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Holding leftover campaign pamphlets from his brief Senate recall campaign, BJ Cook stands outside his home on Fourth Street in River Falls. His fundraising slogan, "Campaign for Pennies," would have spurned all special-interest donations and relied on small, individual donors. Cook proposed slashing legislative pay by 20%, saying: "They make $50,000 a year and are only on the floor for less than 100 days." Despite media reports listing him as a candidate, Cook's name won't appear on the Aug. 9 recall ele...

10th Senate District candidate who never was says both parties fail to represent moderates

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Political rookie BJ Cook's drive to become an independent candidate in the 10th Senate District recall election was short lived but what he stands for may live on.

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Cook, 29, a city of River Falls resident, claims to represent the middle ground, compromise, common sense and the interests of the average person.

"I'm tired of the polarization of both Democrats and Republicans," he said. "None of the politicians are speaking to me completely."

Cook said the electorate basically has a choice between corporate-driven Republicans and union-driven Democrats.

"We are left to choose between those special interests that control both parties," he said.

In May, with the recall drive against state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf well underway, Cook jumped in.

He works at Dick's Fresh Market in Amery managing deliveries and customer service. His girlfriend attends UW-River Falls.

Cook took an unpaid leave of absence from his job to run as a "moderate independent."

"I thought I'd give it a try," he said. "I've never been a candidate for public office."

Calling himself a "political junkie," Cook watches up to three hours of political talk shows nightly, ranging from right winger Sean Hannity on Fox to left winger Rachel Maddow on MSNBC.

To get on the ballot, Cook had just 14 days to turn in a minimum of 400 signatures to Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board by the end of May.

"I ran out of time and came up about a hundred short," Cook said. "I went to somewhere between 600 and 800 houses, mostly in Hudson, Baldwin, Menomonie and Roberts. I was trying to spread out beyond where I live and get my name out there somehow."

Cook said his failure was partly one of perception.

"Many that I talked to didn't want me to be a spoiler for their candidate or party," he said.

Cook said he was also hurt by the sudden entry in the Senate recall race of Isaac Weix, the so-called "fake Democrat."

"Some people assumed I was a fake, too," Cook said. "Having Weix get into the race at the same time caused confusion. But those who signed on my behalf said I deserved a chance and wanted another option."

Cook said it seemed an ideal time to run for state office.

"I thought because it is a special election, with a compressed period for campaigning and lots of attention focused on the race, that it would a good opportunity for an unknown like me to get in," Cook said.

Disdain: Right, left

Cook said the political parties have caved in to extremists and are corrupted by links to special-interest groups.

He pointed to President Obama's "protest vote" to raise the federal debt ceiling as a U.S. senator. Now, as president, Obama warns of the economic calamity that would result from such votes as Congress considers again whether to raise the debt ceiling.

When Democrats had majorities in state government and could control political boundaries, Democrats opposed Republicans who called for a "nonpartisan way of redistricting."

Now that Republicans are the majority state party, Republicans want to redraw political boundaries to their advantage and oppose Democrats who suddenly favor a nonpartisan approach.

"That's the kind of stuff that needs to stop happening," Cook said.

On the national level, Cook said extremism is rampant: The fiscally conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats have either been voted out of office or pushed out of power within their party; Tea Party activists, while a minority within the Republican Party, are so rigid and militant they call the shots for their party.

Cook said Republicans champion hands-off government and state's rights until it comes to social issues like abortion and gay marriage.

"Then they try to make more legislation for the whole country that gets involved in people's lives," he said.

Cook says unions have become just another "big corporate interest" that Democrats are beholden to.

Cook, however, opposes taking away the union rights of public workers and teachers.

"And I don't think former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson would have proposed any kind of legislation that ends collective bargaining," he said.

"The parties are going farther and farther apart," Cook said. "As that happens, the rest of us don't have a political voice. Some of that we've allowed to happen because of complacency."

He said the Democrats have never had a realistic view of budget deficits and are too willing to spend tax dollars.

Yet Cook said neither party has the wisdom to establish "rainy day funds" to cover deficits as they occur.

While conceding he knows little about Senate Democratic challenger Shelly Moore, Cook's bothered by a statement she allegedly made from her Ellsworth School District email account: "We're not supposed to use school email, but since all our rights are being taken away, I don't frankly care."

Cook also said that media fact checkers have concluded that Moore's campaign literature proclaiming Harsdorf wants to end Medicare is blatantly false.

But he criticized Harsdorf for blaming Wisconsin's recent budget deficits on former governor Jim Doyle.

"Would she blame (former Minnesota Republican) governor Tim Pawlenty for Minnesota's current $5 billion deficit mess?" Cook wondered.

He also criticized Harsdorf for attacking the Doyle administration over lack of state funding for public schools while she's just supported her party's $800 million cut in state aid to schools.

"Both sides give you half-truths," Cook said. "What we need from our politicians is honesty and straightforwardness."

Cook said Democrats must be more accepting of shared sacrifices to balance budget deficits, but he added that it's wrong for state Republicans to turn around and give tax breaks to big corporations, including those from out of state and belonging to the likes of the billionaire tycoon Koch brothers.

Now that he's not a Senate candidate, how will Cook mark his Aug. 9 recall ballot?

"I'm not committed to Democrats, but I'll probably vote for Moore," he said. "The reason is I want to keep state politics in check and not see one party dominate."

Cook notes that either Harsdorf or Moore -- whoever wins the recall election -- will face re-election in fall 2012. He doesn't know if he'll ever try to run again, but believes our political system is underrepresented.

"We need more average citizens running for public office," he said. "We need the input of those who have been through hard times, financial troubles, who don't necessarily have a college degree."

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Phil Pfuehler
Phil Pfuehler has been editor of the River Falls Journal since 1991.
(715) 426-1050
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