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Phil Cox is the only left-winger in the country trying to get Republicans elected governor.
From the hockey rink to the campaign trail, Cox has never been the attention-getter. But after managing Republican Bob McDonnell’s gubernatorial victory in Virginia and now as the new executive director of the Republican Governors Association, Cox’s public profile is only getting bigger.
As a senior in high school, Cox played left wing for the Hingham Harbormen hockey team that won the Massachusetts state championship for the first time in school history.
“There were guys who were better, but I was smart and a good skater,” said Cox, who was named his team’s “Mr. Hustle.” It’s an early example of how he may not be flashy but his hard work behind the scenes has earned him the respect of campaign professionals and candidates along the way.
Cox, 36, grew up about 20 miles south of Boston in Hingham, home to what Eleanor Roosevelt dubbed “the most beautiful Main Street in America.” At a young age, he started watching the party conventions with his mother even though his family wasn’t particularly political.
After high school, it looked like Cox would start on the path toward medical school (following family tradition) or even law school, until he stepped into Larry Sabato’s introduction to politics class.
“He was not that political, I don’t care what he tells you,” the University of Virginia professor remembered in a recent interview. During a lecture that included historic campaign ads, Cox caught the political bug. He also got an A in the class. “I don’t give away A’s,” remembered Sabato, who sent a letter home to mark the achievement.
“He’s a below-the-radar guy,” Sabato said, his observation of Cox and a dozen years of campaigns in the commonwealth. Sabato added, “But don’t underestimate him.”
After graduating from UVA, Cox turned down an offer to work for a large financial firm in New York City to stay in the Charlottesville area and get more involved in politics.
He connected with a young African-American conservative named Paul Harris and ended up as a precinct captain for his 1997 run for state Delegate. Even though Cox’s only previous campaign experience was building coalitions for fraternity elections, Harris entrusted him with the management of his general election campaign.
Cox proved his mettle to Harris in the primary.
“Phil stood out as a young man who was detailed-oriented. That’s what I liked about him,” Harris recalled to Roll Call. “Everyone else wanted to be the next Lee Atwater.”
Cox remembers that campaign as a baptism by fire.