Local son Tom Cook looks back on career with state

Tom Cook

One way or the other, Tom Cook has been around Delaware state government for virtually all of his 52 years.

A Kent Countian his entire life, he’s worked for the state for the past 25 years, the last seven-plus as secretary of finance, but in Delaware’s middle county, the name Cook is remembered for something else.

For 54 nearly uninterrupted years, a Cook represented western Kent County in the state Senate — first Mr. Cook’s father, and then his mother.

Allen Cook, elected to the Senate in 1956, served until his death in 1974. His widow, Nancy, a Democrat who had conservative leanings like her husband, won election to his seat later that year and held it for 36 years before being defeated in 2010.

Although his parents had connections to many powerful Delawareans, being the son of two state senators shaped Mr. Cook in other ways, too.

“I think having grown up in an environment where you watch people help constituents and that’s certainly had an impact on my life,” he said. “I mean, it didn’t matter — the phone would ring at 6 in the morning or it could ring at 11 at night, and somebody had a problem, that was their job to help them off. And that’s probably some of the most satisfying things that I’m able to do here, is when you’re able to help a constituent.”

The longest-serving finance secretary in Delaware history, Mr. Cook took the post in 2009. While it was early in Gov. Jack Markell’s tenure, Mr. Cook was actually the second person to hold that position under Gov. Markell: Gary Pfeiffer stepped down after six months, and the state considered merging the department with other agencies to save money.

That never materialized, and now, after having battled what an internal memo from the Markell administration calls “unprecedented fiscal upheaval” stemming from the Great Recession, Mr. Cook is preparing for his next step.

As secretary of finance, he oversees the state lottery, tax collection and accounting. While the Office of Management and Budget is the agency that works closely with the governor to craft the budget, the Finance Department tallies money coming in and plays a pivotal role in determining how much is available for spending.

State career

Mr. Cook’s early career was in finance, but he then took a 12-year break from the field. His time in state government has been varied, with stops in the predecessor to the Department of Technology and Information, the Department of Elections and the Department of State in addition to the Department of Finance.

After working at MBNA in northern New Castle County, he joined what was at the time called the Office of Information Systems.

“The first project that I was assigned to was the election system,” he said.

After helping to upgrade the voting results display, he applied for the opening running the department. Although that went to someone else, the spot became vacant a year later.

Endorsed by the commissioner and the county election directors, Mr. Cook was named elections commissioner by then Gov. Tom Carper.

In his seven years there, Delaware became the first state to have standardized electronic voting machines. The department also embraced the internet, using it to educate Delawareans about candidates, Mr. Cook said.

In 2002, he moved to the Department of State, where he was responsible for automating the updating of the Delaware Code and moving the state’s web hosting from Texas to Delaware.

“That’s probably also kind of the foundation between that job and the elections job, that I’ve used by utilizing technology to turn around and be able to provide citizens with services,” he said. “So I’ve tried to do that throughout my whole career.”

In 2003, he got a call from someone his mother had served in the Senate with for a decade. That someone happened to be then Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, who recruited him to the Department of Finance as the deputy secretary.

Six years later, he became the secretary. As the agency’s chief, he’s proud of the fact Delaware has kept its AAA credit rating. According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, Delaware is one seven states that has maintained a Standard & Poor’s AAA rating from 2003 to 2014.

Past and future

The state has dealt with serious budget challenges under Gov. Markell, starting with a deficit of more than $800 million in 2009.

Delaware handles services like corrections and education to a larger degree than most other states, which delegate them to their counties. The arrangement places additional pressure on the state’s budget, and while Delaware has been very good at exporting its tax burdens — meaning companies and out-of-state residents contribute a significant chunk of revenue through the franchise tax, the lottery and abandoned property — “the next administration, the next General Assembly, has some significant challenges ahead of them.”

Mr. Cook credits Gov. Markell for identifying for the next administration some of the key fiscal issues, such as rising health care costs.

Reports commissioned by groups assembled to analyze state spending and revenue in the past two years have contained suggestions for tackling budget growth, such as lowering income tax rates and eliminating the estate tax.

“It’s going to be up to the leaders of this state to basically do a reset and say, ‘What do we want to fund? What services do we want to fund for our citizens?’” Mr. Cook said.

From a Delaware economic standpoint, the 1980s were defined in part by the Financial Center Development Act, while the 1990s saw the legalization of gambling and the 2000s benefited from a boom in escheat money.

“Those all have helped us. But all three of those are certainly under some pressure,” Mr. Cook said. “Those items have certainly kept the taxes down for our citizens and allowed us to provide a lot of services, but if you want to look at it, what they probably have done is kept us from restructuring the revenue portfolio so that it grows when the economy grows.”

Gov.-elect John Carney takes office Jan. 17, and while Mr. Cook is willing to assist him if asked, he is also “pursuing other options right now outside of state government.”

The governor-elect, himself a former state finance secretary, is expected to name a person to head the Department of Finance soon.

Although not the case anymore, Mr. Cook was for a time overshadowed in state government by his own mother, Sen. Nancy Cook.

Ms. Cook spent decades as a co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, which writes the budget. In fact, she and Mr. Cook interacted on occasion in their professional roles in 2010, although Mr. Cook said he was always careful to not let their personal relationship affect their working relationship.

As elections commissioner and secretary of finance, he was driven in part by a desire to avoid claims of nepotism.

“That is what incentivized me to turn around and be the best that I could be and that much more,” he said.

He was 9 years old when his father died, and he recalls Gov. Sherman Tribbitt visiting the Cook house in an effort to convince Nancy Cook to run for her late husband’s seat in the Senate.

“At first, quite honestly, she turned him down,” Mr. Cook remembered. “But then she went on and said yes and she won in 1974. She had literally a prolific career.”

Although Ms. Cook is 80 years old and no longer crafts the budget or votes on laws, she is still a frequent sight at Legislative Hall and remains involved in state government.

It’s been six years since a Cook was in elective office, but Mr. Cook acknowledged he may seek a seat at some point: “It was something that was on my mind for a number of years. At this point in my life … it’s probably not in the immediate future but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out for some time in the future.”

Although he has never run for office, he’s a Cook — politics is in his blood.

“It might sound corny or whatever, but being able to help somebody who has a problem and be able to fix that problem for them that makes their life easier is probably one the most gratifying things a public servant can do,” he said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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