you got that name.  Be it as it may, it had my ideas in short form on about 12, 15 different topics from Social Security reform to national defense to tax policy to spending and waste. It was probably 30 or 40 pages.  After that race I wrote a pamphlet on trying to talk about the rebirth of the Illinois Republican Party, which was in pretty sorry shape, and I argued that we needed to surround our rebirth with principle and ethics, that we had to make ethics a major, major element of our rebirth.  It's interesting to me today that the head of the party, the woman running for governor, Judy Baar Topinka, who frankly has had a rather uneasy background in terms of ethical issues, is now embracing those ethical issues.  And why?  Because it's good politics by her because she's running against a governor who's far, far, far worse ethically.  He's sold his office.  He's taken money from campaign contributors -- from contractors.  I mean he's just sold the office.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: More recent work -- something you're working on now, a book or --?

COX: Yes the book I'm writing now, well actually it's all written, I'm working now with a publisher, is called "Politicians Incorporated: Why We Need Statesmen Rather Than Career Politicians."  To my mind the theory of this book and frankly its entire direction is surrounding the idea that we've been ill-served by career politicians, people who go into politics to make money for themselves, for themselves, for their families, for their cronies, who do book deals and lobbying deals after they're in office.  I think our Founding Fathers envisioned that public service would be just that: service and not profit.  You serve for 8-10 years, whatever it might be that you could devote away from the farm, and you then go back to the farm.  George Washington couldn't wait to get back to his surveying business.

And we've turned it [politics] into a business, and a very lucrative one at that.  Barack Obama, that same gentleman I mentioned earlier, as soon as he defeated Alan Keyes and became the Senator-elect, signed a $3 million book deal with a publisher and bought a 6,000 square foot house on the South side of Chicago.  I don't begrudge him success, but the issue is should we be looking at politics as a way to achieve success or should we be looking at politics as service?  And the problem is is that when you look at politics as a way to make money for yourself are you going to do things that assure you of that job and the ability to make money or are you going to do things that are the best long-term strategy for the entire country and represent your constituents' interest rather than your own.  And I think that's the essential question we ought to be asking.

I think career politicians could well make the argument to people that, gee, I do everything because I'm interested in public service and the ideas I put forth are necessary and are quality because that's what they should be and that assures me of a continuing job.  I would argue differently.  I would argue that a lot of times people on the right and the left sometimes take positions and are excessively partisan because it's a business.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: Are there one or two figures who have personally -- you spoke of President Reagan and Kemp -- but on a personal level, as you're a businessman or growing up had a significant mentor [role] or who you really look up to or have influenced your way of thinking?

COX: Well there's a lot of people.  I would credit the father of my first wife and the uncle of my first wife.  I got married very young and our marriage lasted a long time, but there were some definite issues involved and it's been annulled and we're on relatively good terms.  But her father and her uncle were mentors of mine and they were businessmen, independent, small business people who created jobs and who dealt with the regulatory structure and the tax structure and they instilled in me the impetus to start my own small business when I was 24 years old.  So if there's people that have influenced my life I think that those two on a secular level did.

On a more spiritual level, I think coming to Jesus in 1979 when I was 24 years old was also a major element of my life.  And I was saved than and became a Christian and that has imbued a lot of the thoughts I've had and a lot of the ideals I've had of a social nature as well as frankly of a business nature.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: Who helped you discover that?

COX: A young lawyer in Chicago introduced it to me.  I was on a train and he sat down next to me and he started talking to me about it and gave me his testimony and I listened to him and he invited me to a meeting of the Christian businessmen's committee that was in Chicago, and I became a part of that organization and participated in their weekly breakfast for 15-20 years, something like that.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: The whole tax system -- we're heading towards April 15th, and it's just an abomination.

COX: It is.  It's a waste of time and money.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: Why aren't the politicians talking about it?  I mean President Bush has his tax cuts and all, but the tax code just continues to be as complex as ever.  Steve Forbes was good on this on the need to simplify it at least.

COX: Well I'm making it the central tenet of my campaign actually.  As a CPA, as the first CPA to become president.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: No one in Senate or Congress is taking a leadership role on it, and it's right there, the huge elephant in the room.

COX: There's a reason.  There's a reason.  And it is a big elephant in the room.  And the problem is that the elephant resides on K Street in Washington, DC, and that is the tax code is funded by a lot of the lobbyists on K Street.  If we got rid of the tax code, we'd get rid of a lot of those lobbyists and a lot of the money they raise from corporations looking for tax deals.  So the answer is a lot of the corruption in Washington comes about from the tax code and I am a very big advocate of the national sales tax and getting rid of the Internal Revenue Code entirely.  It has to absolutely be accompanies by the repeal of the income tax and ultimately the 16th Amendment so that we slay that beast once and for all.  Hopefully we will have had enough experience that we wouldn't want it to come back in any form anyway, but Europe has ended up with both taxes and I don't want that to happen.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: Is that an achievable goal, the national sales tax; could that be done in the first four years of your administration?

COX: Well Napoleon Hill, you're familiar with his books I'm certain, but anything the mind can conceive and believe it can achieve.  And so we created this tax law; we can uncreate it...  We need someone who is willing to advocate for this and who has the background and the ability to communicate to advocate it.  I believe I have those qualities.  I believe I can go anywhere in this country and talk about the 10,000 tax returns I prepared personally, the businesses that I've helped avoid the tax -- not evade, but avoid the tax legally, the individuals that looked at me perplexed when I've tried to explain to them the alternative minimum tax and other things.  So I've had those direct hands-on experiences and I think that those will put me in good stead with the American people.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: Another major issue is the whole theme of politics is broken talked about this a bit.

