John Cook is one of the Massachusetts Republican Party’s rare recent success stories: Unlike the candidates he has worked for, he keeps on winning.
His consulting company took in more than $880,000 over the past three years as he worked simultaneously as a paid fund-raiser for the MassGOP and for individual Republican candidates, including Scott Brown.
At the same time, Republican insiders say, Cook emerged as a key player steering decisions for Charlie Baker’s current campaign for governor and the MassGOP, which is now chaired by Cook’s protege from the Brown campaign, Kirsten Hughes.
How did Cook, a 33-year-old relative newcomer most Republicans have never heard of, become such an influential figure in Republican circles? Even many in the party don’t know.
His rise highlights how lucrative the fund-raising trade can be in an age of nearly unfettered spending on political campaigns. It also has stirred concerns within the party that he has gained too much power, too quickly, and made decisions that are proving costly to the already beleaguered state GOP.
Among Republicans, Cook’s multilayered work for numerous candidates and committees has generated confusion about his role and suspicion about his interests.
“One of the concerns you hear from people is that all roads in Massachusetts seem to go through John Cook financially,” said one GOP operative. “And there are questions about what the value is. What are you really getting for it?”
Cook did not respond to interview requests.
This year, Cook is known as the lead fund-raiser for Baker’s campaign, with an office in Baker campaign headquarters — a site he helped choose, said three Republicans with knowledge of the Baker campaign’s operations.
But Cook is not paid by Baker’s campaign. His firm, JCI Consulting, is paid by the Massachusetts Republican Party and the Massachusetts Victory Committee, a joint fund-raising committee formed with the Republican National Committee.
Massachusetts Republican Party spokeswoman Emmalee Kalmbach said his title is MassVictory chairman, but she could not be certain when he assumed that title; she believed he has been leading the party’s Victory efforts since 2011. That spans the time he was working as Brown’s finance director and handling fund-raising for Gabriel Gomez’s campaign for US Senate last year.
At the same time, Cook has emerged as the go-to guy for the Baker campaign. One longtime GOP campaign operative said that Cook seems to have “consigliari duty” — input on final decision making on everything from staffing to campaign strategy.
“He has definitely expanded way beyond his profile as a finance guy,” the Republican said, describing him as a “highly regarded, really nice guy with a great reputation as a fund-raiser.”
Cook, who grew up in Belmont, previously worked in finance for president George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign and as national finance coordinator for Bush’s inaugural committee. He worked as a finance aide on the 2008 presidential campaigns, first for Mitt Romney, then for John McCain after Romney dropped out. In between, he held several jobs in D.C., working for the departments of Defense and Energy.
Five and a half years ago, he interviewed to be executive director of the MassGOP, recalled then-chairman Jennifer Nassour. She didn’t hire him.
“He wanted a lot more money than I was able to pay him,” Nassour said.
But later that year, Cook became Baker’s finance director on his first campaign for governor against incumbent Deval Patrick. Cook won accolades for that campaign and put himself in position to claim the same role in Brown’s Senate reelection campaign — at a dramatically higher rate.
By working for multiple entities, including Brown’s official campaign and partnerships with the state and national parties, Cook’s firm pulled in nearly $640,000 during Brown’s 2012 campaign, finance records show.
He also gained entree into the big leagues of Republican politics in Massachusetts. One Republican insider said Cook increasingly sought involvement in all party affairs, not just fund-raising.
“There are two things John brings to the table,” said longtime Republican National Committeeman Ron Kaufman, pointing to Cook’s solid relationships with donors and with his clients, like Brown and Baker.
“The big donors trust John and trust him to work with them and have Charlie’s ear,” he said.
“It makes the finance person’s job easier to accomplish if the donors know that he or she is at the table when the decision is made,” he added. “It really helps a lot if you’re the finance person and a donor calls up and is concerned about an ad or spending or whatever and a finance person can say, ‘I’m in the room, here’s why.’ ”
But Baker campaign officials downplayed Cook’s involvement there, suggesting he is not working for Baker or running mate Karyn Polito.
“John Cook is not compensated by the Baker-Polito committee,” said Baker campaign manager Jim Conroy said. “He is a supporter and volunteer fund-raiser.”
In recent months, Republican activists have been questioning Cook’s growing influence over the party and challenging some of the costly decisions they attribute to him. Those decisions centered on the timing and outcome of the party’s nominating convention — both driven by Cook’s finance model, which relies on fund-raising in partnership with the state and national Republican parties, said three GOP operatives.
