By Fran Eaton, first published on Illinois Leader
via Wayback Machine, permission granted for re-publication
IN THE SPOTLIGHT, Part 1 — Republican candidate for U.S. Senate John Cox started September 3, 2003, by climbing onto a school bus. Cox, campaign staff members, and a few volunteers visited two Chicago public schools on the south side of Chicago, bearing gifts to the students and their teachers. The “gifts” were boxes of school supplies and a book explaining the need for school choice.A press release issued by the Cox campaign featured a quote from the candidate saying, “As the son of a Chicago school teacher, a parent of three daughters, and as a former parochial school board president, the start of the new school year reminds me of the tremendous difficulties many schools are facing. Bringing school supplies is one way we can help alleviate one of the many problems facing schools, particularly those in less wealthy neighborhoods.”
I caught up with Cox and his staff as they were rolling in boxes of supplies to the second school Cox was visiting, the Ninos Herres Elementary School at 8344 South Commercial Avenue on the south side of Chicago. I was the only member of the press who responded to the campaign’s invitation to join them at the school.
Derrick Moseley, a black community activist, introduced Cox to the school’s principal, Gloria Stratton. Cox explained to Ms. Stratton that if principals were treated with respect, she should be allowed to treat the school as a business, with herself as the school’s CEO. The suggestion appealed to Ms. Stratton.
Cox, an attorney and CPA, drew figures on a small pad of paper detailing how much more money the principal would have if the $8000 spent on the district’s children would follow the children to their schools. The school board and the school principal would be able to get what they needed, he said, and have money to spare.
Ms. Stratton showed Cox around the tidy halls of Ninos Herres. The halls were quiet, and uniformed young people stood in lines in the halls, silent and attentive to their teachers’ instructions.
Cox spoke with several teachers, promoting school choice to each one, and Ms. Stratton introduced Cox to several classrooms.
“I just want to encourage you to keep up the good work you’re doing,” Cox told the students. “I’m a graduate of Calumet High, and I grew up to own a business, you may have heard of it – Jays Potato Chips.”
Cox asked the students if they knew who the current U.S. senators from Illinois were, and the students were able to answer correctly to the relief of their teachers.
Cox said to the classes, “I think teachers should be paid like baseball players and rock stars,” effectively getting the students’ attention. Cox went on to explain that in his opinion, teachers should be paid for doing their important work, but their successes should be a part of determining what they are paid.
After distributing books and talking with more staff, Cox’s focus turned to the interview scheduled with Illinois Leader.com.
During the drive from the South Shore elementary school to the interview location, Cox spoke on the phone with a Chicago print news reporter who didn’t make it to the school event.
While disappointed with the few editors who scheduled the event for reporter coverage, Cox retold his views on education to the reporter in transit to the members-only Mid-Day Club atop the Bank One Building in downtown Chicago.
Over lunch, Cox spoke with me for almost 90 minutes.
Illinois Leader: Tell us a little about your background.
John Cox: I grew up on the south side of Chicago with a single mother. My mother was raped, but she married my real father. Back in those days, a single pregnant woman was not a good thing. My mom already had a child, she was a working woman, but this was not a good thing to have a child out of wedlock.
So she married my real father, but he left a few months after I was born. So, I grew up not exactly in the street but in a very poor family. My mother was by herself with two young boys.
My grandmother worked at Marshall Fields in the housewares department and my grandfather worked in a hardware store. So, we come from a family of working people, no horseshoe makers or anything like that.
My mom met my stepfather when I was five years old and moved to the suburbs to Alsip. Not exactly government housing, but lower middle class. I went to public schools.
When it came time for college, my brother used up all the money that our family had to go to Illinois State and I was left to fend for myself. So, I went to the community college for a year and passed some of the advanced placement exams. When you are paying for college yourself, you are in a hurry to get out.
IL: What were your majors?
Cox: Political science and accounting. I didn’t even know what an accountant was, but my brother told me that it was a paying job. You have to remember that this was the 1973-74 recession. That’s when I was just graduating from high school and getting into college.
So, getting a job — like it is now — was a big factor and accountants were working. I knew I had to work my way through law school, too, because I wanted to be a lawyer, and my mother wanted me to go to law school. So, I got this CPA and I loved accounting. I loved it because you got an answer.
