TIhere he sat, in a Hennepin County courtroom in 2003, the CEO of TCF Financial Corp. and former head of the state Republican Party. It was nothing sinister that got him there. He had been ticketed for speeding on his snowmobile not far from his $15 million home on Lake Minnetonka. One regulatory agency, the Department of Natural Resources, had set a speed limit for snowmobiling, and another, the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District, had set their own, lower limit. Too much regulation? This was Cooper's life's work. He filed a 21-page brief to quash the ticket. The effort failed. He appealed and failed again. Never mind, he told reporters at the time: It's the principle of the thing.
Cooper is the consummate crusader. He loses battles; everybody does. But when he wins, he wins big. He was a powerful finance man first—performing nothing short of a resurrection on TCF in the mid-'80s. As the chair of the state Republican Party, Cooper radically overhauled the party's infrastructure, transforming it into a modern, formidable fighting machine.
Cooper was elected chair of the state Republican Party in 1997. It was an unusual move for a prominent corporate officer. He stayed on at TCF and drew no pay from the party. He wasted no time turning the party upside down. "We raised a lot of money and organized the machinery of the party," Cooper says. He was plumbing his Rolodex, making calls starting at 7:30 in the morning. He made hundreds of calls, and contributions were piling up by the millions of dollars. The party built call centers, computer systems, and a coveted database. "We called millions of Minnesotans and asked them their political affiliation and how they felt about various issues." The information was entered into a computer and sorted by district and even by issue. Access to the list was granted strategically. "We wrote a platform in clear English and asked candidates to pledge to uphold it," Cooper says. "We knew who did and who didn't and for what reason."
For the first time anybody could remember, the party was running candidates in every race—even races they were sure they'd lose—forcing the Democrats to spend down their war chest.
Meanwhile, Cooper was holding big-ticket fundraisers at his home and feeding state and national Republican coffers from his own pocket. He cut a $100,000 check to the RNC Republican National State Elections Committee in 2000 and a $10,000 check to the state party in 2005. His wife gives to the Republican cause, too. So do his kids.
Cooper's legacy in the party was in showing it how to fight. "He never lost the gritty persona of a Detroit beat cop," says Sarah Janecek, referring to the job that got Cooper through college. Larry Jacobs, director of the Humphrey Institute's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance and a veteran observer of the state's political personalities, calls Cooper a "smart, biting, and unreconstructed libertarian Republican."