Former Eric Cantor communications director Rory Cooper has joined Purple Strategies, moving from Capitol Hill following his boss’ shocking loss to work as managing director for the Alexandria-based public relations shop.
Cooper, who starts Monday, will help design, sell and implement strategic campaigns for the bipartisan firm’s clients. “From the first minute I ever walked in the door at Purple, I knew this was going to be a team that I wanted to work with every day,” Cooper told CQ Roll Call.
Purple co-founder Steve McMahon lauded his new hire as “talented, tough and tenacious.”
Cooper, 37, worked for Cantor two years, coming to the Hill after four years at the Heritage Foundation and seven years in the George W. Bush administration. He padded his résumé in a number of roles: policy adviser at the Department of Energy, government affairs director at NASA and, at the White House, as a member of the team that helped create the Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Working within GOP leadership, Cooper developed a reputation as a smooth operator — a flack who knew where and how to steer coverage. He’s also credited with helping Cantor and the House GOP Conference pivot to a softer side of conservatism aimed at helping middle class families.
“It’s Rory’s ability to see the big picture and build close relationships on and off the Hill that makes him so successful,” Cantor told CQ Roll Call in an email last week. “He was always willing to challenge our own assumptions at the leadership table and not just think about the next week, but the next year and the long-term implications of our decision-making. Rory will always remain a close friend and advisor.”
Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, the new chief deputy whip, called Cooper someone who, “even on tough days,” was good for a laugh.
“Members knew Rory was a guy who got things done,” McHenry told CQ Roll Call via text message. “Folks in the know routinely huddled with him on the floor to get a sense of how an issue was going to shake out.”
With one of the most recognizable laughs on Capitol Hill — a deep gurgling that comes out of his shoulders and belly just as much as his mouth — Cooper has maintained solid relationships inside and outside of the dome. As any one of his more than 8,500 Twitter followers knows, he’s a devout Tigers, Red Wings and Lions fan, having grown up in Franklin, Michigan, just 20 miles outside of Detroit.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, called Cooper “an incredibly talented, team-oriented professional.”
Former Cantor deputy chief of staff Doug Heye described his former colleague as someone who “knows how to create a vision, and then how to implement it. And that’s a rare one-two punch in politics.” It was Cooper who developed the “Making life work,” theme for Cantor and House Republicans, to help the GOP regroup after the 2012 elections and help voters see the party cares about everyday people, Heye said.
The three-word concept became the theme of Cantor’s seminal speech at the American Enterprise Institute in February 2013, and later a pivotal part of the House Republican legislative agenda.
Little of the actual agenda laid out in Cantor’s address — affordable, quality education; the lowering of health care costs; a simpler tax code; the opportunity for immigrant children to secure legal residence and citizenship — was in fact accomplished, but the principle imbued plenty of what Republicans did do.
The only piece of legislation Cantor called out by name in his farewell to Congress speech was the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act.
Cooper said it’s tough to decide between the day the House passed that bill or the day it cleared the Senate to pick his favorite day in Congress. He points to the legislation, named for a 10-year-old girl who died from an inoperable brain tumor, as an example of how government should work.
“It’s cheesy to say that we were inspired by Gabriella, but that was the case,” Cooper said. “It felt really good to do that for her, and for every other child who’s suffering with a disease or disorder.”
While the law only provides $12.5 million a year to boost pediatrics research Cantor has called it one of his proudest achievements, and his aides took more than a personal interest in the legislation. So strong was their relationship with the family that Cooper said Gabriella’s mother, Ellyn Miller, was one of the first to call him after Cantor’s surprise primary defeat on June 10.
While that was certainly his worst day in Congress, “it’s hard to pick just one,” he said, noting the government shutdown and the fallout from fiscal cliff fights.
He didn’t like how the nation’s perception of Congress deteriorated even as so many members and staffers worked to do the right thing. “I think my worst moments were when Congress was getting a bad rap, and we actually deserved it,” he said.
Cooper described the office as a “tight-knit” group that built relationships thanks to the guy at the top.
“There’s a real sense of family in Team Cantor to this day, and that will always exist,” he said. “I was incredibly lucky to have a job every day that didn’t feel like a job.”
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