06/18/2012 10:37 am ET Updated Aug 18, 2012

Peter Cooke, Utah Governor Candidate, Looks To Unseat Gov. Gary Herbert

Utah has not had a Democratic governor since 1985. The Republican incumbency advantage there is formidable to say the least. However, this year's Democratic challenger to Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, Gen. Peter Stryker Cooke, wants to change that, and has the chops to do it.

Progress in Utah Already

In the neighborhoods surrounding the Salt Lake City Country Club, Cooke signs dot the streets. They feature two stars, symbolizing the General's 39-year career in the Army Reserves. Their colors: red and white. 'COOKE' is emblazoned in the middle in bold, blue font. They resemble an American Flag.

Cooke signs pepper 7th West, too-- the road that takes Utahans to one of Utah's busiest golf courses. The campaign has already distributed about 5,500 lawn signs. It's only June.

And on 56th South and 9th East, a road that winds about two Utah cities, Murray and Holladay, Cooke supporters are out in full force, their signs outnumbering those of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch and Governor Herbert combined.

Peter Cooke: The Man and The Leader

Despite Cooke's burgeoning support, some Utahans still confuse him with Merrill Cook, a former U.S. Representative from Utah's 2nd district who was ousted by Jim Matheson in 2000 and who has bounced erratically from the Republican Party to the Independents in his political life.

Cooke-with-an-E is far more consistent than Cook-without. This is borne of his 39-year military career. Cooke was commanding general of an Army Reserves brigade that comprised 11,000 soldiers and spanned seven states. It was the largest geographical command in the Reserves.

Over the course of his 39-year military career, Cooke developed working relationships with the highest-ranking officials in the Pentagon, and retired as a major general after winning the Army Community of Excellence Award for best-managed Command and the Army Distinguished Service Medal.

Cooke operated out of Hill Air Force Base in Utah, which is currently being threatened with defense department cuts. Although his command has since relocated elsewhere, he was instrumental in bringing two other 2-star commands to Utah's Fort Douglas military base, including the 807th medical brigade, which manages all medical units for the Army Reserve west of the Mississippi River.

I guess that's what an extra 'E' does to a man: it makes him a leader.

Cooke came to Utah from Germany in 1967 to be a forester, after receiving a global education while his father worked for Pan American Airlines. Though his forestry career didn't pan out--he enrolled in the ROTC instead--Cooke is exactly the outdoorsman you'd expect to find in a Utah backyard. He skis, mountain climbs, cycles and runs. He has completed four marathons.

Cooke has a refined, cultured side, too. He has two degrees in Political Science from Utah State University, one of which is a Master's, and another from the Army War College.

Cooke is a patron of the arts, and wouldn't be a true Democrat otherwise, seasonally subscribing to numerous theatres in Utah, including Ballet West. He has a passion for German composer Richard Wagner. (Every time I've met Cooke in his office, we've talked amid opera music.) In fact, one of his daughters sings opera in a local Utah theatre. Cooke is also a gourmet cook.

The key to great cooking, any great cook, including General Cooke, will tell you, is to ensure those you are feeding haven't eaten in a while. The same could be said of winning elections. That is to say, the key to winning is to ensure those who are voting know they've been starved by the powers that be, and that you are a gourmet cook who has a hot meal waiting. Cooke wants to be Utah's gourmet cook.

Cooke is a small business owner who has pioneered public-private partnerships and affordable housing projects in his 29-year entrepreneurial career. He knows from experience what sort of business environment fosters a Mom & Pop on every corner.

His most recent small business venture, PSC Military Housing Company, spearheaded the development of private military housing by assisting the U.S. Air Force in its private-housing initiative at over 12 military bases in the west. This market was nascent, if born at all, when Cooke built PSC Military Housing Company. He created a niche for such public-private partnerships.

Cooke is an advocate for Veterans' needs, founding several organizations that help Veterans transition into the civilian workforce after mobilization to war.

Although the first of these organizations, Reporting4Duty, never received the funding necessary to make it tenable, two others Cooke founded--Partnership with America and the Employer Partnership initiative--brought to the fore the idea that caring for Veterans does not begin as war flows, or end as war ebbs.

When Cooke first pioneered these veterans initiatives, there wasn't a niche for them in the marketplace, either. Cooke carved one out.

Cooke's Corps: Organizational Chops

How is Cooke going to beat a Republican incumbent in one of the reddest states in the Union? Cooke's military experience bears heavily on his campaign's organization, and so organizational chops are how Cooke expects to compete with Governor Herbert's busting-at-the-seams coffers, and how he expects to win.

Cooke has surrounded himself with a group of talented, driven staffers--a testament to Cooke's own strength of character--who know where the campaign needs to go and how it must get there. Spend just five minutes at the campaign headquarters and this becomes evident.

These are Democrats who are tired of living political life in the margins, on the periphery of Utah politics. They've got a chip on their shoulder and a canny political instinct. They are wont to prove the political culture wrong, and they've the tenacity to do it.

The campaign is aggressively goal-oriented. There are big-picture thinkers and detail-driven managers working closely with Cooke to create a winning strategy. There is accountability and a clear chain of command. Most everything the campaign does oozes energy and passion.

Cooke knows his campaign's strengths and weaknesses, is focused insofar as he eliminates unimportant opportunities and distractions, and actively works to ensure everything about his team embodies the professionalism, ingenuity and leadership he wants voters to see in him.

There is an emphasis on honesty, integrity and leadership in the Cooke campaign, no doubt a product of the general's military creed. Indeed, Cooke recognizes that the ante for being a leader is honesty. Just as important, the Cooke campaign is careful to not be careless. In canvassing, outreach and messaging, Cooke's team makes sure everything is tailored, targeted and on-point.

Cooke commands a room the way you'd expect a major general to. Not only that, when you listen to Cooke, you get the sense that he is a matter-of-fact, authentic candidate. What you see is what you get. And when compared to Governor Hebert's off-putting, slick style, the Cooke campaign is refreshingly rough around the edges and real.

This isn't Cooke's first foray into politics. Like any good Democrat should, Cooke created a group aimed at registering students to vote while in College at Utah State-- Utah Vote. He ran for U.S. Congress with the Democratic Party in 1978, too, only a few short years after graduating from Utah State University, though he lost. In the interim between graduating and running for Congress, Cooke was an assistant to two U.S. Congressmen, Representative Gunn McKay and U.S. Senator Frank E. Moss. Yet, though not a newcomer per se, Cooke is still a fresh face with new solutions for Utah.

Cooke's rallying cry for the troops in his Reserve Command, "Dead Eye: Ready!," has been adopted by U.S. battalions across the world. It is meant to signify a primed, prepared, spirited team. Cooke has applied that rallying cry to his campaign. Experiencing good vibrations in Utah so far, Cooke and his team are "Dead Eye: Ready!" to win.