Such “Victory” funds, used by Democrats and Republicans alike, let big-dollar donors who have maxed out contributions to individual candidates give more to the state and national party, which redirect the money as they see fit.
The RNC joined forces with the Massachusetts Republican party as early as September 2013 — the month Baker declared his candidacy — Federal Election Commission filings show.
But the MassGOP could not start using those funds on Baker’s campaign until he became the party’s official nominee for governor. As a result, Cook pushed to hold this year’s convention early to secure the nomination and get a leap on fund-raising, the three GOP operatives said.
That caused political ripple effects. Arenas in Lowell and Worcester, which often host the conventions, were still booked for hockey season, so the confab ended up relocating to Boston — a change of venue that increased ticket prices for delegates, discouraged attendance from outlying communities and cost the candidates for governor $25,000 to speak at their own convention.
Then, a dispute arose over the convention nomination, further threatening the finance model.
A second candidate, conservative Mark Fisher, sought the nomination for governor and claimed a stronger-than-expected show of support from delegates.
After MassGOP officials declared that he still did not qualify for the ballot, Fisher sued in Suffolk Superior Court, contending he’d been cheated out of a candidacy by party leaders who favored Baker. The MassGOP fought the suit, refusing to produce the tally sheets that could legitimize the actual vote taken at the convention.
In the contentious weeks that followed, many GOP activists puzzled over their leaders’ stance. Why did the MassGOP not settle the suit to limit the political damage?
GOP operatives said their leaders resisted because they were so wedded to Cook’s finance plan, which counted on early, big-dollar fund-raising with the national party. To take immediate advantage, Baker had to be the only candidate on the ballot.
“All of that was dictated not by the best political strategy,” said one of the GOP operatives. “It was dictated by finance strategy and that’s how they got into that big mess. And John Cook was piloting that plane.”
Ultimately, the party agreed to put Fisher’s name on the ballot, while making Baker the nominee through a vote of the executive committee. But the legal battle, which continues, already cost the party some $100,000 and could cost $200,000 more, the GOP attorney told state committee members in June.
It remains to be seen how the finance model will work out for Baker.
What is clear is that the system is paying dividends for Cook.
Since November 2013, the MassGOP and Massachusetts Victory Committee have paid Cook’s firm $127,660 for fund-raising consulting, state and federal campaign finance records show.
Four years ago, when working directly for the candidate, Cook had made just $75,535 on Baker’s whole gubernatorial campaign, according to state finance records.
What changed in the interim? A consulting arrangement and the partnerships Cook made during the Brown campaign, a high-octane effort with huge national implications.
During Brown’s race, Cook’s consulting firm collected from various different committees, campaign finance reports show:
The senator’s official reelection campaign paid JCI $356,732. Another $106,173 came from the Scott Brown Victory Committee, a joint venture between Brown’s campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (and later the Massachusetts Republican Party).
Another $37,500 came the following year from Brown Victory Committee 2012, a joint fund-raising committee between Brown’s official campaign committee and the Massachusetts Republican Party.
After Brown’s loss, consulting continued to pay dividends to JCI. Last year, the Republican State Committee paid his firm $192,012; the Gabriel Gomez campaign for US Senate paid $82,200 for fund-raising consulting.
And Brown’s old campaign committee continued to make small payments to Cook — even as it morphed into a PAC and moved to New Hampshire, where Brown is now running for US Senate.
The PAC paid Cook’s firm $4,500 in May 2013, the same month it became “The People’s Seat PAC,” and another $4,500 in October 2013, the month it was registered in New Hampshire. Now called the Fiscal Responsibility PAC, Brown’s old Massachusetts campaign committee has shifted $10,000 of its remaining funds to Brown’s New Hampshire campaign.
Fund-raising fees are not always paid out during the course of the campaign. The state GOP paid JCI $139,550 payment in January 2013, weeks after Brown’s loss. Kalmbach, the GOP spokeswoman, said the payment was for “fund-raising consulting services” on Brown’s race.
JCI’s payments became an issue in June when some Republican state committee members asked the chairwoman to explain them; the bylaws committee plans to seek more information.
State Republican party officials would not detail the rate they are paying Cook for his current or past work. The party’s treasurer, state committee member Brent Andersen, did not return phone calls for comment.
“As a general rule, we do not discuss the specifics of our contracts publicly,” Kalmbach said in a statement.
The three GOP operatives said Cook gets a percentage of the high-dollar donations he brings in for each campaign he works for — though not all the funds benefit Massachusetts candidates.
And that concerns the operatives, since Cook now has so much sway over both the party and the Baker campaign.