Bekki Cook: From state government to kindergarten

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bekki Cook is a mom, lawyer, former secretary of state and education advocate. And like many individuals wearing multiple hats, efficiency has been key to her success.

Recently she sat down for an interview and talked about why she pursued a career in law, her road to the secretary of state's office, politics and policy, and her passion to help children read.

While in college at the University of Missouri, Bekki Cook's father died in a plane crash, and the experience that followed was part of what inspired her to pursue a career as a lawyer.

"He died and my mother went through an awful lot with the probate process, a lot of legality. ... Everything was really hard, and I thought I could be a lawyer who could represent people and be maybe a little bit better at explaining things to the client. I could see a real need for a better connect with the client on the part of the lawyer from my mother's perspective."

After graduating from law school, Cook's first job was at the Limbaugh Firm in Cape girardeau.

One of her colleagues while at the Limbaugh Firm was, of course, Rush Limbaugh Sr. Cook called Limbaugh, who she referred to as Mr. Limbaugh, the "best man in the whole wide world."

Board of Education

It may be surprising to some that Cook, a Democrat, was first appointed to the state Board of Education in 1990 by Gov. John Ashcroft, a Republican.

Finishing a term of a board member from Sikeston who stepped down due to other time commitments, Cook was asked by Ashcroft to fill the post at the recommendation of Steve Limbaugh Jr., who was not yet a judge, and Jackson lawyer John Lichtenegger. She was reappointed to the board by Gov. Mel Carnahan in 1993.

Believing in the importance of good education, Cook took her board position seriously.

"It was incredibly important, I thought, that we set decent education policy in this state. And that's what this board was about and is about. The state Board of Education helps set policy on how education is conducted in this state, in the public schools K-12. And to me that was a big opportunity to participate in that."

Secretary of State

While serving on the Board of Education, Carnahan called Cook to also consider serving on a technology board. Though she was very interested, after considering it and speaking with her husband, John Cook, who is also a lawyer, she told the governor she appreciated the offer but would have to decline.

So it came as a shock when the governor came to her in 1994 and asked if she would consider serving as secretary of state.

The secretary of state at that time, Judi Moriarty, had been impeached and removed from office. Cook would be fulfilling the final two years of the term.

Cook said when the governor first called and asked if she had thought about the office, she was doubtful it would be an option.

She said to Carnahan, "‘Governor, you know recently I had to turn you down [for the technology board]. John just isn't going to go for this ... You honor me beyond words, but no, I don't think that's anything that we could really consider.'"

At Carnahan's request she agreed to speak with her husband about the opportunity.

That evening when John came home from work, initially preparing to hang Christmas lights, she stopped him and said they needed to sit down and talk. She told him about the opportunity, and his response was an unequivocal yes.

"‘That man is smarter than I ever gave him credit for.'" said John to Bekki. "‘You're perfect. You'd be great for this job.'"

Despite the challenges of taking on a new office, especially one with such problems, Cook felt she could handle the responsibility.

"It's sort of like the Boy Scout motto ‘Be prepared.' I felt I'd be a great secretary of state ... I just got a big enough ego I guess that I thought I could do a good job. And they needed somebody who could do a good job. It was just a fabulous challenge that I would have never dreamed of on my on. But if Mel Carnahan, who I highly respected, thought that much of me, I thought I should think that much of myself too and go see what I could get done."

After serving the remainder of Moriarty's term, Cook was elected to a full term in 1996.

Though she had accomplished much during her six years in office, the demands of the job were tough on her family. After taking over the position in December of 1994, Bekki's two children finished the school year in Cape Girardeau while living with their dad. After the school year they moved to Jefferson City to stay with their mom and go to school.

"It was a really difficult transition for the kids. My husband continued to work down here. So during the week he was down here and he was driving back and forth, because I was doing stuff all weekend long everywhere else. And it was a jumbled life. And our kids luckily are accomplished good kids, and they managed it pretty doggone well. But I think if you would ask them today if they would have rather stayed in Cape Girardeau and finished their school with their friends, they would have preferred to do that."

After six years on the job, she declined to run for re-election in 2000, citing the need to be with her family more. Cook doesn't deny running for statewide office challenges the work-life balance.

"I've seen politicians say, ‘I've never sacrificed a day for my children. I was always there for them.' Either they weren't doing a very good job at their office or they sometimes cheated their children. I cheated my children. I admit it. And they don't blame me for it right now and I hope they never do."

After a four-year break from public office, Cook was asked by many people to consider running for lieutenant governor. Feeling she was rested, she agreed and ran against fellow Cape Girardeau resident Peter Kinder. Cook narrowly lost to Kinder by .5 percent of the vote.

Policy and politics

During her run for lieutenant governor, Cook made news by appearing with Robin Carnahan, who was running for secretary of state, in a television ad. The two argued that Kinder and House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, who were running against Cook and Carnahan in their respective races, should not have supported a stadium measure in a bill which would have authorized spending $644 million in state dollars over three decades, much which would have benefited the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay took exception to the ad and at the time called it "St. Louis bashing."

Cook said she understood Slay's position and his advocacy, but her opinion has not changed.

"I feel like some things ought to be able to fly pretty close on their own, or at least have their cities support it. I didn't think that people in Southwest Missouri who live hours and hours and hours away from St. Louis should be helping out with building a stadium up there with public funds. I think it was fine for the city to support it. Or the county ... If Crawford County wanted to support it, fine. But I didn't think it was appropriate for the ... taxpayers of the entire state of Missouri to build a stadium in the city of St. Louis, and I still don't feel that way."

Only one public office in Cape Girardeau County is held by a Democrat today. Asked if the local Democrat Party is still a viable option, Cook said with a laugh, "Well I do, but apparently not very many other people do.

"You know, things have just gone a lot more conservative in southern areas in the last few decades ... Southeast Missouri is a very southern area. And there are some trends you just can't buck. But I have my own firm beliefs about the right way to run a government, and I believe firmly the Democrats understand if you got to have a government, make it run right and do it. Go ahead and do it right."

Reed to Succeed

One of Cook's passions these days is helping children -- many of whom come from homes with financial struggles -- learn to read through a United Way-sponsored program called Read to Succeed.

Last year the program launched in Cape Girardeau at Blanchard Elementary with 49 of 76 students participating in the small group sessions over the course of the year.

Cook said the basic idea is that you start with pre-reading concepts such as learning the sounds of letters and how to blend them. After the students gain an understanding of these basics they are introduced to "little readers."

At the end of last school year, 74 percent of the 76 children tested above grade level expectations in reading and all but two students were at grade level, something Cook described as a "phenomenal result." The results were the best in the school district for kindergartners.

Cook said that this fall the first graders at Blanchard -- the former kindergartners, many of whom participated in the Reed to Succeed program -- were tested for their reading level. Even after a summer, when some students might "forget" some concepts, 94 percent of the students were reading above grade level.

"We're very proud of that. We think they really got the concepts and they own them. And we think that's going to make a difference for them for the rest of their lives."

Lucas Presson is the editorial page coordinator for the Southeast Missourian. The Sunday Interview is a biweekly feature which highlights top newsmakers.

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