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Here's what Peter Cooke, the newly announced Democratic candidate for Utah governor, wants to see happen in our state.

First, elevate public schools from their dismal rating in quality and per-pupil funding. Recruit politicians, businesspeople and environmentalists to cooperatively scour the sky of choking smog. In a time of record-low voter turnout, restore Utah's once-robust voter participation.

And take care of the troops who are coming home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It's all about leadership, says the retired major general in the U.S. Army Reserves — leadership in a time when Utah's government is run by a Republican super majority in the Legislature and the Statehouse.

"I say to people, 'Why aren't you turning out' " to vote, Cooke said during a conversation this week. "And they say, 'for what?' In this world, where we went out to defend a democracy, you almost question, when did Utah lose its willingness to vote, to participate? It's such a great honor.

"So that hope, that we can change things, really has to be reignited, and somehow get our state back," he said.

As a Democrat in a deeply red state, Cooke has a battle ahead. But he does have street cred.

He has bachelor's and master's degrees in political science from Utah State University; attended the U.S. Army College; and worked at the Pentagon and for Sen. Frank Moss and Rep. Gunn McKay.

He served the U.S. Army Reserves for 30 years and was commanding general of the Army's 96th Regional Readiness Command, overseeing 10,000 soldiers and civilians.

"I had seven states, and I mobilized and walked them home, every unit. I've seen single mothers get mobilized, and turn to their mother and father" to take care of their children.

As a small businessman, he's focused on affordable housing for both civilians and service members. One project was housing in and around Fort Douglas for 2002 Olympics athletes and later for University of Utah students.

During the Scott Matheson administration, Cooke served as director of the Utah State Industrial Division.

Again, it's all about letting teachers and principals, often vilified in Utah's halls of power, do their jobs the way they want to do them, says Cooke, whose four children are in public schools and whose wife, Heather, is an ardent school volunteer.

"When leaders have a plan, then you have a solution," he said. "We'll get a little lecture after the Legislature that we have a growing population and we can't afford it. What kind of answer is that?"

Utah needs to understand it's part of a global economy, and the key to participation is jobs, Cooke said.

His focus is on jobs held by an educated workforce. That takes educators working together to elevate the least performing students by putting them with good teachers and "change the incremental by that much," Cooke said.

"You have great soldiers, good soldiers and soldiers who are just there. It's how you mix them up to accomplish the mission," he said. "You're not going to get 100 percent of the best teachers. It's a framework to push the ball forward."

Cooke said that as governor, he'd love to spend time in classrooms, maybe teach a class, to set an example. "It's a way to say to all of us, you can't just push aside the problem."

Cooke, a self-described "faithful Mormon," also wants to lead a compassionate approach to LGBT civil rights, even as he believes in one-man, one-woman marriage. Same with immigration; he hews to the Utah Compact's emphasis on compassionate and humane treatment of all immigrants.

As for being a Democrat and a Mormon, he sees it not as an oxymoron, but a "great thing."

People try to label Democrats and Republicans as nonmembers and members, Cooke said. "It's another huge division in our state, and you have to bridge that."

What Utah needs, he said, is an actual two-party system and checks and balances.

"Do we have that in Utah? No, we don't, and that's why we need another Democratic governor," Cooke said.

If he makes it, he'll be the first Democrat to win the seat since 1984. Judging from the crush of supporters Wednesday at the Fort Douglas Museum, where he announced his candidacy, he's locked down a lot of support.

"Thanks for joining me in this mission. I will stand tall. Please join me," he said to cheers and chants.

Then, with a crisp salute, Cooke was off and running.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at, and Twitter: @pegmcentee.