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Legislator Cooper to signal Senate intentions this fall

'I’ve been to countless Democratic clubs and other events, whether it be the Haitian Day Parade or the Bangladeshi Festival,’ Legislator Jon Cooper said of his recent forays through Long Island, Manhattan and the boroughs. He is pictured here at the Puerto Rican Day Parade in the Bronx. Courtesy Legislator Cooper (click for larger version)
August 06, 2009 | 11:19 AM
As Legislator Jon Cooper runs for a sixth and final term on the Suffolk County Legislature, where he serves as majority leader, he continues to test the waters of a national Congressional campaign. Several contenders have stepped out of the ring, but Cooper (D-Lloyd Neck) is still very much in the running for the 2010 U.S. Senate race to unseat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

"I will be making a definitive announcement about my intentions in the fall," Cooper said. "Right now, I'm moving aggressively forward with my exploratory campaign efforts."

If he runs for higher office, his two top priorities would be achieving health care reform and jump-starting the economy through job creation.

"If health care reform is achieved before I took office," he said, "I'd say the third top priority for me would be promoting renewable energy technologies to help us achieve energy independence which has not just environmental benefits but also tremendous economic benefits to our nation and also foreign policy benefits."

The only official candidate for the Senate seat that Hillary Clinton vacated when she became secretary of state is Jonathan Tasini, a labor activist who challenged Clinton in the 2006 Senate primary. Rep. Carolyn Maloney has not officially announced her intentions and Reps. Steve Israel and Carolyn McCarthy have both recently said they would not run.

Working with a number of leaders from the Obama grassroots movement from across the state — himself as the presidential candidate's Long Island campaign chairman — Cooper hopes to meet with more people this month in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse.

He would not mention any names, but said a number of upstate mayors, state officials and organizations have promised to endorse him.

Recently, he hired a D.C.-based political consulting firm and a fundraising firm and has so far raised about $35,000 through two separate fundraising events.

"That's why this quarter, I'm setting a goal to raise at least a half-million dollars," he said.

Regardless of his candidacy, Cooper opined that a strong, consistent progressive person could beat Gillibrand. Rep. Israel could have done so, handily, Cooper said.

"By the way, Democratic primary voters are the best educated voters out there," Cooper said. "They really care about the issues. … She's going to somehow have to convince Democratic primary voters to forget about her 100 percent pro-NRA voting record, forget about her staunch opposition in the past to fair immigration reform, to forget about that, for nine years, as a corporate attorney, she represented big tobacco. … I am convinced that she's going to have a hard time doing it."

Because she was not elected in a statewide contest, Gillibrand should have to primary, Cooper argued.

"I absolutely believe a Democratic primary is good for the Democratic Party. Whoever emerges from the primary process, I think, will be a stronger candidate for it."

Citing Obama's campaign for president, Cooper remarked, "The primary campaign absolutely strengthened him for the general election."

He added, "If there's a problem with Gillibrand … if she's not going to be a strong candidate, it's best to find that in the primary than wait for the general election."

Gillibrand's senate seat was previously held by Robert Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Hillary Clinton, whom Cooper described as "true strong progressive voices."

"I think that considering the seat that's being filled and the people that have filled that seat in the past, we really need someone who is a true, strong progressive …" Cooper said, "where there's not this feeling that the person is holding their finger up to the winds and seeing which way the political winds are blowing at the time and that's what determines their position at the time. Sometimes you've got to take positions that may not be popular at the time with your constituents if you think it's the right thing to do for the country."

Matt Canter, a spokesman for Sen. Gillibrand, said in an email that she is focused on the challenges that affect communities in Suffolk County and across New York State.

"She is working closely with President Obama to create jobs, rebuild our economy, and repair America's broken health care system," he said. "In the House, she worked to support law enforcement and keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Now in the Senate she is working on new legislative efforts to protect communities in Suffolk and across New York State from gun violence."

Yet Cooper claims that the threat of a primary has Gillibrand tacking to the left.

"Now she's morphing into a strong supporter of gun control and a strong advocate for immigrant rights and a strong opponent of big tobacco, and now she's a supporter of same sex marriage. ..." Cooper said.

Canter struck back at Cooper, raising questions about the legitimacy of his exploratory campaign.

"You may want to ask him if he's been raising any money," Canter stated via email. "He never filed with the Federal Election Committee and I don't believe you are allowed to raise money without filing with the FEC."

That's not true, said Cooper, who clarified the distinction between exploratory and campaign committees. "If it's an exploratory committee, you don't register with the FEC, you register with the IRS, which I have done," he said, providing two documents certifying his registration of the Jon Cooper for Senate Exploratory Committee as of April 24, 2009.

If he were to officially announce he's running, Cooper said, "then I have ten days to convert my exploratory committee to a campaign committee and then I have to file with the FEC. ... There are more restrictions on how you can spend money [in an exploratory committee] but you raise money exactly the same way."

In the midst of making his decision, Cooper is running a re-election campaign in Suffolk to fend off Republican Frank Stalzer. Though he does not know much about Stalzer other than his candidacy last year against Rep. Steve Israel, Cooper said, "He seems like a gentleman and I'm sure we'll have a healthy debate on the issues."

Juggling two campaigns at once is no problem for Cooper, who maintains that he has always been able to multitask, "just as I've been able to run my manufacturing company and be a father to five kids [and] at the same time I've been a legislator for the past decade. And throw into that … the year I spent running Barack Obama's presidential campaign on Long Island. If I do indeed decide to run for the Senate and certainly right now, during the exploratory campaign, that's not impacting at all my ability to be the best county legislator I could be."

Cooper introduced two of his recent bills — to ban electronic cigarettes and to promote shopping in Suffolk County — in the midst of the exploratory campaign.

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