When former Suffolk Legis. Jon Cooper follows his heart in politics, he makes news. In 2008, the Huntington resident made headlines when he became the first elected Democrat here to throw his support to a long shot, an Illinois Senator running for president named Barack Obama, while the rest of the party establishment in New York was backing a sure thing, the Empire State’s junior Senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Now Cooper is making news about the 2016 presidential race—and once again it involves her.
Early this month Cooper sent ripples nationwide when he announced that he would become the finance chairman of the Draft Joe Biden 2016 committee. It sounds like he’s betting on another long shot. Vice President Joe Biden, 72, still has 18 months left in the Obama administration. Biden has not announced that he’s running—and a story this Monday in The New York Times quoted anonymous aides discounting the notion that Biden ever would.
But to Cooper, the former majority leader of the Suffolk Legislature, that story, despite the headline “Grieving Biden Focuses on Job He Has Now, Not the Next One,” was not the last word about the vice president, who’s still reeling from the loss of his son Beau to brain cancer. On Facebook, Cooper posted the article with the comment: “Obviously that reporter is talking to different folks than I’m talking to.”
In fact, Cooper claims that this week top officials in the Draft Biden organization have been contacted by half a dozen people in Biden’s “inner circle” who sent them “very encouraging signals.” He says they’ve also heard from “a growing number” of White House staffers, both current and former, who are “actively expressing support” for a presidential run by Biden.
“I really think this is going to happen,” Cooper told the Press. His gut feeling is that Biden will declare his candidacy “over the next two or three weeks, if not by the end of this month, then by the first week of August; and everything I’ve heard, certainly over the past two or three days, tends to reinforce that.”
“When he does enter the race, it’ll be a game changer,” Cooper said. “It’s going to upend the whole campaign. Overnight the vice president will be able to put a fundraising structure in place because he’ll be able to draw on all the folks who raised money for Obama. A disproportionate number of them will be willing to sign on with Joe Biden.”
That day may never come, insists Nassau County Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs, a long-time Hillary Clinton supporter, a current member of the Democratic National Committee and the former leader of the New York Democratic State Committee.
“No, I don’t believe he would run,” the politically well-connected Jacobs told the Press. “Because if he would run, he would be talking to two sets of people, and we’d know it. One, he’d be talking to major financial people around the country, and, no disrespect, but Jon Cooper’s not one of those; and number two, he would be talking to major campaign operatives that he would need to be lining up to help run his campaign, and he has not been talking to them.”
Before enlisting in the Draft Biden 2016 enterprise, Cooper, the president of the Spectronics Corporation based in Westbury, was a top Obama “bundler” for his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, even serving as the regional chair of the Obama Victory Trustees, a major group of donors. Now he’s been joined by Shiva Sarram, a Connecticut woman who was a major Obama fundraiser; she reportedly hosted a luncheon in 2008 that netted Obama “nearly $400,000.” According to Cooper, the Draft Biden SuperPAC has begun focusing on South Carolina, one of the early states to hold primaries next year, and will probably spend “about $15,000” in outreach over the next couple of weeks to identify potential Biden supporters in the Palmetto State and build up his donor base.
“I think that clearly there’s no one better suited than Joe Biden to carry on the legacy of the Obama administration and to continue the great work they did together as a team,” said Cooper. “He was part of the administration from Day One, and he supported Obama on every initiative.”
“Joe Biden would be a wonderful person to run if we didn’t already have another wonderful person running!” countered Jacobs. “When you’re groping around for anybody else, it’s really more about personal agendas than it is about the political agenda.”
The 2016 Democratic race for president is split between “Hillary Clinton and the anti-Hillary Clintons,” Jacobs explained. “That’s really what this is.”
The numbers for the anti-Clinton candidates look daunting, Jacobs said, at least on the Democratic side of the accounts ledger.
“Hillary Clinton just raised $45 million to become the 45th president and nobody else is near that,” Jacobs said. “Bernie Sanders raised $15 million. Anybody else who comes into the race is going to have to split up the anti-Hillary money even further.” The New York Democratic leader seriously doubted that Clinton supporters, whether grassroots volunteers or financial benefactors, will start “peeling off to go now with Joe Biden or any other candidate. We’re committed.”
Cooper recounted how he came to this critical juncture. The day Hillary Clinton formally announced her 2016 candidacy for the White House, a friend of his from the Obama campaign reached out to him and asked if he’d become “a Hill-Starter,” someone who’d commit to raise $27,000 in 27 days for her. Cooper agreed, but when it came time for him to draft an email to his extensive contact list, he was unable to enunciate his rationale for supporting Clinton.
“I couldn’t do it; I really tried,” recalled Cooper. He said he labored for a couple of hours trying to draft his email. “My heart just wasn’t in it.”
He wrote his friend back that he was on the fence. His ambivalence ended up in a Newsday column, which “accurately” quoted his reaction to Clinton’s candidacy as “meh!” His lack of enthusiasm got widely circulated by political pundits in media circles, Cooper claims, and calls started coming in. Jacobs tried to no avail to get him back on board with Clinton. Then Cooper heard from two of her rivals: former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who spent hours on the phone with him, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who ultimately took him to a Manhattan steakhouse for dinner. About two weeks ago the executive director and the finance director of the Draft Biden group flew out to meet him, and that sealed the deal.
“I was convinced that it was very likely that Joe Biden would be running,” Cooper said. So he signed on.
Even now, with more “encouraging signs” that Biden’s presidential declaration is imminent, Cooper insists that his support for Obama’s vice president has nothing to do with his attitude toward the former Secretary of State.
