A 26-year Marine Corps veteran and Vietnam-era war hero, Republican Paul Cook also is no stranger to electoral politics, having won spots on his Town Council, as mayor, and in the state Legislature. His record helped him knock back a surprisingly tough tea party challenger in the race to fill the 8th District seat of retiring GOP Rep. Jerry Lewis.
Cook, who moved to California at the end of his military career, grew up and attended school in the small manufacturing town of Meriden, Conn. He went on to study education at Southern Connecticut State University, graduating in 1966, and joined the Marines that same year. His first assignment sent him to Vietnam, where he served as an infantry officer and platoon commander. During the war, he received the Bronze Star and two Purple Heart medals.
He returned to the United States in 1968, eventually earning a promotion to captain while training infantry in North Carolina. He continued to rise through the ranks, eventually becoming a colonel in 1988 and the area commander for the Marine base at Camp Pendleton in California.
After his retirement in 1992, Cook moved to Yucca Valley, Calif., and was the executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce before heading back to school to earn degrees in public administration and political science. He taught political science and history at several California universities before earning tenure at Copper Mountain College, which has a close relationship with the local Marine base. “I was raised to believe that we all have a civic duty and a responsibility as Americans to improve our neighborhoods and our nation,” Cook said in an e-mail. “When I retired from active duty, I still felt that I owed something to my community. That’s why I pursued education.... I still miss the classroom and recall those days fondly.”
Cook won a seat on the Yucca Valley Town Council and ultimately served as the town’s mayor. In 2006, Cook ran for the state Assembly, surprising pundits with a win against better-known candidates. As the chairman of the Assembly’s Veterans Affairs Committee, he worked on issues related to retirement homes, child custody, higher education, and other services for veterans. He also worked to protect children from sexual predators, a legislative accomplishment of which he says he is particularly proud.
In his race for Congress, Cook enjoyed the support of a host of California Republicans, including former Gov. Pete Wilson and Reps. Darrell Issa and Jeff Denham. He also got endorsements from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and California Taxpayers Association. He joined a crowded field of 13 candidates in the 8th District primary to succeed Lewis, and despite his string of endorsements, Cook trailed a newcomer tea party candidate Gregg Imus in the primary by just 121 votes. That set up a close general-election race between the two Republicans under California’s new top-two, all-party primary.
Cook picked up momentum in the general-election campaign, significantly outraising his opponent. He ran on promises not to raise taxes and to fight for veterans and military families, using the issues to establish his conservative bona fides and distance himself from Democrats. “Military and veterans seem to be a low priority with this administration, but I won’t let Washington replicate the past, where they forgot about veterans returning from Vietnam,” he said.