How Cox rose from farm boy to lieutenant-governor-in-waiting
By Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Oct 15 2013 07:19PM
A few weeks ago, when Lt. Gov. Greg Bell announced he would be giving up his post to return to the private sector, nobody expected freshman state Rep. Spencer Cox to be plucked from the House to take his place.
"I recognize, first and foremost, that I was not at the top of probably anyone’s list," Cox joked while breezing through his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday.
Except, of course, being at the top of the list that counted — the one belonging to Gov. Gary Herbert.
Herbert said he considered Cox a "shorter, younger version of Greg Bell" and was drawn to the 38-year-old Republican’s intellect, business experience, political record and rural roots.
"There’s something maybe about that farm work ethic," Herbert said Tuesday. "I understand the importance of getting up early and working long hours and getting the job done. … I see that with the Cox family, with [his father] Eddie and I see that with Spencer."
It is his dad, Eddie Cox, who friends say infused Spencer with a civic sentiment, tireless work ethic and hometown pride.
"Spencer’s desire to serve, a lot of it comes form the example his father left before him," said Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, who is Spencer Cox’s brother-in-law.
Eddie spent eight years on the Fairview City Council, a term as mayor and 10 years as a Sanpete County commissioner.
"I’ve always tried to teach my kids the need to give back and give to their communities and be involved," said Eddie, who serves on the Utah Transportation Commission and the Snow College board of trustees. "I know he’s not doing this for glory or anything like that."
Early to rise • Spencer Cox grew up the eldest of eight children on the family’s Fairview farm. Before school, he had to crawl out of bed at 5 a.m. to move sprinkler pipe or do other chores before heading to class in the morning and looking after his siblings in the afternoon.
"He probably felt used and abused a little bit," Eddie said.
His father said Spencer was deeply interested in current events and read the newspaper even as a boy. He also demonstrated a tenacity and drive that would power him through life.
His parents signed Spencer up for piano lessons. Before a recital, he broke his thumb playing. Eddie said his son was in excruciating pain, but refused to go to the hospital for a cast until after his recital. Spencer was disappointed he got only the second-highest marks at the performance.
Spencer was not a gifted athlete, said his father, but he strived to improve his tennis strokes and spent hours in the gym shooting a basketball with his left hand. He bought himself a bass guitar and taught himself to play by watching videos online. His now-defunct band, UpSide, played cover tunes at car shows and fairs.
"He just has that drive," Eddie said. "He just persisted and stays at it."
Spencer enrolled at Snow near his home after finishing high school, filled a Mormon mission to Mexico and came home hoping to marry his high school sweetheart, Abby, with plans to finish school at Snow and then attend Brigham Young University. His fiancée, who had been accepted to the special-education program at Utah State University, had other plans.
"That’s fantastic, I’ll marry you. Enjoy your time at BYU. I’m going to [Utah State]," Cox, who in an interview earlier this year with the conservative Red Meat Radio program, recalled his wife telling him.
The governor’s office has not made Cox available for interviews until after his Senate confirmation, expected on Wednesday.
Cox opted to go to Logan with his wife, graduating from USU with an unblemished 4.0 grade-point average and was accepted to Harvard Law School. He went instead to Washington & Lee in Virginia, where he had received a scholarship, and graduated fifth in his class.
Cox clerked for U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart and landed a job at Fabian & Clendenin, the same Salt Lake City law firm where current Lt. Gov. Greg Bell worked.
A bumper sticker, though, led him to a career change. "It’s 99 percent of the attorneys," the slogan said, "that give the 1 percent a bad name."
"Is the world a better place because of what I’m doing?" Cox, during the radio interview, recalled asking himself. "And we both agreed the answer to that was no."
You can go home again • Spencer and Abby Cox moved their family back home to Fairview, next door to his father.
"If you look at sort of his career trajectory, the fact that this guy was very, very successful, very, very intelligent and articulate and would choose to move to Fairview, I think, says something about what makes him tick," said Jon Cox, a friend and distant cousin of Spencer. "The choice was based on family. He wanted a good place to raise his kids, and he knew Fairview was a good place because that’s where he grew up."
The family dynamic is important to the Cox clan. Abby served as gestational carrier — a type of surrogacy — for Cox’s sister and brother-in-law, who were unable to have children of her own.
Spencer went to work for CentraCom, a telecommunications company his family had owned for nearly a century. The company has acquired several small phone companies in central Utah, growing and expanding service in the region. He serves as vice president and general counsel for the company; his father is president.
Spencer was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Fairview City Council and, 10 months later, followed in his father’s footsteps by being elected mayor of the town of about 1,200. About the most controversial decision he made was firing the police chief.
He was elected to the Sanpete County Commission in 2008. He co-led, alongside Bell, the Governor’s Rural Partnership Board and served as a rural representative on the Governor’s Economic Council.
In 2012, he ran for the Utah House and won without facing a Democratic foe.
Despite his rapid political rise, Jon Cox said Spencer is not motivated by a thirst for power, but rather to serve his community.
"I’ve had one or two people in the county say, ‘That guy is gunning for higher office,’ and I go back to the fact that, you don’t move to rural Utah for ambition," Jon said.
If confirmed, Spencer says his family will remain in Fairview and he will spend workweeks at the spare room in his uncle’s Salt Lake apartment.
Taking on Swallow • Based on his short record in the Legislature, Spencer Cox has carved out a record as a GOP moderate. He voted for bills that rankled some conservatives — making it an offense for an adult to smoke in a car carrying a child and banning cellphone use by minors behind the wheel.
At the same time, he voted for a pair of controversial gun laws, one to prohibit federal officers from enforcing new gun laws in Utah and the other, a so-called "constitutional carry" law, that would allow anyone to pack a concealed weapon, with or without a permit. Herbert vetoed the second measure; the first failed to clear the House.
"He’s focused on the issues and takes a very pragmatic, thoughtful approach to them," said freshman Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman. "He’s really passionate about where he’s from. I don’t know a guy who loves his community more than Spencer loves Fairview and Sanpete County."
Cox generated the most headlines when he became the first Utah lawmaker to call for the impeachment of Attorney General John Swallow.
In a detailed analysis posted on his website, Cox argued that impeachment is a fact-finding tool for legislators to get to the bottom of the scandal enveloping the state’s top cop, and that allegations of inside deals, gifts and influence-peddling warranted such action.
The House ended up creating an investigative committee, which Cox derided as a "pretend impeachment committee" and said that lawmakers were "shirking" their responsibility. It was a mistake, he argued to his fellow Republicans, to let federal agents investigate the attorney general, rather than have the House do its constitutional duty.
"I’ll be damned," he said, "if I’m going to let them restore the public trust."
On the golf course and elsewhere, Cox is now ribbed by colleagues, says Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, for his fiery rhetoric. "I’ll be damned," they will say, for example, "if I’m going to play that ball from behind a tree."
As lieutenant governor, Cox would inherit an ongoing investigation into whether Swallow broke state election law by omitting business interests and income from his personal financial disclosure.
Asked about the issue during his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Cox acknowledged some may question his impartiality on the Swallow issue and said he would consider recusing himself to ensure the integrity of the probe.
Knotwell said that when Bell announced he was stepping down, he told Cox he would be a good replacement.
"He laughed it off, like there’s no way some freshman legislator from Sanpete County would be chosen to be lieutenant governor," Knotwell said. "But he fit the pedigree of what Gary Herbert was looking for."