EL PASO, Texas - At the young age of 8 years old, Mayor John Cook's grandparents told the boy he would grow up to be a diplomat.
He had no idea what that meant.
"One day I asked the question and I remember one of my uncles was sitting on the steps at my grandpa's house and he said ‘that's the same as a politician,'" Cook said. "My grandfather said 'no, it's different. It's more like a statesman.' So here I am, 8 years old, confused. 'What's a diplomat? What's a statesman? What's a politician?' My grandfather told me ‘to never be a politician because a politician is somebody who sees where people are going and runs out in front of them and says ‘follow me.' But a statesman is somebody that sees where they should be going and calls out to them ‘follow me.''' They may both be saying the same thing but for different reasons. If you're the statesman, it's not important whether people followed you or not it's that they asked you to."
"So for me I want to take what's right and make it popular, rather than what's popular and trying to make it right. And I think if more elected officials around the country were to do that – not worry about whether or not they're going to get reelected – but just worry about doing the right thing we'd be a much better country. You'd see less partisan politics."
Since taking office, Cook has been dedicated to praying on a daily basis for three things.
"I tell them I pray number one, for wisdom, because I have to make some extremely difficult choices and decisions as the mayor," Cook said. "So you always want to be guided by wisdom. Secondly, I've asked for patience because it's only typical for a mayor to realize I've only got eight years to get all these things accomplished – right now I only have til may to finish up my legacy - whatever that is. Human nature is to become very impatient and that's when you start making mistakes. So I always pray for patience. Then the final thing I pray for is humility."
Cook said gaining attention and being popular can go to your head, especially if constituents happen to be in a different city and recognize you, which has happened to him in Washington, D.C.
"I think in order to be rooted in humility," Cook said. "I have my grandchildren with me frequently and one of the best ways to become very humble quickly is to change a dirty diaper. And I'm probably one of the few males in the country who keeps a supply of diapers in his desk drawer that are not adult size."
Getting Started In Politics
Cook, whose had several petitions filed to recall him, coincidentally first entered the political realm because of a petition. He was working with the Providence Foundation at the time, trying to raise money for a children's hospital here in El Paso.
"As I was starting to gain the support of people from the El Paso, Las Cruces, Alamogordo community to talk them into leaving their trust or their inheritance or their estate to Providence so they could build a children's hospital, all of a sudden it was announced the hospital was going to be sold," Cook said. "I really took offense to the fact we would be selling this community asset to Tenet Health Care, one of the largest for profit providers in the world. I held a press conference and announced I was going to oppose the sale and start a petition drive to try to save Providence."
He wasn't successful but he impressed people with the way he was able to hold a news conference and argue his points with other people. So they asked him if he ever thought about running for political office.
"I told them 'well, I ran for secretary of my high school class once but that was about it,'" Cook said.
It was suggested that he run against Pat Haggerty, whom he considered a friend, for State Representative District 79.
After doing research on Haggerty's stances on issues, and seeing they differed on many of them, Cook decided to run against him.
He was trounced, only getting 30 percent of the vote in the 1997 election.
"I also learned a very valuable lesson back then and that's there is such a thing as partisan politics and that people will very much vote along partisan lines," Cook, 66, said. "They don't really care what the argument is, they're going to vote for a Democrat or a Republican and will very seldom cross party lines even if it's somebody they know and have known for many, many years. There was this one lady at the phone company who had known me for probably 20 years, and I knocked on her door. She said ‘I'm sorry, John but I can't vote for you because you're a Democrat.' I said, ‘yeah but you know who I am. You know my value system, you know what kind of elected official I would be. She said ‘yeah, but I can't cross the party line.' So I had never really realized that because I've voted for Democrats, I've voted for Republicans. So that came as a big surprise to me."
Cook was satisfied he had given it a go and was ready to get his guitar off the wall and a beer from the fridge and celebrate his loss, even though he had spent $10,000 of his own money.
Judge Bill Moody, a family member of Cook's, told him he now had name recognition and that the Northeast city representative position was going to be open and he should run. Cook found a clever way to reuse the campaign signs from his State Rep. race.
He put bumper stickers that stated "John Cook for City Representative District 4" over the area of signs that had "John Cook for Representative District 79."
