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Colorado’s John Cooke: From Sheriff To Senator

Colorado’s John Cooke: From Sheriff To Senator

“What was I thinking?”

That was John Cooke’s initial response to being asked what it was like to go from being one of Colorado’s senior law-enforcement officials to being a freshman senator. A1F recently caught up with Cooke to get his take on Colorado’s 2015 legislative session, closely watched by gun owners hoping for a repeal of 2013’s gun-control laws.

“People asked me, ‘Hey are you having fun?’” Cooke said. “Fun is not the right word for listening to six hours of testimony on pesticide application. But once I understood the process, I began to enjoy it more.”

Before winning his Senate seat, Cooke had been the popular multi-term sheriff of Weld County, Colo. He was also the leader of the Colorado Sheriffs Association, where his strong support of Second Amendment rights put him on a collision course with Democrats who rammed through the restrictive gun-control laws in the 2013 legislative session. Supported by 55 of Colorado’s 62 sheriffs, the association sued the state to have the laws overturned. 

Cooke was an outspoken and articulate critic of the laws and traveled across the state to oppose them. In Colorado Springs, he and other sheriffs spoke to a rally of over 900 angry gun owners who were spearheading a petition drive to recall Senate President John Morse. Despite a massive influx of spending by Michael Bloomberg, voters recalled Morse and Pueblo Sen. Angela Giron—events unprecedented in Colorado history. Additionally, Sen. Evie Hudak resigned under threat of recall so Democrats could retain control of the Senate.

In a video widely distributed on the Internet, Cooke had also confronted Gov. John Hickenlooper, asking why he refused to meet with the sheriffs during that contentious 2013 session. Hickenlooper said he didn’t know they wanted to meet, and that he knew his office had “screwed up,” but he’d promised a staffer he would sign the bills. His response nearly cost him the governor’s seat in the 2014 elections."Fairly early on they realized I wasn’t there to kick ass and take names—I was there to get things done for the state of Colorado."

Of course, none of these activities endeared Cooke to his future Democratic colleagues in the Colorado Senate.

“People on both sides of the aisle had preconceived notions of who I was,” Cooke said. “Democrats saw a guy who sued the state over the gun-control laws, and wondered if I was too far right to work with. Even on the Republican side, some were apprehensive. But fairly early on they realized I wasn’t there to kick ass and take names—I was there to get things done for the state of Colorado.”

Repealing the new gun-control laws was still high on his agenda, however. Cooke and fellow Senator Chris Holbert were prime sponsors of the repeal measures. 

“They passed out of committee on party line votes, but gained bipartisan support. On third reading on the Senate floor, three Democrats voted for repeal,” Cooke said. “However, when it went to the House, it was assigned to the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee—which everyone knows as the ‘kill’ committee—who promptly killed it. 

“We got them on record, and we can use that next year. It’s an election year, and we’re only three seats down in the House. We made some gains in the House last year, and hopefully we can take it back.”

Cooke believes that the repeal measures could have seen success if they had made it out of committee.

“I think if they had gone to the House floor, they would have made it out,” he said. “But the House Democrats are locked down pretty tight, and they follow orders pretty well. They were under orders from the House leadership to kill the bills.”

Cooke also thinks it is likely that Gov. Hickenlooper, who has flip-flopped on gun control in the past, would have vetoed any pro-gun measures that made it to his desk.

“He would have been under a lot of pressure from his base and from outside interests: the same outside interests who helped pass the Colorado gun control in the first place—Michael Bloomberg, and probably the vice president and the White House,” he said.

While Cooke was disappointed with the legislation’s fate, the loss wasn’t totally unexpected. He believes pro-gun Coloradans have a good chance to keep the Senate next year, and to take back the House. But he knows that won’t be enough. “We obviously need to take back one more branch of government in three years.”

So, did anti-gun legislators get the message of the recalls, or have they just stubbornly dug in their heels? 

“I talked to some of the Democrats, and yeah, they kind of got the message,” he said. “Several said the way they handled it was bad, because people didn’t feel they had a voice. Thousands showed up to testify and were shut down. Each side got only an hour and a half, and all seven gun-control bills went to two committees on the same day. That’s what cost them those three seats.”Cooke also said many legislators have begun to realize that the results of the 2013 measures were as bad as the process in which they were approved. 

Cooke also said many legislators have begun to realize that the results of the 2013 measures were as bad as the process in which they were approved. 

“Especially in Pueblo; Angela Giron was a Hispanic Democrat in a heavily Hispanic Democratic district, and she lost by 12 points,” he said. “It wasn’t just the process there; it was the gun control. Her district was overwhelmingly telling her to oppose gun control, and she didn’t listen to them. With Morse, it was both his vote and the process, because he was the Senate president and he was the one who set the rules.”

While Morse spearheaded the 2013 legislation, Cooke said the former Senate president didn’t have any effect on the repeal legislation proposed in 2015.

“No, he showed up once in a while—former senators will sometimes come down and sit on the benches outside the Senate, and he did that once,” he said. “But he plays no role there anymore. Once you’re out, you’re out.”

In contrast to the arrogant Morse, who appeared on MSNBC to urge his fellow senators to stop reading pro-gun constituents’ mail, Cooke is self-deprecating. “He’s a has-been … Kind of like being a former sheriff, you know,” he joked.

That’s where the comparisons between Cooke and Morse stop: Morse was ousted, while Cooke achieved another level in public service. In 2016, Morse will be off doing … well, whatever it is he’s doing now. As for John Cooke, he’ll be back to fight for Colorado firearm freedoms.

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