Assemblyman Jim Cooper was elected to the California Assembly in 2014. He serves on the agriculture committee, among others, and was formerly the mayor of Elk Grove while serving as a captain in the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.
What experiences in life brought you into the political arena?
I worked in law enforcement for 30 years and several of those were as a departmental captain. During the course of my career I also served the department as the sheriff’s spokesperson. Obviously, working for an elected sheriff, I kind-of cut my teeth in politics, so I dealt with many locally-elected officials like school board members, members of the board of supervisors and city council members. Some of those were pretty critical and serious situations. I saw some things that were going on, and quite frankly, thought I could do a better job. It was when Elk Grove became a city in 2000 that I first ran for office. I was the top vote getter among about 36 candidates and became Elk Grove’s first mayor. I spent 14 years on the city council. I was doing two jobs: one at the sheriff’s department and one on the city council. Five of those years I was undercover buying drugs at night. So I developed an expertise and spoke about drug and gang prevention and awareness. I did a lot of teaching about it around the state to educators, law enforcement professionals, students and parents.
When you ran for the first time, did you have a “signature” issue?
My main issue was public safety and education. I have branched out since then. When I first started my professional career 30 years ago, I worked very hard to clean up poor neighborhoods struggling with crime and drugs and underperforming schools. Where I lived in Elk Grove, the kids had a lot of sports and other outlets which was not the case in these other areas. In my city of Elk Grove, we had 15,000 kids playing youth sports. We had the largest youth soccer registration in the country—5,000 kids playing youth soccer! And, we had and the biggest Cal Ripken baseball league west of the Mississippi River. It was the youth sports mecca in the Sacramento region. But just a couple of miles away in poor neighborhoods, it was very different. I thought if they had the same opportunity, things might be different. Their lives might be better.
You serve on the Assembly Agriculture Committee; what is your opinion about the California ag industry?
Not every member knows about ag. My fellow assemblyman from Napa, Bill Dodd, always boasts about the wine there. But I remind him every day that most of those Napa wines are made with Lodi grapes! Lodi produces more wine grapes than Napa. I’ve been on dozens of farm tours throughout my political career: dairy farms, fish farms, turkey farms, and I’ve seen the harvesting and packaging of cherries. It’s very impressive to see what goes on and it has helped me become more knowledgeable about agriculture. When I first joined the Assembly, I was asked for a list of committees I’d like to be on. I specifically asked for ag. The farm tours helped me during some of the hearings because I can talk knowledgably about some of the ag issues. Sometimes I rebut those folks that are against the industry. Everything we eat and wear is the result of ag.
The number one issue right now with the ag committee is water. It is so important to make sure we get farmers enough water. I think it’s an educational process with those who don’t understand that. Growers should not be told what to grow because of how much water a crop needs. It’s their choice and the market dictates that. I think we need to do as much as we can to make it easier for farmers. In the past, others have made it very tough on business and don’t understand it’s a struggle. A lot of folks in the ag industry have been here for generations and passed farms on from one generation to another. They’ve done a great job and we need to let them grow because that creates more jobs and economic development—the entire state benefits from it.
You spent many years in criminal justice. How did that experience influence your decision to run for office?
Those 30 years of law enforcement work helped me become a very understanding person. I remember one Christmas morning at a hospital here in Sacramento looking at a dead 18-month-old on a gurney who had been beaten to death. I was away from my family on Christmas morning dealing with a tragedy. It was the job I needed to do and Christmas morning was when I needed to do it. I was out on calls on many holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. We always drove two cars when we went out in case I got called out and had to leave. My family is also very understanding. I have four daughters—between the ages of 14 and 24. I know how lucky I am.
What is in your political future?
Right now I just want to do the best job I can for the people of California. In law enforcement I’ve always had to deal with two sides of the story. I’ve had to come into a situation and figure it out. Some folks don’t have real common sense. I’ve met some very educated people, but we must also ask, “What is good for the average person?” Sometimes people forget that.
Our members produce the finest fruits, vegetables and nuts in the world, and you have ag in your district. Are you a consumer of our products?
Yes, I am. Right now it’s cherry season and I love cherries. I love fruits, vegetables, and almonds and I should eat more—I’m a little round around the waist right now, (more than I should be). So I hope to be going on a diet soon, and that diet would include lots of fruits and vegetables produced here and grown locally.
Assemblymember Jim Cooper’s message to the members of Western Growers:
My job is to be your champion and to and educate the public about ag (and other issues of course), and really make people aware of what goes on. Most people don’t think about where food or fiber comes from or what it takes to grow that food. We are ground zero here in California for food production. We feed California and we feed the nation.
(Editor’s Notes: The questions and answers have been paraphrased for brevity and clarity.)