The 1999 race with seven candidates went to a runoff and Cook emerged victorious. He served three terms on City Council before running for mayor.
"I learned a lot about how city government worked and what the function of the legislative branch of the government was. So then when I got elected as mayor, it was very easy for me compared to Mayor (Joe) Wardy, because remember Mayor Wardy was the chief executive officer and then had to go to be the chief legislative officer which is a little difficult. So that was an easy transition to me, I was already used to being in the legislative branch, not the executive branch. So for me to transition to city manager form of government was easy," Cook said.
The residents of Northeast El Paso also helped Cook make sure he was always prepared.
"Well, a lot of people that are involved in politics end up judging Northeast by the city representative community breakfast. which is typically attended by somewhere between 50 and 75 people every Friday," Cook said. "These are people that are very politically engaged. By 7 o'clock in the morning I guarantee you everyone in that room has read the newspaper and they follow city business. Their memories are like an elephant – they don't forget anything. So I think just facing that group every Friday morning, walking that gauntlet, I think prepared you to make sure you were prepared when you went into a meeting. And that you were very sincere. Because the last thing you wanted to do with that group was to say something that wasn't true and then have to eat your words later. You would be much better to admit your ignorance and then come back with an educated reply the next Friday than to show your stupidity by answering something the wrong way. So that did help. And I think I've followed that through as the mayor I've been very cautious. If I don't know the answer I'm not going to make it up."
Although he was a young adult in the '60s, Cook said that wasn't where he got his ideals for some of the stances he's taken, including the City's domestic partner issue and even going on a tour to promote awareness about the death penalty.
"I think a lot of it is actually goes back to my upbringing in the Cook family," Cook said. "My mom and dad always wanted me to - and I know moms and dads tell their kids all the time 'don't worry about what other kids are doing you just do the right thing.' It's easy for people to say that but it's a hard lesson to really learn. Human nature is you want to go along with the crowd."
Songs Over Speeches
Some may joke that he's "The Singing Mayor" or "The Mayor with the Guitar" but Cook takes it all in stride and doesn't think the titles or his guitar playing and singing distract from his accomplishments.
"I think that's just jealousy that people wish they could sing and play," Cook said with a straight face but clearly showing his ever-present humor. "When people ask me to come and speak, they'll say 'bring the guitar.' I don't bring the guitar unless people ask for it. So people are asking me to bring the guitar and play a song for them. I think that's just part of the human side of me. I'm not a robot. I'm a person, a human being first and mayor second."
Songs also help him get his message across whether he's singing "El Paso's Your Land" - his version of "This Land is Your Land" - or whether he's writing a song about civil rights. He wrote the song "I'm Gonna Take a Stand" about his stance on the domestic partners issue and performed the song at an event to raise funds to reduce his debts from his legal battles.
"... The idea of the song was to ask people if they would stand with me. To stand with me over what I thought was a significant civil rights issue. To me, the whole domestic partner issue was never about gay rights it was about human rights and that all human beings are created equally," Cook said. "You could write a three minute speech about something and just totally miss the point. Your three minute speech would probably end up being five or 10 minutes and then you would not make an impression at all on the audience. Whats beautiful about a poem or a song is you have a very limited amount of space to try to get your idear across. So you want to make sure all the critical components, what it is you want to say, are there. And then the challenge is how you put it to music. In this particular case, I think it worked very well because not only did I get my point across, but I actually had the audience singing with me."
He can talk seriously about issues but his humor is always there, including a late fall 2012 day when the mayor took 30 minutes for an important medical test that just happens to be in front of reporters and photographers.
"If it comes out positive, I guess it will be on the front page of the newspaper," Cook said while waiting 20 minutes for his AIDS test results.
It didn't take long for Cook's humor came through.
"How do you identify yourself sexually?" asked the man administering the test and filling out paperwork.
"Good," Cook said, which got a laugh from the media. "I was going to say ‘on a scale of 1 to 10 – 10.'"
The mayor had charitable reasons for turning his private moment into a photo op.
"I thought it was important for AIDS awareness," he said. "To show there's nothing wrong with getting a test. It's not an indictment on your lifestyle; it's to make sure you're safe from a very dangerous disease. So I can get other people in the community to agree to have an AIDS test and show how simple it is."
It's a moment of humility that shows what kind of man he is.