It's election season and that can mean only one thing. Heeee's baaaaack. Merrill Cook, the eternal candidate, is on the ballot, this time for Salt Lake County mayor.
For the record, this is his 10th campaign. His won-loss record is 2-7, which wouldn't make the playoffs if he were a basketball team. This man has suffered more rejection than the Amway guy, but he keeps coming back for more.
"He just lives and breathes politics," his wife Camille says.
Cook loves politics so much that he used to hold mock debates in his mother's home during presidential election years. In 1960, he played the part of Richard Nixon to his brother-in-law's John Kennedy. It became an event during the next two decades — he was Nixon to a friend's George McGovern and Ronald Reagan to a rival's Jimmy Carter. Neighbors, friends and extended family would gather around the living room to listen.
"We'd have refreshments afterward, if everyone was still talking," Camille says.
After making a fortune producing mining explosives, Cook took up a new hobby: Running for office. In 1984 he ran for the school board and lost by eight votes after a recount. A year later, he ran for Salt Lake mayor and lost. In 1986, he ran for county commissioner and lost by some 40 votes. In 1988, he ran for governor as an independent and lost. In 1992, he ran for governor again and lost — Mike Leavitt received 42 percent of the vote, Cook 36 percent.
In '96, Cook, the Buffalo Bills of politics, finally broke through.
He ran for Congress against Rocky Anderson and won. Two years later he was re-elected. In 2000, the Republicans dumped the incumbent Cook and lost the seat in Congress. In 2002, Cook ran again for Congress and lost. Now he wants Nancy Workman's job as Salt Lake County mayor.
"I am fully aware that a lot of people think it's very strange,"
he says. "To my detractors, it's a negative that I've run all the time. To me, it's persistence and commitment to what you believe."
During the campaign, Cook sleeps fitfully, usually waking up in the wee hours with something on his mind. True to form, Monday morning he woke up at 4:30, turned on a light and jotted down campaign ideas for 45 minutes. At 6 a.m., he dictated his writings to Camille, then dashed off to the campaign trail. After stopping at a senior citizens' home, he stood in a grocery store parking lot and passed out fliers in the rain.
"Sometimes, I tell him no more, but he doesn't listen," Camille says. "The stress is awful and the money it costs to run — we won't have anything left! But he just can't stay away. He loves it."
Political campaigns are one of Cook's few indulgences. For a multimillionaire, he lives modestly. He drives an Impala, buys his clothes off the rack and thinks a big night out is dinner at Sizzler. He spends his money instead on elite private schools for his children, worldwide travel to indulge his passion for opera, and politics. Cook has spent $2.5 million on his 10 campaigns, plus $500,000 to support initiatives.
"We've all said that's a lot of money, but we've made people conscious of things we want to change, like taxes," he says. "Even with the losses and the heartache, I wouldn't change a thing. I believe in public service. And county mayor fits me so well with my business experience."
So Cook is running for office again. It's probably easier now that he's lost 100 pounds ("I didn't realize how easy it is to get out of the tub," he says).
Will he run again if he loses next week's election?
"Yes," he says without hesitation.
Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesday. Please send e-mail to email@example.com.