That Other Guy

Ed Cox could be the best bet to challenge Clinton, if only the GOP would let him

Maybe Ed Cox needs more of an ego. The Manhattan attorney is eyeing the GOP nod to take on Hillary Clinton for Senate next year, and he tends to strike those who know him as modest to a fault. He's not the kind of guy who boasts about his 30 years of public service, they say. He doesn't talk much about himself at all, let alone seek the limelight.

Lynn Mueller, of Albany, a friend and his key political strategist, describes him this way: "Ed is a good guy."

Yet good guys, as the adage suggests, finish last. Or at least get overlooked. And that pretty much sums up Cox's fledgling, still unofficial Senate candidacy to date. While the state Republican Party has turned backflips to draft a woman with the right big-name/big-money mix to wage a valiant fight against Clinton, Cox has stood on the sidelines, quietly going about the business of building a campaign.

Knows where page 10 is: Cox is no Jeanine Pirro
photo: Steven Sunshine
Knows where page 10 is: Cox is no Jeanine Pirro

Last winter, he rented a campaign office and hired staff, including the top fundraiser for Governor George Pataki. By the spring, he was filing campaign forms and naming a 29-person exploratory committee. This summer, Cox began trolling for support among GOP activists, visiting county committees, attending political functions. Already, he has logged 6,000 miles around the state, crisscrossing from Long Island to Queensbury and Buffalo. Still, Cox has found himself struggling to get noticed. It's a far cry from the hype over Republican superstar Jeanine Pirro, who announced in August that she, too, is seeking the GOP nomination. The news about the Westchester district attorney dominated the front pages for days, drowning out Cox's vows to stay in the race.

These days, the Pirro campaign doesn't look to be doing so great. The candidate has yet to live down her gaffe-marred kickoff, during which she suffered the embarrassing mishap of losing page 10 of her script. Some Republicans have griped that she came across as ill prepared and green. Some have refrained from donating money. Pirro remains the darling of the state party's leadership—its chairman, Stephen Minarik, has pegged her as the best GOP Senate hopeful yet. But she has largely disappeared, failing to capitalize on her initial momentum.

All of which bodes well for Cox, who has managed to nab his own endorsements from nine county chairmen and six state senators in the weeks since Pirro's rocky start; Pirro has about 20 endorsements. His supporters say Cox has more of the experience needed not just to survive on the stump, but to hold federal office. All he needs to do, they argue, is talk about his accomplishments.

Cox's biggest claim to fame is being someone's son-in-law—the late President Richard Nixon's. In 1971, Cox married into the powerful clan when he and Nixon's daughter Tricia exchanged vows at the White House. This pedigree has lent him a credibility among GOPers, who see him as plugged into the party's old-time network. To wit: His exploratory committee features such luminaries as Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state.

But Cox has a résumé of his own making too. Over three decades, he has worked as a corporate lawyer and a discreet government player, serving three presidents and two governors, gaining experience in fields from foreign affairs to education and the environment.

"I do have a substantive résumé," Cox offers, somewhat sheepishly, sitting in a nondescript conference room at the Friends of Pataki headquarters in midtown. Tall and lean, with warm, blue eyes, Cox lives up to his good-guy image, getting animated when he lands a doctor's appointment for an ailing staffer, or when he talks about his father-in-law. Rarely does he exhibit the pride that might come with his list of qualifications.

He has, after all, enjoyed a wide and varied career. There is Cox as grassroots activist, the role he played back in 1968 as a Ralph Nader "Raider," working to unearth government fraud and advance consumer protection. There is Cox as Washington insider, serving the Reagan administration by overseeing an alternative-fuels program and cutting wasteful spending by $88 billion. And there he is as foreign emissary, traveling on his own or with Nixon to China, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, and some 20 other countries.

As a New York public servant, Cox has been appointed to a range of state boards. In 1991, he joined the judicial-nomination panel. Since then, he has chaired the parks commission and served as a trustee for the State University of New York, where he has championed charter schools and community colleges. "I think I have the portfolios to do the job of senator," he says.

Last December, he relayed as much to Mueller, a veteran operative in Albany. Mueller weighed the idea. "I didn't see anyone else on the horizon who I believed had the strengths and credibility as Ed," he says.

So the two got to work, forming a nascent campaign team and collecting polling data to measure how the wannabe candidate would stack up to the formidable Clinton. Aides say the polling shows the senator isn't so invincible. Voters, the polling revealed, have not forgotten about the promises the senator made on the 2000 campaign trail—such as bringing 200,000 new jobs to depressed regions upstate, for instance. Those jobs never materialized. If she faces a qualified opponent, Cox says, "Mrs. Clinton is vulnerable to a challenge."

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