Reprinted with permission from the March 2020 issue of The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter. The Prairie Progressive is funded entirely by reader subscription, available only in hard copy for $12/yr. Send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244.
The spring 2020 edition of The Prairie Progressive is a tribute to Jeff Cox, a beloved Iowa City progressive leader and co-editor of the PP newsletter. Jeff died suddenly on February 9 at the age of 72.
—Dave Leshtz has co-edited The Prairie Progressive with Jeff Cox since 1986
Jeff Cox cooked.
He read every word of the New York Times and all the local papers, and listened to BBC World News, every day.
He took Tai Chi lessons.
When working on a book, he wrote 1,000 words a day.
He could tell you the difference between a primitive Baptist and a hard-shell Baptist.
He played the piano and sang beautifully.
He knew the score of every Rice football game.
He had an endless curiosity about people and the worlds they live in — their politics, their religion, their upbringing. That genuine interest in everything under the sun rubbed off on all of us. Any conversation I had with Jeff inspired me to think a little more deeply, a little less superficially.
What inspired me the most about Jeff, and I think many of us, was that he spoke truth to power. To me that phrase means that he knew his mind and he was unafraid to speak it. He would speak truth to state legislators, the school district, Democrats and Republicans alike, the city council, and even to the most powerful of all – the University of Iowa Athletics Department! His truth-telling was always underpinned by compassion, especially for children. Nothing upset him more than children in cages at the border, children killed by drones, children dying of malnutrition.
For all of Jeff’s bravery, he occasionally pulled his punches. More than once he expressed regret for saying or writing something that he knew would upset a close friend or associate. Jeff embodied a classic paradox: nothing was more important to him than expressing his honest and deeply-felt convictions…but he didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
That was the Jeff I knew. My thanks to the many Prairie Progressive readers – some who knew Jeff personally, and some who knew him only through his writings – who have sent their condolences and kind wishes following his sudden death.
More tributes to Jeff from this special edition of the PP –
–Zachary Oren Smith writes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen
Reading Cox quickly and broadly, a thesis emerges. For Cox, the tragedy of the Left is
not that its ideals aren’t inspiring or that the public lack the imagination for them. It’s that
the Left never found the right vehicle for them.
“Our problem in America is not that the American people are too right wing,” Cox wrote. ”It’s that progressive and humane Americans receive so little of the self-confident and inspiring political leadership that has driven American liberalism in the past.”
—Karen Kubby ran for Iowa City City Council twice before winning in 1989, and won two re-election campaigns with the assistance and comradery of Jeff Cox.
“[Jeff] taught me deep lessons about how to be the best political person I can be. Work hard, speak truth to power, be clear about being a democratic socialist feminist, be loyal, and provide direct coaching when needed. These lessons have served me well. I pay these lessons forward frequently—in my personal, professional, and political lives.”
—Shel Stromquist co-authored with Jeff Cox Contesting the Master Narrative: Essays in Social History
Jeff played a pivotal role in launching Bernie Sanders’ first campaign in Iowa (and nationally). He helped persuade the Senator that a run was both feasible and desirable.
He took pride in the success of Sanders’ second run for the presidency and the solid foundation of support he had helped build in Iowa. All this suggests that Jeff saw the unfolding of a “social democratic moment” in which the prospect of success for a
socialist running for the highest office seemed a real possibility.
— D D Guttenplan is the Editor of The Nation
I met Jeff Cox in fall of 2015. I’d come to Iowa for The Nation to see if Bernie Sanders could win back the working class—the voters who’d made Tom Harkin a lion of the Senate and then just seemed to disappear. I can’t recall now how I got to Jeff, but I remember him insisting on paying for our lunch—even though I was the one traveling on expenses. When he found out I’d grown up in Memphis, he also insisted on a post-prandial bourbon. I took out my notebook and got a short course in the history of the Left in Iowa.
—Larry Baker is a former Iowa City City Council member
I have no memory of why I decided to audit a British History class of Jeff’s, but I found myself in a lecture of his with 40 undergraduates in 1981. He and I were almost the
same age, and we were both from Texas. I had no trouble understanding him. But I noticed that a lot of the undergraduates were missing something in his lectures…the
humor. His lectures were fact-driven narratives, with throwaway political commentary using contemporary analogies. It was obvious that his students knew neither history nor
current events. I found myself making eye contact with him a few times after he knew he had sailed a reference right over his students’ heads. He would almost smile and then do what I can only call an “eyebrow smirk.”
–Rusty Martin lives in Des Moines
Jeff is a shining example of what a university faculty member who fully engages in the political fights of his or her local community can do. He had the facts and the analysis…and he helped candidate after candidate get the money and votes to win.
In 2020, we must follow Jeff Cox’s advice. Grassroots, issue-based, working class campaigns are how we will beat back the wolves at our doors.