In so many other professions like psychology, law, and other stuff, you come up with a bunch of ideas, but there is no answer. In accounting, it has to balance — like the federal government. On the balance sheet, you have to come up with the correct answer at the end of the day. So, I worked all the way through school as a tennis pro.
IL: You were a tennis pro? This is how you worked your way through college?
Cox: Just talk to the nice ladies down in the Flossmoor/Glenwood area down on the south side. The indoor club doesn’t exist any more.
IL: Where were you going to college?
Cox: At the Circle Campus. Taught tennis for 5-6 hours a day and then did some bookkeeping. So I worked two jobs all the way through college.
Then I had one job that was like two jobs, I was a CPA with a mega firm at the time and went to law school at night. Paid for all of it by myself. No loans, and I think I got one scholarship that was worth $200, which was not much money. Came out of it with absolutely no debt.
Worked for a small law firm, liberal law firm, Milton Shadur was the key guy there and is now a district court judge in Chicago. He was from the firm he and Abner Mikva had started. You know that Arthur Goldberg was Supreme Justice before becoming Ambassador to the United Nations (in the Lyndon Johnson administration).
The lawyers in this firm defended the protestors in the ’68 convention and they were big in civil rights. Michael Shakmen was a partner.
Do you know who he is? You nodded your head like you know who he was.
IL: Our readers will be interested. . .
Cox: Michael Shakman, it actually goes to a little bit of an issue here, was an enterprising lawyer who was honest and forthright liberal but he sued the [Chicago Mayor Richard J.] Daley administration to end patronage.
There is a decree — the Shakman decree — that exists to this day. The Shakman decree says that people could not get fired because of their political affiliation. We now know that this is civil service and all those things. but it was not accepted policy back in the early ’70s and late ’60s. Michael Shakman was a lawyer that pursued that case and got that basically engrained into law that you could not fire a city worker because of his political beliefs.
IL: Did he have any influence in forming your views to fight corruption?
Cox: Yes, These lawyers were liberals — but honest liberals — that despised corruption. They despised the arrogance of power, and that’s the way I am, too. I am absolutely a believer in liberal democracy and that’s a traditional liberal democracy — small “L”, small “D”.
To me, liberal democracy is people deciding for themselves, and that’s a real important thing.
I started my own business in ’81 and had my first child in ’82. I was busy day one doing tax returns. I started with my own practice, one person – me. My wife — doing the typing and hiring people. Then, I got my foot in the door at Jays [Potato Chip Company] through an old college classmate of my wife’s. Just kept doing work for them. They were impressed and they put me on the Board of Directors at Jays.
IL: There was a big jump between accountant and board of directors. How did that happen?
Cox: I came up with ideas and they absolutely loved them. They had lawyers and accountants for 30-40 years and they took them for granted and didn’t do a lot of work. So, they liked the ideas that I had, and I was hungry. I worked hard to get their business.
IL: So you gave them ideas on how to invest and gave them pointers on how to manage their money?
Cox: All kinds of things. The founder’s wife died and the estate was being mismanaged. I straightened that out and got great results on that. There was a whole number of things that I did for them. So, they loved me and put me on the board.
When they sold the company, we sold it to Borden. I handled the whole transaction. I did pretty well on it, and they took care of me. Then seven years later, Borden ran it into the ground and I put together the money and the people to buy it back. We put the family back in charge again.
IL: You were involved when they sold it and seven years later the family called you back?
Cox: Leonard Japp, Sr., who was then 90 years old said, “I heard the company is going to be for sale. I will put a million dollars in it if you can find other people to put the deal together.”
So, I did it. I worked the better part of a year putting the people together, the money together, the financing, and negotiating the deal.
IL: Are you part owner?
Cox: I was, but I had a falling out with Len, Jr., the old man’s son. In fact, Len, Jr., is deceased now, and it doesn’t matter now, anyway.
IL: What was the family name?
IL: Where did they get the name Jays?
Cox: That’s an interesting the story. The company was called Mrs. Japp’s Potato Chips until December 8, 1941. That’s a well-known Chicago tradition or folklore.
It was owned by George Johnson and Leonard Japp. The two of them got together on December 8 and said that they had heard reports from our salesman that people are taking our cans (in cans, not boxes or bags) down off the shelves and jumping on them because they think we are Japanese.
