After graduating from Corona Del Mar High School, Cook went to Texas, where her brother, an Air Force veteran, ran a flight school. She obtained her pilot’s license; later that summer, she spent 23 days in the Colorado wilderness through the Outward Bound program. “It was a life-changing experience for me,” she says. “It made me realize how much I could do, and it got me interested in earth science.”

Cook majored in the subject at Cal State Long Beach, where she enrolled in 1972, spending most of her free time playing co-ed volleyball and falling in love with one of her teammates, John Fisher. They married when Cook was 21; she took a break from her studies to give birth to a son, Jonathan, before graduating in 1978.

After college, she spent 15 years running her family’s office-equipment business and volunteering as a physical educator and grant writer at her son’s school in Huntington Beach—where Cook moved out of frustration with the school district in Westminster, which rebuffed her efforts to provide outdoor-education courses for students.

Debbie Cook and Barack Obama in Newport Beach
Courtesy Debbie Cook
Debbie Cook and Barack Obama in Newport Beach
Cook on an oil rig in 2007
Courtesy Debbie Cook
Cook on an oil rig in 2007

By then, seeing the gradual destruction of open space in Orange County had turned Cook, who described herself in those days as “apolitical,” into an environmental activist.

“The loss of open space really bothered me,” she says. “Before they built Fashion Island, I remember my dad looking out there and saying this will all be gone someday. I thought that was just awful. It’s amazing any land has been protected—and its taken a lot of struggle.”

In 1989, within a year of arriving in Huntington Beach, Cook waged her first battle to prevent developers from taking away open space. She discovered the city had a plan to build a golf course in an undeveloped portion of Central Park. “We found out the city had done a survey and the residents didn’t want a golf course there,” she says. “We decided that this is public land, and the public ought to have a say.”

Cook spoke out against the project at city hall and met other residents who were organizing against Pierside Village, 57,000 square feet of restaurants and retail space the city planned to build along the beach south of the pier. She and other activists gathered 18,000 signatures in support of a city measure called “Save Our Parks and Beaches.” Developers—chiefly the Huntington Beach Co., a real-estate outfit formed by Chevron Corp., a major proponent of Pierside Village—funded an alternative measure aimed at confusing voters.

“They had so much more money than us,” Cook recalls. “They had signs everywhere saying this would stop all these youth programs and other projects.” Nevertheless, Cook’s measure won 74 percent of the vote. “We had the grassroots support,” she says.

By then, however, the city had already approved Pierside Village, so Cook asked the California Coastal Commission to appeal the project. Although the commission at first refused, Cook tried again when its membership changed and won a decision that blocked the project. Meanwhile, she enrolled at Western State University School of Law in Irvine. After three years of classes, she passed the state bar exam and became an attorney, immediately joining the legal team of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, an environmental group opposed to real-estate development on the Bolsa Chica mesa.

The Koll Co., backed by Huntington Beach city officials, planned to build hundreds of homes on Orange County’s last remaining coastal wetlands. Cook spent five years filing lawsuits against the project. Her legal work helped win a Coastal Commission ruling that protected the mesa from new housing. In 1998, Connie Boardman, one of Cook’s colleagues at the land trust, ran for Huntington Beach City Council. She lost by 137 votes. Two years later, she ran again. There were two open seats on the council, and Cook ran alongside Boardman in hopes of using their positions to protect Bolsa Chica and other city resources.

“We walked neighborhoods together every weekend,” recalls Boardman, who left city politics after a single term in office and is now a teacher at Cerritos College. “I was really happy to have Debbie run with me. I think we kept each other motivated.”

Despite a well-funded effort to paint them as liberal zealots, both Boardman and Cook topped the slate of candidates and won jobs at city hall.

“They sent out four or five negative pieces against us, and we only had money to do a partial mailing,” Cook says. “But we had walkers and activists and grassroots support. We’d been working in the community for years.”

*     *     *

In 2000, Boardman and Cook joined a Huntington Beach City Council beset by scandal. Former mayor and longtime conservative Republican council member Dave Garofalo, who also ran a local newspaper, had been the subject of an ongoing corruption investigation over his practice of voting to provide lucrative city contracts to his paper’s advertisers. He resigned in 2002 after pleading guilty to a felony and 15 misdemeanor charges and was prohibited from ever running for office again.

A year after joining the city council, Cook led an effort to eliminate the city’s sewage waiver, which allowed untreated county water waste to be dumped into the ocean. Getting rid of the waiver would cost county taxpayers money, but Cook argued it was worthwhile because it would allow that water to be treated and eventually replenish the county’s supply of drinking water. At the time, Republican council member Peter Green served as the city’s appointee on the Orange County Sanitation District board. Green refused to vote to eliminate the sewage waiver, so Cook, who had become mayor that year, voted herself into Green’s seat on the board.

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