COX: I can see that and I will tell you this, that the book I've written about career politicians is the basis of that.  The reason politics is so divisive and partisan is because its their job; it's their career and their livelihood is on the line.  If someone threatened your livelihood, you'd defend yourself and you might well become caustic in defending your livelihood or your business.  That I believe is one reason why it's become so excessively partisan and nasty.  So we've got to get away from that.  We've got to get statesmen who can see both sides of an issue.  That doesn't necessarily mean that they have to go right in the middle between them.  Many times the proper solution is not the one in the middle.  It's one on either side.  Clearly I believe in the solutions that involve less government, more free markets, more competition, more entrepreneurship, but I'm willing to listen to all ideas.  But we don't get that.  We don't get statesmen.  We get careerists.  We get people looking to make money.  We get political leaders who get married to lobbyists.  Now I know they're in Washington; I know the only people they see each day are lobbyists some time and they're going to probably end up marrying one, but they don't have to remain legislators after they marry a lobbyist.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: How did this idea come about?

COX: To run for president?

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: Was there something that triggered this five months ago, two months ago, or was this an accumulation of --

COX: It's probably an accumulation of the last four or five years, in looking what's happened in Washington.  But I started looking at this field over the last several months and frankly years, probably the last two years and you know the media talks about the field -- Senator McCain, Hagel, Frist, Allen, Brownback; Governors Huckabee, Romney, Barbour -- all these people.  With a few exceptions most of them have been part of the problem.  They've raised taxes or they've raised spending to ridiculous levels or they've flip-flopped on social issues or they've been like mush in terms of standing up for principle.  I don't want to name names because I believe in Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment, but frankly the field has not convinced me that any of them is pursuing this office because it's the right thing to do, because they have a clear set of principles that they're trying to convince the nation we should adopt.  I believe a lot of them are looking at running for president because it's the next rung up the ladder or because they feel that it's a pretty cool job.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: But what triggered you to say I should be a candidate myself?

COX: If not me, who.  If not now, when.  Those words paraphrase Ronald Reagan.  Why did Ronald Reagan run for president?  Why did Ronald Reagan challenge Gerald Ford in 1976?  Why did he run for president in 1980 when the establishment wanted George Bush senior or John Connolly or a number of other quote unquote well known candidates, more so than the governor of California.  Why did Ronald Reagan run?  Because Ronald Reagan was not a career politician.  He was someone who believed in principles.  He believed that the principles that he was talking about were going to lead this country forward out of the malaise, out of the Cold War, out of the Carter economy.  And I'll argue with anybody that he was right.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: How do you envisage your campaign playing out?  How are you going to try and communicate your message?

COX: It's starting in the grassroots...  I've been to Iowa.  I've been to New Hampshire.  I'm going to be in South Carolina next week.

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: Did you learn anything from traveling around Iowa?

COX: Absolutely.  I learned that people have the same views I do about the Congress; they have the same views I do about the potential field of candidates.  There's no one that they feel has the goods in terms of principles and a reason to be elected.  They feel as I do that a true outsider has a chance.  Of course everybody wants to go with the media darling or the candidate with large name recognition or a lot of prior elected office experience.  They look at me and say well you haven't been elected, why should we vote for you?

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: Who are "they?"  I mean if I'm a major candidate I go to the Pottawattamie County Republican committee and give a speech to their Lincoln Dinner.  Did you go to the diners or how did you do your Iowa trip?

COX: I met in Pottawattamie County, as you mentioned, that's Council Bluffs, Iowa, with a group of people, about 20 in total -- local businessmen, one of the legislative assistants for Congressman Steve King, there were a couple of CPAs there active in Republican politics, there was the vice chairman of the 5th District Republican women -- these are people who are activists, grassroots activists, and they heard what I had to say and they were, I think, very impressed.  You'll have to ask them how they felt, but we came away, we got e-mail afterwards that said you're a good candidate, you know the issues, you know how to communicate them, you're with us on the issues.  Why shouldn't we support your campaign?  Just because you're not a household name yet doesn't mean you can't be one in 20 months from now.  And I intend to be one with your help and Fox News and CBS and everybody else in the media world...

DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: What do you see as your biggest challenge?

COX: Being taken seriously by the press, frankly, and the credibility issues in terms of not having been a Senator or a governor or something like that.  I have to convince people, which is going to be a challenge, but I think if they open themselves to it, to the idea that I have the right experience.  I started with zero and built a $100 million business employing a whole lot of people, and really helping the community.  To me that's the right experience.  I have run for political office, so certainly I'm no neophyte when it comes to politics, and I've been the head of a huge Republican organization in one of the biggest counties in America, Cook County, so it's not like I'm a political neophyte either.  I've been at this a long time so I have more political experience than Steve Forbes ever had, but I have his ideas about economics, but I'm a clear social conservative.  So people have said to me I am absolutely with them on the issues.  Reagan's heir, if you will.  What I don't have is the experience of being governor.  And I come from a blue state, so being elected Senator or Governor from my state of Illinois is today an impossibility probably without sacrificing my principles anyway.  So when people want to know why I'm running for president, I mean it's not that I can't get elected in Illinois.  I probably could if I was willing to sacrifice my principles and be pro-choice or hand out pork or something like that.  But I ran as a fiscal and a social conservative in a blue state.  So what am I to do.  

I'm in this race to win, and I'm here to push the Republican Party back to Ronald Reagan's view.

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Transcript copyright © 2006  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.