The ironic part is the name is really Jappinski and they shortened it. So, George Johnson and Leonard Japp got together and said they better get a new name here. So, they decided that both of their names began with a “J,” so how about Jays?
People don’t know that it isn’t possessive, it’s not ‘s, it’s plural. Isn’t that interesting? People think that it has an apostrophe.
IL:How many years were you there?
Cox: One year. Shortly thereafter, Len Jr. didn’t care to pay me and didn’t want to have me around.
IL: I meant the first time.
Cox: From 1983-86, sold it in ‘86 and bought it back in ’94.
IL: With all this experience, when was the first time you ran for office?
Cox: In 1994-95, my marriage broke down. My wife decided that she did not want to be married to me any more. It was a traumatic time for me. A little later , John Porter announced that he was retiring. Actually in ’99, they announced he would not run for the 2000 election.
IL: You actually ran for something else before that.
Cox: I ran for delegate to Democratic Convention. I was an anti-Daley candidate. It was a suburb just outside the city limits, but Daley’s power extended into that suburb. I also ran a couple of campaigns in Chicago Ridge.
IL: Just for fun? Because you liked doing it?
Cox: I was anti-establishment, anti-Daley.
IL: As a Democrat?
Cox: Yes, but municipal elections are not bi-partisan. There was a Daley-sponsored guy who was running for mayor of Chicago Ridge and is still the mayor 30 years later.
IL: Let’s get back to you.
Cox: Porter announced his retirement, so I decided that I would contact Kathleen Sullivan, who I gave a thousand dollars to when she was running against Porter in ’94. I attended pro-life rallies with her, and the ’92 and ’96 conventions. So my involvement for pro-life cause dates back pretty far.
IL: And what is your basis for that strong opinion?
Cox: I wouldn’t be sitting across the table from you if abortion was legal. My mother told me that she would have had an abortion if it had been legal. It was pretty tough to raise me.
IL: So you’re strong on the abortion issue – no rape or incest exception — because you are a product of rape?
Cox: She was happy she didn’t have an abortion. She has been deceased for years. She told me that she was happy that she didn’t, but she wasn’t delighted that I became a conservative. She was a liberal and a teacher.
IL: Tell us your experience with politics. You became a Republican about the time of Reagan.
Cox: That’s correct. I voted for Carter. I was disgusted with the Nixon corruption. I wanted something different. Carter said he would never lie to us, but he didn’t tell us that he couldn’t manage. A pretty indecisive guy.
I started working as an accountant in ’77, got my CPA in ’76 right when Carter was elected. So, I never did a tax return before Carter. I started doing tax returns in ’77 and wondered do people out there really pay this much in taxes?
All these people that pay these tax rates were so high and they were doing whatever they could do to lose money. We all thought, “This is so dumb, why are we taxing these people so much?”
Then in ‘78-’79, I started hearing about Ronald Reagan, who I remembered from the television show Death Valley Days, growing up. Gee, this guy is an actor. What’s he doing talking about tax rates are too high? Government is too big?
I was seeing for myself, this tax system was so lucrative, the tax shelters were going nuts. I did the tax returns for the tax shelter for the movie Saturday Night Fever. The musical, Grease held a tax shelter – it was all to lose money. Those are all tax shelters.
Saturday Night Fever threw off a big investment tax credit and a big loss for investors, then the next year had a big profit.
IL: So you discovered this fact about taxes yourself?
Cox: Along with co-workers. I did the projections for East Bank Club. We used to laugh about who would invest in that establishment, saying it will never be successful. A health club. Who will go all the way to the North side for a health club, there was nothing there. Today, this is one of the biggest success stories in Chicago, the East Bank Club – it is the place to go. That’s shows how little I know.
IL: How were you involved in politics?
Cox: I was on Jack Kemp’s steering committee. A friend of mine, Dick Jaffe, Chairman of Oil Drive, was a friend of Jack’s. He introduced me to Jack and Bill Smith of Quaker Oats.
IL:Were you financially successful?
Cox: I was reasonably successful. I made my first million before I was 30.
IL: Then you spent $1.5 million when you were 45 . . .
Cox: God’s blessed me and I am probably worth more now than when I ran for Congress or the Senate last time. Didn’t make money off of recognition. Made money off of investments and businesses that continue to do well, and I’m doing a good job for people.
