John Cox, GOP candidate for California governor, speaks to reporters during an August 2017 meeting with The Business Journal. Photo by Leah Canseco-Decker
Written by David Castellon
While John Cox has been traveling California campaigning to become the Republican candidate for governor, the Rancho Santa Fe venture capitalist and self-described small business owner has been running a second campaign.
During a recent stop in Fresno, Cox explained that special interest groups and lobbyists have corrupted the political system in Sacramento, and his goal is to fix it.
To that end, he and his supporters are trying to put forward a ballot initiative for an amendment to California’s constitution changing the system by which state Assembly and Senate members are elected.
Cox calls it the “Neighborhood Legislature,” a non-partisan initiative in which voting districts across the state are divided into even smaller voting districts consisting of just 5,000 to 10,000 voters.
Voters in each of these mini districts pick a representative, and those representatives vote to appoint one among them to be the representative for the larger district to serve in the Assembly or Senate working committee in Sacramento.
“So there is an Assembly working committee that has 80 people, the same as now, and a Senate working committee that has 40 people, same as now.
And they operate exactly the same way as the current legislature,” with one significant difference, Cox explained.
While the committee members would draft, argue and amend legislation, the actual vote on whether to pass it falls to the representatives from each of the small neighborhood committees, rather than being voted on just by the representatives in Sacramento.
Targeting special interests
“What they won’t do in Sacramento is raise money [for their re-election campaigns], because they won’t need it,” as the neighborhood Senators and Assembly members will answer more directly to their constituents and will not need to do the sort of costly campaigning that politicians in the state now do, Cox said.
“This makes it so that every voter gets to meet and have an impact and understand who their representative is and who they are. It allows real people from the community to run for the state legislature,” while also cutting the purse strings that special interests now tie to California politics.
It’s an idea the millionaire Chicago native believes in so strongly that he has put $2 million into it, with hopes that he and his supporters will get enough support signatures to include the initiative on the same 2018 ballot that he hopes to be on as the Republican nominee for governor.
And Cox has put up another $3 million as seed money for his gubernatorial campaign.
An eye to reform
That campaign has much the same primary message as his Neighborhood Legislature campaign — pushing out the special interests that control Sacramento.
“They have been pushing the middle class into the lower middle class and the lower middle class into dependency. That’s the big thing in Sacramento. It’s all about making everything more expensive — housing, water, electricity, gasoline.
“Make everything more expensive, and then we’ll hand out a subsidy to make it more affordable. And you and I know that’s just creating dependency. That’s just creating more voters — people who are dependent are going to vote for you,” Cox explained.
“A subsidy is not going to make you rich, and it’s barely going to make life affordable — barely, if at all.
A native of the south side of Chicago, Cox said he was raised by a single mother who worked as a teacher and retired to Fresno, where his brother currently lives.
He said he worked two jobs to pay his way through college, where he earned degrees to become a lawyer and a certified public accountant.
In the early 1980, Cox founded his own law firm specializing in corporate law and tax planning, another business specializing in investment and tax planning and a firm that currently manages about 3,000 apartments in the Midwest.
He still owns the management business and works as a small business advisor.
Cox said he moved to Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County a decade ago to be closer to family.
As for politics, he’s no stranger to that, as he made unsuccessful runs for Illinois’ Assembly and Senate seats, the latter against Democrat Barack Obama.
In 2008, Cox formally entered the 2008 presidential race, but he dropped out later that year. John McCain became the Republican nominee who lost to Obama.
An uphill battle
So far, only Orange County Assemblyman Travis Allen has formally thrown in his hat to become the Republican gubernatorial nominee, though professional football player turned actor, minister and activist Rosey Grier has said he is planning a run, too.
But some consider the race an uphill battle for a Republican, considering that in last year’s presidential election the majority of voters here sided with Democrat Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.
And the list of people who have announced runs for the Democratic ticket are political heavy hitters, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state Treasurer John Chiang.
Tough for small businesses
Cox said one constant he’s hearing from small businesses is that they’re getting “crushed” by the heavy, costly regulations imposed in this state.
“Most of these small businesses I meet at the Rotary Clubs tell me they would move out if they could. Most of them can’t.
“They also tell me that starting a small business is also an impossible job here.”
And while Democratic politicians say something needs to be done to reduce the financial inequity between the rich and poorer sectors, Cox said the regulations making it hard for small businesses to operate are elevating that inequality.
“What’s the best way to beat inequality? Your own business.”
Cox said politicians are scared to try to legislate changes because unions and special interests are likely to rally against them or dry up funding for re-election campaigns.
Here are Cox’s statements on other topics in the campaign:
“I don’t think we should open the door to anybody coming in to grab benefits,” he said. “We ought to have people coming here legally who want to work and become Americans and participate in the American dream, like my ancestors did coming from Poland in the 19th century.”
Cox went on to say that he favors a guest worker program, but immigrants who break major laws should be deported.
And while he believes a reasonable immigration reform plan can be achieved with compromises on both sides of the debate, the more immediate task is to shut down illegal crossings from Mexico to the United States.
As for President Trump’s plan to build a border wall between the two countries, Cox said that seems impractical considering that the Rio Grande River essentially is Texas’ border with Mexico.
“Where are you going to put a wall,” asked Cox, who said some sort of “electronic wall” that can detect movement of illegal immigrants may be a more likely option.
Cox, who attended Trump’s inauguration in January, said he’s glad the man is president and noted their similarities — both made money in real estate and both have beautiful wives — but he was quick to point out the differences.
“He’s not the same sort of person I am,” Cox noted. “I read five newspapers a day, I’m a policy guy, I’ve [always] been a conservative.”
Cleaning out the barn
And while Cox’ promise to clean up Sacramento seems reminiscent of Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, the businessman said he would do things different.
“I’m also going to drain the swamp, though I call it ‘clean out the barn,’” Cox said, adding that he was dismayed that Trump counts billionaires and the former president of Goldman Sachs among his cabinet and top officials.
Not that having billionaires in such high offices is bad, as “just because someone is successful doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be part of his cabinet,” he said. Do you want a bunch of billionaires there or do you want a bunch of people who have been failures?
“I think there are a lot of successful small business people who have built businesses from the ground up, but they aren’t billionaires, but who could participate in my cabinet. I would absolutely be reaching out to small [businesses].”
Cox said the planned rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco should, for the most part parallel Interstate 5, with tracks branching to Bakersfield, Fresno and other cities along the way.
“But the one problem with major projects like this is that the budgets are inflated by two or three times because of the corruption in California,” he said, noting that because of overregulation, this state spends four times what it costs to build a single mile of road in Texas.
“It just boggles the mind,” said Cox, noting that raising bond money to cover these added costs inflates the state’s debt, which raises other costs and eventually costs businesses more.
“You keep racing the costs, business pulls out.”