Seven Questions with Mehek Cooke
In 2018, the political landscape changed in Franklin County. While the Republican Party continues to dominate statewide offices in Ohio—and holds firm majorities in the General Assembly—Democrats succeeded in flipping four state legislative districts in the Columbus suburbs, mirroring a trend seen throughout the country. Now, three of those Democrats are facing reelection in 2020—and the coming elections will indicate whether the 2018 shift was an anomaly or the beginning of a more permanent realignment.
To reclaim those Franklin County seats, Republicans appear to be stealing a page from the Democrats, who won with four female, first-time candidates in 2018. Mehek Cooke, a Dublin small business attorney and former Kasich administration official, announced her candidacy in September for the Ohio House’s 21st district, which includes Dublin, Worthington, Hilliard and Northwest Columbus. Meanwhile, another Republican woman, Meredith Freedhoff, has announced she’s running in the Ohio House’s 19th district, which includes Westerville and New Albany. Republicans have historically dominated both districts.
“These are two dynamic, professional women who provide our community with everything that we would want in mainstream, center-right Republican leadership,” says Brad Sinnott, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Central Committee. “These are women who are going to be great candidates, but even more important, they’re going to emerge as legislative leaders once they’re elected to the Ohio House. They’re made of the right stuff.”
Columbus Monthly recently talked with Cooke about her campaign, the state of the GOP in Franklin County and what it will take to defeat Democratic Rep. Beth Liston, who won in 2018 with 57 percent of the vote. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
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Are you from Central Ohio?
I was born in India and then moved to Columbus when I was 5—off of Kenny Road. My grandfather bought a home, 10 family members jammed into three bedrooms, but you know it's the American dream. We all grew up there for about seven years, and my dad worked three jobs until we were able to afford a home in Hilliard.
What did your father do?
My dad started off cleaning hotel rooms and then worked his way up to be a night auditor in a hotel. He was also a security guard at the Wexner art center, and then the third job was always an odd job. It was whatever he could find at the time. He did that for about seven years until he was able to advance in the hotel industry and work for several individuals here in the Central Ohio region. He's now a successful business owner. He was able to take all the experience and own his own business.
Why did the Republicans lose those four legislative seats in 2018?
Most people cannot tell you what a Franklin County Republican is. They can tell you about national politics. They could point to people in national politics and say, “Well, that's a Republican.” But when you say what is a Franklin County Republican, what matters to Franklin County Republicans and conservatives, there is not a thoughtful or concise way that we have been able to honestly message who we are, and that comes right back to getting into the community and meeting everybody, not just saying, I'm going to go only talk to Republicans but meeting the independent and the Democrat, meeting every single person and treating them as equals.
What is a Franklin County Republican?
We are compassionate. We are caring. We are absolutely willing to learn all sides of an issue, and yes, I have to walk in and say, “I'm a Republican,” but then also ask, “What are the issues that matter the most to you? What are the policies?” We need to be more proactive instead of reactive. We need to worry about safety and security of our communities, and whether it's a gun issue or it's an abortion issue or it's a financial issue, we have to be thoughtful and stop with the Democrat versus Republican versus the identity politics. It is a compassionate, caring person who's willing to hear all sides.
Are you anti-abortion?
I am pro-life. But I do believe there need to be exemptions in the law and protections for the wellbeing of mother and in cases of rape and incest. We just need it to be a little more well-thought out. … There are a lot of different variations of what happens when a woman is pregnant, and we need to be more thoughtful as we continue down some of these policy changes to making sure our No. 1 priority is our citizens.
How can we be more thoughtful?
I think the law is extreme [the so-called “heartbeat bill,”which was signed into law by Gov. Mike DeWine and is still facing legal challenges]. There are no exemptions for rape and incest. Look, facts tell you [those cases represent] less than 1 percent, but imagine having a daughter, a sister, a friend who's that less than one percent, and now you're asking that child to carry a baby after a rape and incest?
Is President Trump making it more challenging to elect Republicans in Franklin County?
There are some voters that love the president. They'll sign my petition and onto the next door. There are some voters that absolutely love his policies, but they do not want to hear him on Twitter, and they wish he'd just be more thoughtful. And then there are some that take it out on me when I'm at doors, and that's the hardest, because the one thing I've always said is, “I cannot promise you I will change things in Washington, but what I can promise is I'm compassionate, I understand how you feel, and I'm never going to speak like the president. That's not who I am, and if you partner with me on local issues, we can get a lot done.”
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