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Jack Cookfair, 74, acclaimed political consultant who liked to 'play hard'

Jack Cookfair, 74, acclaimed political consultant who liked to 'play hard'

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John R. Cookfair III

Jan. 11, 1946 - March 10, 2020

Dozens of Republican candidates are remembering veteran media consultant Jack Cookfair today as a “legend” in the business of politics, a “happy warrior” who reveled in the rough and tumble of New York campaigns for more than four decades.

Democrats on the receiving end of his often-biting TV ads? Maybe not so generous.

But just about everyone who ever knew the brilliant, baggy-eyed architect of countless candidacies throughout the state and nation acknowledge him as one the best in the business.

Mr. Cookfair, 74, died Tuesday after a brief illness at Crouse Hospital in Syracuse, where he had lived and worked for the past several years.

A Buffalo native, John R. Cookfair III was graduated from Cleveland Hill High School in 1963 and then served four years in the Air Force, mostly in Texas. Returning to Buffalo, he received a bachelor’s degree from Canisius College before launching his career as a tax consultant and his only run for public office – receiver of taxes in Cheektowaga.

He got clobbered.

But that never deterred him from becoming a major presence in the political world.

Soon he was specializing in campaigns for judicial candidates, and for GOP sheriff candidates like Kenneth J. Braun, Patrick M. Gallivan and Timothy B. Howard. The late state Republican chairman, J. Patrick Barrett of Syracuse, was a longtime client. He also choreographed the 1994 state attorney general campaign of Dennis C. Vacco, the last Western New York Republican to win statewide office.

He designed the 1999 media efforts of Democrat-turned-Republican Joel A. Giambra, who won the first of two terms as county executive largely on a government consolidation platform. He also worked on a slew of state Senate campaigns when the GOP ruled the upper chamber under another Cookfair patron – former Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno of Troy. As a result, the Jack Cookfair brand became a standard in New York politics.

He developed an early relationship with Rudy Giuliani, often shepherding the then-Manhattan U.S. attorney through Western New York in the days before he became mayor of New York and a national figure.

“He just had so much talent,” said former Erie County Republican Chairman Robert E. Davis. “I used to love to get on the phone with him for hours at a time, just to bounce off ideas.”

Carl J. Calabrese, the former Tonawanda supervisor and deputy Erie County executive, said views of Mr. Cookfair depended on your position in an election.

“If you were on the right side, he was the Jedi knight of political advertising,” Calabrese cracked. “If you were on the wrong side, he was Darth Vader.”

Gallivan, now a state senator from Elma who always maintained ties with Mr. Cookfair, noted him as a man of talent with a sense of genuineness.

“I learned a lot from him, had complete faith in him, and apart from politics, considered him a wonderful friend,” Gallivan said.

At one time, Mr. Cookfair penned a political intrigue novel that was never published, but was clearly based on thinly veiled characters inspired by New York politicians.

He always maintained his Republican loyalties (at one time he was an enrolled Conservative), but occasionally helped Democratic friends like City Court Judge Robert T. Russell Jr. or the City Court campaign of future Supreme Court Justice Timothy J. Drury.

Over the years, Mr. Cookfair earned a “works hard, plays hard” reputation, hashing out many of his campaigns over the bar at Mothers restaurant. Other times he and his clients occupied his ballpark seats, planning strategy while cheering the Buffalo Bisons.

And more times than not, his strategies worked.

“Who the hell wants to lose?” he told The Buffalo Evening News in 1979. “That’s no fun.”

Mr. Cookfair first began to attract attention about that time with a political strategy company called First Tuesday he formed with attorney Greg Stamm and Lynne Mueller. In political yore that survives even today, veteran pols recall how the Stamm-Cookfair team posed young operatives as a camera crew that attempted to “interview” then-Erie County Democratic Chairman Joseph F. Crangle. When they were caught, Crangle compared Mr. Cookfair and his crew to Watergate “dirty tricksters,” with the affair escalating in controversy and the Cookfair-Stamm team losing their jobs in the county Legislature.

It all added to a “dukes up” persona that he never denied nor embraced. He didn’t care.

“There’s no such thing as an easy campaign,” he told The News, also in 1979. “I don’t do dirty tricks. I just play hard.”

Mr. Cookfair later teamed with a one-time aide to former County Executive Edward J. Rutkowski – Harry Spector – before striking out on his own with his Cookfair Media firm. A few years ago, he relocated to Syracuse, where he worked on many campaigns while retaining his Buffalo ties.

An avid golfer, he enjoyed traveling and followed baseball with a passion.

He is survived by two brothers, James and William; and two sisters, Judy Cookfair and Jane Smith.

Celebrations of his life in Buffalo and Syracuse will be announced at a future date.

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