Jon Cooper says he saw “the first red flag” back in January, as he sat in his home in Glen Cove with his spouse, Rob, watching David Paterson introduce Kirsten Gillibrand as the state’s new junior U.S. senator.
“Rob said, ‘Isn’t that Al D’Amato standing next to Gillibrand?’”
For Mr. Cooper, the 54-year-old majority leader of the Suffolk County Legislature, that red flag was followed by others, as he learned of the conservative streak that ran through Ms. Gillibrand’s House record on some of the issues he holds most dear: gun control, immigration reform, gay rights.
In April, he formed an exploratory committee. At the time, that made him one of several other Democratic elected officials who saw an opportunity to challenge Ms. Gillibrand in 2010 by running from the left.
Now, seven months later, thanks to a leftward tack from Ms. Gillibrand and a White House willing to clear-cut a formidable field of would-be challengers—at various times, Representatives Carolyn McCarthy, Carolyn Maloney and Steve Israel each made noises about mounting primary bids—Mr. Cooper is the last elected would-be challenger standing. (Jonathan Tasini, a labor activist and regular protest candidate, is also running.)
This may be because he’s not a significant enough person, in political terms, to have made it onto anyone’s radar in the first place. Or, as he admits, it may simply be because there’s nothing much that the powers that be can actually take away from him.
“Unlike a member of Congress, they have nothing to threaten me with, no stick to threaten me with and no carrot to offer me,” he said.
He went on to describe himself as a “pit bull.”
“If I’m pushed, my natural inclination is to dig my heels in and push right back,” he said. “So that’s why if Chuck Schumer were to call me or someone were to call me, I’d take the call, but it’s not going to affect me. If someone were to try to threaten me, it would just increase my desire.”
Ms. Gillibrand, as Mr. Cooper points out, has the public backing of much of the Democratic establishment. She also has lots more money—$4 million on hand, as opposed to Mr. Cooper, who says he has only raised enough money to cover expenses—and, despite a generally mediocre approval rating among Democratic primary voters, vastly superior name recognition. At the moment, Mr. Cooper will only say that he’s “strongly leaning” toward running, and that he’s planning to make some sort of announcement at a press conference on Nov. 24.
OVER DINNER IN midtown, Mr. Cooper did not look or act much like a pit bull. He wore a dark suit and a red tie with a gold Suffolk legislator pin on his lapel. He has close-cropped white hair and dark eyebrows; on this night, he looked like a narrower, friendlier Howard Dean. He began by showing off pictures of his five adopted children on his BlackBerry—“you have to Facebook-friend me to see the better ones,” he prodded—and he was guarded with the names of supporters, for fear that he would jeopardize their standing with Ms. Gillibrand if he decides not to run. When told that those who know him—even those who think he might be delusional for challenging an incumbent senator—uniformly describe him as warm and friendly, Mr. Cooper replied, with a shrug and a smile: “You can be a pit bull and be nice.”
Perhaps it is his overwhelming niceness that leads party leaders to speak fondly of Mr. Cooper, even as they question his candidacy. “All things being equal, if there was a vacancy, he could serve admirably as a senator; unfortunately, right now there is none,” said the state party chairman, Jay Jacobs, who has personally endorsed Senator Gillibrand. “To oppose an incumbent, you need a very strong, significant, compelling reason, and I haven’t heard one.”
Mr. Cooper concedes there is little difference between himself and Ms. Gillibrand on policy. “I can’t think of a position she takes now that I disagree with,” Mr. Cooper admitted. His concern is that she arrived at her positions on gun control and gay rights only after her elevation to the Senate.
“She’s now pro–same-sex marriage, as I have always been,” he said. “She supports repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ as I always have. She now says she supports gun control, which I’ve always done. So it’s true on all these issues of interest to me, she’s now apparently taking the right position.”
Those are issues that Mr. Cooper would like to make hallmarks of his campaign. In 2000, he picked a fight with the N.R.A. by proposing mandatory lockboxes for guns that children could access. He said he had to give up his personalized license plate—“UV MAN,” for the ultraviolet lighting company he runs—out of fear for his safety.
On issues of gay rights, Mr. Cooper would seem to be a natural candidate. He met his spouse, Rob Cooper (Rob adopted Jon’s name 21 years ago), on the dance floor of a discotheque in Glen Cove. “We passed each other, took a few steps, turned around at the same time and basically ran toward each other and got involved in conversation. That led to a date, and I think within a week I asked him to move in with me,” he said.