Ken Cooley: Reifying Participatory Government

RANCHO CORDOVA, CA (MPG)  |  By Margaret Snider
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Assemblyman Ken Cooley (center) stands with Allegra Pickett (L) of Teichert Foundation and Sarah Koligian (R), Superintendent of Folsom Cordova Unified School District, at the Rancho Cordova August Luncheon. Photo by Rick Maness

RANCHO CORDOVA, CA (MPG) - Assemblyman Ken Cooley joked about the origin of the word “politics” at the Rancho Cordova Luncheon on August 17. Cooley said, “It is derived from the Greek word poli, meaning many, and tics, meaning blood-sucking insects.”  However, Cooley’s interest in politics began early.  He still has the envelope with the Kennedy White House return address that he received in answer a letter he sent at the age of nine.  When he was 11, living in Las Vegas, he spent a day shadowing the city manager, and at 17 had lunch with the city manager of Pacific Grove. 

Cooley worked tirelessly with his colleagues for Rancho Cordova cityhood and he first ran for public office in Rancho Cordova.  He was elected to the first city council when Rancho Cordova became a city in 2003.  “It was sixteen years ago this month,” Cooley said, that I started what is now very much my trademark going door to door and knocking on doors and talking to people.”  He was reelected to the city council in 2004 and 2008, and served as mayor in 2005 and 2010.  In November 2012, District 8 elected him to the California State Assembly.

Sarah Koligian, Superintendent of Folsom Cordova Unified School District and also a member of the Senate Education Committee, said that Cooley hears from people like herself often on bills that have direct impact on education.  “Last year he came out and visited all our preschool programs at Cordova Lane Center,” Koligian said.  “He was right there with the students and very much an advocate for early education and supports the First Five initiative.”

Cooley talked about the neighborhood “walks with the mayor” he carried out, and the involvement of the public at an unofficial opening of the new Rancho Cordova City Hall in 2005.  “We invited the community in to write messages to the future on the floor and walls of our chamber, so that our community would enter the building and own the chambers before the council ever met there,” Cooley said. 

The August luncheon was attended by Mayor Linda Budge, Vice-Mayor Bob McGarvey, Council Member Donald Terry, and many others who are regularly at the monthly luncheons.  It was the first time attending for Allegra Pickett of Teichert Foundation.  As grants manager for the foundation, Pickett said, “We are focused on helping the communities in specific ways that they need, and so this is a part of that, for getting to know Rancho Cordova and understanding more about what our needs are here.” 

One thing that stood out to Pickett about Cooley’s address was his use of the word reify, applied to making participatory government more real.  “I definitely feel part of my approach to being present in public life,” Cooley said, “is being out, being visible, sitting at Starbucks . . . and connect(ing) people to the system of which it has been said, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’”

As chair of the Joint Committee on Rules, Cooley has been involved in the Annex Project at the State Capitol.  The West Wing of the capitol is invested with an abundance of symbols of our system of governance, while the Annex is totally devoid of those symbolic references.  The purpose of the Annex Project is to re-establish a functional “People's House” that will support California's executive and legislative branches of government for the next century.  This includes incorporating the historic symbolism and narrative to be compatible with the original West Wing. 

The completion of the Annex Project, Cooley said, is perhaps 10 years away.  A new office building must be built and the legislature, now in the Annex, moved into that building temporarily.  The Annex will be renovated, and the legislature moved back.  “I at most can serve six more years, so I won’t actually be in the legislature when this thing gets done,” Cooley said.  “A lot of professional endeavors are like launching a ballistic missile.  In a ballistic missile . . . it takes a very big motor to get the thing up off the ground and up high.  Then little motors to steer it back wherever it’s going.  I sort of feel my job is to, with my team, be the big motor to get this thing up and running.  So then when I’m not here, others can kind of step in and it will be a little easier to carry on.”

For more information about the State Capitol Annex Project, go to https://annex.assembly.ca.gov/.