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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.
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.
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 leadershipits 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-lawthe 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 trailsuch 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."
And that opponent, the candidate's polling shows, is Cox. "He has a robust résumé which no one knew about because he didn't hold any press conferences," Mueller explains. But when the pollsters introduced people to Cox, playing up his work abroad and at home, Mueller adds, "they responded. They said, 'I like this guy.' "
Reality, it seems, is bearing out those polls. Cox has managed to impress people up and down the campaign trail, pressing the flesh at convenience stores, farm stands, and clambakes, delighting dairy farmers, machine shop workers, and even girls in tiaras.
"I'm happy to inform you that Ed Cox impressed everyone who crossed his path, including my raccoon hunter," says Dan Olson, who heads the Wayne County Republican Committee, and who took Cox on a whirlwind tour of the Lake Ontario shoreline. Everywhere the candidate went, he provoked what Olson calls "spontaneous applause," a feat for any city dweller among a "well-reserved group of upstate Republicans."
The candidate, says Olson, one of nine county chairmen to endorse Cox, "is a nice guy. He was as at ease with the guy who hunts raccoons as with the fair princesses."
That Cox has turned out to have folksy charm seems an added plus, an unexpected quality in a man viewed as coming from privilege. But what wows those GOP activists who have embraced Cox is his list of credentials. Consider the reaction of Bob Smith, chair of the Onondaga County Republican Committee, when he met the candidate last June. Smith had never heard of Cox outside of the Nixon connection. But then, he recalls, Cox told him about his tenure on the judicial-review panel. "I said, 'Oh, well, I didn't know that,' " Smith relays. Then Cox ticked off the parks commission, and the school board, and a host of other projects.
"I said to him, 'Ed, you've got to tell people about these things,' " Smith says. "We didn't even know he had all that experience."
John Aspland, of the Washington County Republican Committee, agrees, calling his candidate of choice "the most qualified to run for United States Senate." When it comes to the breadth and depth of experience needed to do a senator's job, he and others argue, there is no comparison.
"Personally," Aspland says, referring to Cox's popular GOP rival, "I'd like to see Pirro run for attorney general."
So what does the state party's leadership see in its supposed favored candidate?
Ryan Moses, the party's executive director, points out that the only state leader to endorse Pirro is Minarik, who did so in his role as head of the Monroe County GOP. The state committee, meanwhile, has yet to endorse any of its 2006 statewide candidates. Currently, the party base is weighing the contenders, including Pirro and Cox, interviewing them in a series of meetings statewide. "Ed Cox is a great guy," Moses says, "and we're glad to have him be part of this process."
Whether Pirro shares the sentiment is anyone's guess. When asked if the candidate sees Cox as a threat, or if she fears losing momentum, her aides tell the Voice: "Jeanine Pirro is focusing on the only race that matters. She is confident she will defeat Hillary Clinton next November."
And if her enthusiasts are fretting about the state of her candidacy, they're not showing it. After all, they argue, Pirro is a powerful, dynamic woman, who has one thing Cox doesn't: proven electability. She knows how to stump and raise money; she's battle-tested. And because Pirro is generally a moderate Republicanshe's pro-choice, for instance, while Cox opposes abortion rightsshe represents the kind of candidate who can woo suburban soccer moms on both sides of the aisle. In the words of one party insider, "I see this race as Jeanine and Hillary. That's the only way I see it."
Who knows what will happen next? Who knows if a majority of GOP activists will follow the lead of Minarik and back Pirro, or if they'll buck the leadership and embrace the underdog? A poll released on September 30 has the candidates essentially tied, with Pirro predicted to gain 35 percent of the vote in a race against Clinton, compared to 34 percent for Cox in that same contest.
Cox, for his part, is gearing up for a fight, traveling the country, raising moneycurrently, he has a war chest of $768,014, most of it from his personal bank account. He may have a leg up on Pirro, who's yet to file any campaign finance records. Clinton, on the contrary, has collected $12.5 million, and counting. Still, he says he plans to make his candidacy official as early as this fall. "I wouldn't be doing all this if I didn't think I was a qualified candidate," he says. Maybe if he weren't so modest he'd put it as Mueller does. "There's a perception that with [Pirro's] star quality and her being the anointed candidate, Ed Cox would roll over and play dead," his strategist says. "But nothing could be further from the truth."