“I really don’t want to criticize Hillary,” Cooper said. “I like her. I respect her. But I think she’s a little too cautious and calculating and managed for my taste; whereas with Joe Biden, he’s not afraid to lead; he’s not afraid to speak his mind. Sometimes he’s been ahead of the curve—and ahead of Obama on some issues—and I like and respect that, and I think it really resonates. I think the American people like that.”
For five years, Cooper and his husband Rob and their kids would spend New Year’s Eve at Hilton Head, S.C., where the Clintons were also attending the Renaissance Weekend festivities at the famous resort. Once Cooper was elected Suffolk legislator, he stopped going there.
“We did get to know the Clintons, not that we are friends, but certainly we got to hang out with them. I still like her and respect her,” Cooper said. “I have to do what my heart dictates.”
As for those pushing the candidacy of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Cooper scoffed. “I just don’t think a Democratic Socialist has a chance in the general election…I think Joe Biden would be the strongest of the Democratic candidates.”
The first time Cooper met Biden, they had a long talk in Manhattan after the vice president had given a speech at an Obama fundraiser in 2012, and he was impressed by Biden’s range and commitment—as well as his personal style.
“He didn’t know me from Adam!” Cooper said. “He wanted to continue the conversation…even though I was somebody he’d never met before. That’s Joe Biden!”
Cooper adamantly does not believe his supporting Biden is doing the bidding of the Republican SuperPACs and their well-oiled attack machines, not to mention the plethora of GOP candidates who are out to slime Hillary Clinton any way they can.
“I don’t buy into that at all,” Cooper said. “I think a primary is a good thing for the Democratic Party and will increase the chance that we’ll win the general election.”
He recalled hearing what Sen. Obama said to a dwindling group of supporters huddled at a restaurant in New Hampshire after he’d just lost that state’s Democratic primary in 2008 to Sen. Clinton.
“Obama gave one of the best speeches I heard him give the entire campaign,” Cooper said. “He said that ‘if we had won tonight, the primary campaign would have been over. But now this is proof that we’ll have a tough battle ahead, Hillary’s going to be a formidable opponent, and it will make me a much better candidate; it’s going to toughen me up.’”
Cooper insisted that the ultimate results proved Obama right in 2008 and the same scenario now in the primary would make Clinton a stronger candidate in 2016—assuming she’s the eventual Democratic nominee.
“It doesn’t have to be a negative campaign,” Cooper claimed. “If there’s a primary campaign on the issues, as I hope it will be, then…whether it’s Hillary or Joe or Bernie, I think they’re going to be a stronger candidate for it, and it’s going to toughen them up for the general election battle against whoever the Republican nominee is.”
On Monday at the New School in Greenwich Village, Clinton delivered what The New York Times called the “most comprehensive policy speech of her presidential campaign,” in which she evoked her vision of a “growth and fairness economy” to close the gap between rich and poor and give the middle class a lift while taxing the wealthiest Americans and expanding social services.
“She spoke in broad strokes and she tried to hit the progressive talking points,” Cooper conceded. “But if you’re looking for specifics and details, I still don’t know what minimum wage she’d support… I want specifics; I don’t want generalities. At least with Joe Biden you get that.”
Jacobs thought Clinton’s speech was right on the money.
“She is laying out the platform that a candidate running for president ought to be laying out with enough information to give people a general sense,” Jacobs said. “You do not write every bill for every issue and present it to the public in a campaign. Give the public the sense of what your general view is, your philosophy, and your hopes and aspirations for the future, your vision. That is what they vote on. Whether Hillary believes in the $15 minimum wage or in the $14.75 minimum wage or the $15.25 minimum wage, I’m saying those are words from someone groping for an excuse—and it’s not a good one.”
Another bone of contention between these two top Long Island Democrats is the issue over Clinton’s release of her private emails when she was Secretary of State. Jacobs referred to the House Select Committee’s focus on her tenure in office as a partisan fishing expedition led by Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina conservative, who’s trying to smear the prospective Democratic presidential front-runner by making the Benghazi attack and her private emails a campaign issue for the Republicans rather than an objective investigation into what happened in Libya that night in 2012 when four Americans were killed at the poorly protected compound.
“This is politics,” exclaimed Jacobs. “This is all about trying to embarrass somebody running for president.”
By comparison, Cooper insists that “there are some valid issues being raised. I don’t think it’s fair to blame it all on the right-wing media…” He said he’s “not buying into the Benghazi thing, but the way her emails were handled” looked bad, producing “horrible optics.”
Those issues aside, Cooper says the race for the White House is really about another branch of government.
“The next president is going to appoint at least three justices to the Supreme Court, and it’s scary if it goes the wrong way,” he said. “If there’s a Republican elected, it could easily unravel all the progress that we’ve made over the past 10, 20 years. I think it’s critically important that we elect a candidate with the least amount of baggage, who can speak to the American people and can gain the respect of the American people, and I honestly think it’s Joe Biden.”
Jacobs has kind words for Biden but he thinks Cooper is sadly mistaken.
“I like Joe Biden an awful lot. I think he’s a great guy,” said Jacobs, adding that he thought Biden wouldn’t win a New York Democratic primary. “I just don’t feel that this is his time. At the end of the day, I don’t think that he feels it is, either.”
Fortunately for Clinton, all hope is not lost on Cooper.
“If Hillary ends up being the nominee, I’ll support her,” Cooper said. “Whoever the Democratic nominee is I’ll support. Having Joe Biden run against Hillary Clinton…she will be a better nominee for it.”
She probably doesn’t see it that way, but so it goes with Jon Cooper, an affluent and influential Long Island Democrat who follows his heart and puts his money where his mouth is.