I was involved with Kemp and his philosophy, I ate it up like a spoon. My great-grandparents were immigrants. Jack Kemp kept talking about encouraging immigrant. That’s how I distinguish myself, I’m a Kemp Republican, not a Buchanan Republican.
This country was created by immigrants. It’s a good thing and a bad thing about this country. I think it is a good thing because we are all kind of different, and we all know that we can all rise up from a low class to a high class. It’s not that way in France or England. There it matters a lot where you are born into. In this country, so many people came over and made their fortunes, and we don’t have the class system. We do to some degree but not totally. There’s movement there because we welcome immigrants. I think we need more immigrants in this country, but I think it should be legal immigration and be controlled.
We need to make sure that criminals don’t come in, and that’s the basis for my philosophy. I want them to be legal, to be registered, to be noncriminals, and pay taxes the minute they get here. I don’t want them sending their money out of the country. I want them to be Americans.
I don’t want them to be taught Spanish in schools but taught English in the schools like everyone else who came here from Poland, Italy, and everywhere else. That is the beauty of this country, and we have lost that somewhere along the line. That was also Jack Kemp’s philosophy.
Obviously, his philosophy was lower taxes, lower tax rate, less regulations in government, protection of the unborn. Jack was very pro-life. I mean, his whole concept was promoting capitalism and opportunity society, and we all can share in these great dreams and visions.
All these wonderful success stories, we can have all because that’s what this country offers people. That’s why people come here from all over the world.
IL: Were your great-grandparents immigrants?
Cox: They came here during the great immigrant wave at the end of the 19th century. They worked in the iron ore mines in Champion, Michigan. This was the only place to get jobs, and they are from Eastern Europe, Bohemian born.
IL: So you have been involved in supporting other candidates. Then you began running yourself, correct?
Cox: That’s where I got the bug. I was financially able to run. My wife and I were divorced, so I didn’t have to worry about using the family money. I do take good care of her, and she is fine. So, I decided to do what I always wanted to do going back to when I was 20-years-old.
IL: Because you thought you could make a difference?
Cox: Yes, I enjoy the idea of being in something bigger than myself and making a difference. I am not doing it to make money, not doing it to sell ice cream, I’m doing it because it’s really fun to be a part of a bigger team.
IL: The question is, why?
Cox: I thought about it so much. You are right, I spent $1.5 million trying to give it to something. It’s all about who you know. I could have taken that $1.5 million and given the money in $100,000 to 15 different charities, and I would have been “Man of the Year.”
Let’s face it, there are a lot of charities out there. They would have a dinner, received a big plaque for my wall, and a great ego thing. It’s not about that. I know that I can make, I really honesty believe that I can make, a difference.
I can explain things in a way, I can speak well enough. I was in theater all the way through school. I enjoy people, I enjoy public speaking, I enjoy debates. I am a political junkie and study all this stuff constantly.
You’ve seen the policy book that I wrote, and I wrote every word of it. I really believe that more people like me should be involved in politics, and if we did we wouldn’t have the professional politicians or the cronies, and we would be so much better off.
I think I have not only good ideas, because a lot of people out there have good ideas, but few have the ideas and the ability to communicate. I have the ability to get people to understand my ideas, and have the depth of knowledge to answer questions. Anyone can get up and memorize.
Blair Hull brings out this list of index cards with all his positions on all these different issues. I tried to engage him in this in-depth discussion on the O’Hare project, and it was very interesting.
Well, his answer on his index card is “It will create jobs.” I tried to engage him on what kind of jobs, and what the other alternatives out there to explore to create better jobs or more jobs, or more appropriate jobs, or in fact, lead to more economic growth in general.
The answer is, he didn’t have any answers. He kept coming back with the fact that it will create 200,000 construction jobs. Well that’s all well and good, but down in Peotone there is a possibility you will create waves of economic growth, waves of new jobs, new hotels, motels, restaurants, and then the people who supply those.
Then you would create jobs for the people who clean, the people that fix the roofs, the people who fix the electric wiring of all those hotels and restaurants. You would also create jobs for the freight forwarders, and all the other services created by a world class airport.
A wave of growth comes over an area when an airport gets built. It already exists at O’Hare. You are not going to create any new jobs at O’Hare. You are going to create those kinds of waves and wonderful new jobs at Peotone.
No, they built another one in Florida and expanded hugely, they diversified themselves by getting away from that one area.
End of Part 1 2003 Interview with John Cox