To hear friends tell it, Rep. Christopher Cox has long evaluated his options and cut against the grain. In high school, he swam and edited the yearbook rather than run for student council. After law school, he took a job with a federal judge in Hawaii while classmates vied for clerkships in the Northeast.
Now, the California Republican is ready to zag again -- giving up his seat in Congress for the top job at the Securities and Exchange Commission.
A Harvard law and business school graduate, Cox has served 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, chairing the Homeland Security Committee and a key policy committee but falling short in a bid to become House speaker.
Cox, who did not want to preempt his upcoming Senate confirmation hearing, declined to comment for this story. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle said they expect him to be approved without a fight if he is paired alongside a Democrat nominee for the SEC.
The appeal of the SEC job may be a practical one, friends said. Former Rep. Tom Campbell, who is budget director for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), said Cox recognizes that he has a chance to be more effective in promoting his "free enterprise" market view at a federal agency.
"At the SEC, if he's got the approval of two other commissioners, it's done," Campbell said.
That's a far cry from Congress, where it took Cox hundreds of votes to help win passage of a 1995 law cutting back on securities class-action cases. The law has drawn the ire of plaintiff lawyers and some investor advocates, who claim it encouraged corporate executives to misbehave without fear of civil liability, contributing to a wave of accounting scandals.
After those troubles, punctuated by the collapse of Enron Corp. and WorldCom Inc., the SEC has labored to restore investor confidence. Outgoing Chairman William H. Donaldson helped quiet the ensuing shareholder outcry but in a way that often frustrated business groups and other members of the Bush administration, especially when he cast key votes with the SEC's two Democrats.
Though Cox has worked closely with some Democrats in Congress, particularly on anti-communism efforts and tax cuts for Internet companies, he is not expected to abandon his preference for limiting regulation and government intervention to the extent possible while also punishing lawbreakers.
"Cox is a deeply conservative guy who I think does not always appreciate a need for an affirmative role of government," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), ranking minority member of the House Financial Services Committee. "The advantage for Republicans is, he will do this with a lot more finesse."
Cox's confirmation hearing may include questions about how he would respond to industry complaints about the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a 2002 corporate accountability law that has proven to be far more expensive than regulators predicted, said Democratic Senate aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Republican leadership has yet to set the hearings. Longtime friend Joseph M. Finley, a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer, said he did not know Cox's position on that act, but added: "I don't think Chris favors using a sledgehammer to kill an ant. I think he believes in giving bad guys what's coming to them, but don't saddle the good guys with a whole lot of [unnecessary] things."
Cox also could come under the microscope for his opposition to treating stock options as expenses on corporate income statements -- an issue important to technology companies in his Orange County district because the change reduces reported profits. Campbell, the former congressman and Cox's law school classmate, said he thinks Cox will be able to broker a compromise that would give companies more leeway in how they value options.
The ability to navigate political waters without losing sight of his core philosophy is a trait Cox has possessed at least since graduate school at Harvard in the mid-1970s, when his conservative political leanings left him outnumbered, said classmate and fellow Republican Jerry Raymond.
"We did talk about and commiserate about some of the frustrations of believing in limited government, that the cost of government intervention was often not recognized in terms of liberty," Raymond said.
Cox was legendary among his law review colleagues for planning West Coast job interviews around Fridays and Mondays so he could attend University of Southern California football games, friends said. Cox graduated from USC with a double major in political science and English. He also studied Russian.
His language skills came in handy when Cox nudged his father, Charles, out of retirement from the printing business in 1984 to form a venture that would publish an English version of Pravda, the Soviet Union's preeminent newspaper and propaganda organ. The translation was a way to show Americans the limited way in which Soviets were living at the time.
But the operation had trouble meeting payroll, and Cox's father sought to take the company public to generate cash, according to a 1988 prospectus filed with the SEC. The business was dissolved in 1992, according to securities filings in Delaware.
After graduating from Harvard, Cox spent a year working for a federal judge, then joined the law firm Latham & Watkins LLP, rising to partner.
Cox's representation of a California company, First Pension Corp., while he was a corporate lawyer at Latham may come under scrutiny at his confirmation hearing, Democratic Senate aides said. Three officials with ties to the company eventually served prison time for fraud. The firm, Cox, and other lawyers were sued by plaintiffs representing investors who lost about $130 million in the collapse of First Pension. Lawyers for the investors argued that Cox and others knew or should have known the company was a scam, based on legal reviews and other work they performed.
Ultimately, Cox was dismissed from the case, which he noted at the time was filed during intense publicity over his effort in Congress to crack down on shareholder lawsuits. Latham settled before trial for an undisclosed amount. Cox later returned $2,000 in campaign contributions from William E. Cooper, First Pension's founder.
Though he's spent more than 20 years in California, Cox grew up with his four sisters in Highland Park, an upper-middle-class neighborhood in St. Paul.
"You couldn't find more of a Jerry Mathers look-alike," said high school friend Tim Lippert, now an investment banker.
Cox caught the political bug during his first stint in Washington -- a job in the White House counsel's office of President Reagan between 1986 and 1988, where he handled budget and tax initiatives. Cox left to run for an open House seat in California, enlisting Russian comic Yakov Smirnoff to campaign for him. He developed a reputation for doing his homework and grasping the details of policy issues, said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.).
Cox and his wife Rebecca, a Continental Airlines lobbyist, have two boys and a girl. They split their time between homes in California and Virginia.
If he wins Senate approval, Cox would finish his predecessor's term, which expires in 2007. He could seek to be renominated for another five-year stint.
Finley, the longtime friend and St. Paul lawyer, said the SEC post would leave Cox with plenty of options down the road.
"It's a good way for him, if he decides over time to leave the public sector, a good place to exit from," he said. "And if he decides to go back to public sector, it will enhance the luster of his resume."
Washington Post researchers Richard Drezen, Carmen Chapin and Meg Smith contributed to this report.