“I’m not part of the political class. I was raised by a single mom, public school teacher on the South Side of Chicago.”
— GOP California gubernatorial candidate John H. Cox, in a campaign ad released Aug. 5, 2018
John Cox, who is running against Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), is a perennial campaigner. He lost races for Congress and the Senate in Illinois in 2000 and 2002 and for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. He finished second in California’s nonpartisan blanket primary for governor but faces a steep challenge to win. A recent poll found him trailing Newsom by 24 percentage points.
Throughout his campaigns, Cox has uttered a standard line — that he was raised on the South Side of Chicago by a single mother.
In 2003, Cox said: “I grew up on the South Side of Chicago with a single mother. … I grew up not exactly in the street but in a very poor family.”
During his 2008 presidential campaign, he aired an ad during the Iowa straw poll that said, “John Cox is not a career politician but a successful business leader. He was raised on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, by a single mother. He grew up in an apartment project and worked his way through school.”
In another 2008 campaign ad, Cox looks at the camera and says: “I’m the son of a single mother. I know what it’s like to grow up without a father to take responsibility.”
The theme has continued into the current campaign. On a radio show in May, he declared, “I started with nothing, single mom growing up on the South Side of Chicago.” There is similar language in his latest campaign ad.
But Fact Checker reader Michelle Pettigrew, an assiduous researcher who lives in California, was skeptical. She started digging into records and newspaper clips and suggested Cox’s oft-repeated line was due for a fact check. (Note: Pettigrew has donated to Newsom’s campaign and hosted a fundraiser for him.) Here’s what we found, with the assistance of Washington Post researcher Alice Crites and other documents provided by Pettigrew.
With the passage of six decades, it’s sometimes hard to separate facts from memories, so we are not offering a Pinocchio rating. Readers can draw their own conclusions.
Cox, a foe of abortion rights, has suggested that his mother was sexually assaulted and that is how he came into the world. “My mom was a single mom and to hear her tell it, and I believe her, she was impregnated against her will and he married her and he left,” he said in a 2006 interview. Speaking to the South Carolina Republican convention in 2007, he said “if abortion had been legal in 1955, I wouldn’t be standing here.”
Cox’s mother, Priscilla, was a grandchild of an immigrant from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), according to 1930 Census records; her father was born in Illinois and owned a hardware store. (Note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly said her father was an immigrant.) When she was 29, she married Arthur McGinty on April 28, 1951, in San Bernardino, Calif., and delivered a son named Michael a year later.
Six months later, on July 15, John Cox was born, with the name of John Kaplan. “My real father took one look at me and left her soon after I was born,” Cox wrote in a 2006 memoir. In the 2006 interview, he said “my real father left when I was three months old.”
Here’s where the story gets fuzzy. Cox frequently says he “grew up” with a single mother, struggling on the South Side of Chicago. But records show that’s not the case. His mother married a third time, to a Post Office supervisor named Thomas Cox, on May 23, 1959, according to the marriage license, which said the ceremony was performed by a minister.
In other words, John Cox was not yet 4 years old when his mother was no longer single. She remarried less than 3½ years after Cox’s father left her.
According to his memoir, Cox said his struggling single mother lived in a “a small apartment in a relatively new integrated apartment complex on Chicago’s South Side” known as Prairie Shores. A newspaper ad from that period describes every apartment in Prairie Shores as having a “beautiful view” of the surroundings, primarily Lake Michigan, and modern kitchens that include “deluxe Frigidaire refrigerators.”
Records indicate that shortly after the marriage, the Cox family moved to Alsip, 20 miles away in the Chicago suburbs, to a house built in 1959 on one-third of an acre of land. A local newspaper article published in 1961 describes Tom and Priscilla Cox as members of a bridge club; an article in 1962 says they were Oak Lawn bridge club champions. In his memoir, Cox says they had a “reasonably comfortable lower middle-class lifestyle” that included traveling to national bridge tournaments. Two more children, a brother and sister, were born in 1960 and 1963.
Cox’s mother was a librarian at Calumet High School on the South Side, which had a student population that was almost exclusively African American. Cox graduated from the local high school, H.L. Richards in Oak Lawn, which according to his senior-year yearbook was almost all white.
His memoir is vague on when his mother remarried but in some interviews, Cox said that he lived on Chicago’s South Side at least until he was six, such as in 2006: “I always say that I spent the first six years of my life in Barack Obama’s district.”
When we asked the Cox campaign to explain these discrepancies, officials responded with a statement from Cox that he was largely raised by his mother and that his stepfather was absent and abusive.
"I don’t remember my real father since he abandoned us when I was only 3 months old. It was tough being a single mom back then, and it still is today,” Cox said. “Although my mother remarried a few years later, I was basically raised solely by my mom. My new ‘step-dad’ worked nights for the post office and was seldom around. My clearest memories from that time were when I was five or six. When he was around, I remember him as physically abusive and violent. These aren't pleasant memories.”
He added: “We couldn't afford child care programs then, so on days when I wasn’t in school, I went to my mom’s work. So as far as I am concerned, she raised me."
Cox has never aired this accusation against his stepfather.
“My stepfather came into the picture when I was 6 years old and he was a postman,” Cox said in the 2006 interview. “And he was okay. He was not a great stepfather, but he had two kids with my mom so he kind of treated them very differently. And that’s fine; I understand how that works. And he was a postman, and he worked nights and he taught me the value of hard work.”
In a 2001 interview in the (Moline, Ill.) Dispatch, Cox said he had been bullied in high school but owed his morals to his parents. “My parents instilled in me a respect for others,” he said. “We don’t teach our kids that hurting people … is a bad thing.”
Priscilla and Tom Cox were married for 36 years, until he died in 1991. Priscilla Cox died in 2000.
Cox’s older brother has died, and his other siblings did not respond to requests for comment.
Update: After this fact check appeared, the campaign updated its website to remove a line that said he was "raised by a single mom in the Midwest." The biography now includes a longer description of his upbringing, including: "Several years after John’s father left, his mom got remarried to a postal worker."
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