Mr. Cooper May Go to Washington : Oklahoma: Former school principal, 71, defeated incumbent Rep. Mike Synar for the Democratic nomination. Victory surprised even his friends. ‘We thought he was crazy’ when he filed to run, one said.
Virgil Cooper’s retirement was simple. He started each day with two pieces of toast and a cup of coffee, walked five miles, delivered meals to the elderly and hauled clothes to the Goodwill.
And he always found time for the boys at Jo’s Drive-In, a Main Street diner in the heart of Oklahoma’s oil patch, where the talk started with football but almost always settled on politics.
Cooper’s dissatisfaction with government became personal. Three months ago, the 71-year-old former school principal stunned his coffee klatch by laying down $750 and filing as a Democratic candidate for Congress.
“We thought he was crazy,” said Howard Huff, an 81-year-old retired pharmacist in Drumright and one of the regulars at Jo’s. “We thought he was just going to look into it.”
Cooper did more than that. In one of the biggest upsets in Oklahoma political history, he defeated eight-term U.S. Rep. Mike Synar in the Sept. 20 runoff to win the Democratic nomination.
He faces Tom Coburn, a Muskogee doctor, in the Nov. 8 general election. Democrats have held the 2nd District seat since 1922.
While many congressmen are over 55, the American Assn. of Retired Persons is unaware of any first-time congressional candidates in their 70s.
“It shows you can’t stereotype people by age,” said AARP spokesman Peter Ashkenas. “This demonstrates that whatever older Americans want to do, they can still do it.”
The upset rattled incumbents across the land, prompting White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers to remark that “this is a tough environment for incumbents.”
Cooper, a World War II veteran, avid reader and community volunteer, was not as surprised.
“If you’re surprised to win, you probably shouldn’t be running in the first place,” he said, showing a glimpse of his homespun philosophy that is fast making him a folk hero in Oklahoma’s rural northeastern district.
Educated at East Central University in Ada and the University of Tulsa, Cooper taught social studies and math for 34 years, the last 29 in Drumright, where he also coached basketball.
He’s been to Washington once, a few years back on a sightseeing trip with his wife, Ann, and he visited the offices of his Democratic representatives, Sen. David Boren and Synar.
“Mike pointed into the office and said, ‘Mr. Cooper, this is your office.’ I decided to take him up on the offer,” Cooper said with a chuckle.
The upset was largely the result of an anti-Synar climate brought on by a constituency that felt Synar had lost touch and was too liberal. In fact, Cooper introduced himself by saying, “I’m running against Mike Synar.”
Perhaps anyone could have run against Synar and won, but only two other Democrats filed--Cooper and Bill Vardeman, a 71-year-old rancher from Ft. Gibson who missed getting into the runoff by 1% of the vote.
“I guess a lot of younger guys didn’t want to get their heads beat off,” Cooper said.
His candidacy led to a fascinating campaign.
Cooper, with no political experience, tucked business cards under the windows of parked cars and drove an old pickup truck with a campaign sign on the back. Questioned about the validity of his campaign, state Democratic leaders often replied, “Virgil who?”
Synar ran television and radio ads claiming Cooper wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits. Cooper, who draws Social Security, waited nearly two weeks to deny the charges.
When he saw Synar a few days before the runoff, Cooper told him, “You just keep lying about me and I’ll keep telling the truth about you, and we’ll see who gets elected.”
Cooper won with 51% of the vote, even carrying Muskogee County, Synar’s hometown.
Cooper admits his lack of campaign experience led to “political blunders,” but they are harmless, engaging blunders at that.
He said at a news conference that his political idol was Dwight D. Eisenhower. When reminded that Eisenhower was a Republican, Cooper replied, “In World War II, if you said anything bad about Ike, you were through.”
He promised he would not take any out-of-state campaign contributions, but sheepishly admitted he had gone back on his word.
“My wife’s brother in Texas asked if he could send money, so I accepted his $50,” Cooper said.
Is Mr. Cooper ready to go to Washington?
“Yes, I’d go to Washington, but Drumright would still be my home,” he said.
The campaign trail is taking him away from his other chores, such as serving on the pulpit committee at the First Baptist Church, which is looking for a new pastor.
He hasn’t been able to mow his lawn because of the number of national media inquiries.
But Cooper has no regrets.
“If I had still been working, I probably would not have run because I’d have been busy with other things,” Cooper said. “A lot of people out there have a lot more zip and zing than I’ve got. I wasn’t trying to be a role model for any old folks. I just thought there were a lot of things we ought to stand up for.”
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