Robert Gehrke: Who is Utah’s new governor, how did Spencer Cox get here and how will he govern?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Back in 2013, I’d driven down to the Sanpete County Fairgrounds in Manti for an assignment and this eager, somewhat familiar-looking guy without much hair struck up a conversation with me as he was hauling band equipment into the building.

It really wasn’t until that guy was on stage playing a U2 cover that I realized it was Spencer Cox, who at that point had been a member of the Utah House of Representatives for all of about six weeks.

It didn’t take long for him to make an impression in the Legislature. A few months later the rookie lawmaker was pushing hard for a House investigation into corrupt dealings by then Attorney General John Swallow.

“I’ll be damned,” Cox said during one House Republican caucus, if he was going to let the body shirk its duty to investigate the allegations.

Four months later, after Lt. Gov. Greg Bell announced he was stepping down, I was sitting in the Gold Room at the Capitol waiting for Gov. Gary Herbert to pick his replacement. My money was on then-Rep. Greg Hughes, and when the door opened, in walked Herbert and members of his team and then Cox, who wouldn’t get out of the way so I could see who the state’s next No. 2 would be.

It took a few seconds longer than it should have before it finally clicked.

Cox had a quick rise, going from newbie House member and erstwhile bass player to lieutenant governor in nine months. And then he served seven years in a supporting role. It’s kinda odd that in some ways I’m left with the same question today that I had back at the fairgrounds in Nephi: Who is this guy?

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File) - In this July 7, 2020 file photo, Utah Republican Lt. Gov Spencer Cox arrives for a news conference at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City.

I don’t mean that literally. Most people by now know Cox as the affable, smiling Utah Jazz fan with a self-deprecating wit and the kind of Twitter persona we wish we would get from President Donald Trump.

But aside from a brief two-hour stint filling in for Herbert when the governor had surgery (during which time he made Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles his No. 2 and issued a proclamation to take back the southwest corner of Wyoming and “Make Utah Rectangular Again”) we don’t have a sense of how Cox will govern.

There are a few things we do know.

His rural roots shape his philosophy. He grew up on the farm his great-great grandfather settled 160 years ago and before his short stint in the House he was a county commissioner. He has been Herbert’s point man on rural economic development and it stands to reason that will continue to be a focal point for him as governor.

One of his campaign pledges is to make sure rural schools have the same funding as their urban counterparts.

“When Spencer says he wants a strong education system in every ZIP code, I think he means it,” said Sen.-elect Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, who is also Cox’s brother-in-law.

That rural mindset likely means he’ll support county commissioners in pushing for state control of public lands.

In his short time in the Legislature, he also supported legislation aimed at limiting federal law enforcement’s authority on public lands and allowing the carrying of concealed weapons without a permit — although Herbert vetoed the latter.

The other big issue that McKell said will be at the top of Cox’s agenda is dealing with Utah’s rapid growth, a multi-faceted issue that touches on affordable housing, water, transportation and a host of other policy decisions.

Cox has been consulting with former Gov. Mike Leavitt, a governor who one veteran politico told me would be a role model for Cox — more of a big-idea guy than a manager.

And, at least so far, I’ve been pleased with the people he has surrounding him. Deidre Henderson, his lieutenant governor, is sharp and talented and an encouraging sign that Cox will value diversity in his administration, and former Department of Workforce Services director Jon Pierpont who has been serving as Cox’s interim chief of staff is a capable veteran of state government.

So those are things we know. Now here’s what I hope.

I hope Cox takes this strong electoral victory and uses his political capital to get serious about containing the coronavirus — something that frankly can’t wait until he’s sworn in in January.

I hope he listens to Dr. Angela Dunn and medical experts and has the spine to stand up to legislative opposition — Senate President Stuart Adams, in particular — and imposes much-needed safeguards.

I hope he is able to revitalize Utah’s rural economies but still get serious about doing what Utah can to control climate change — even if it means a painful transition for those communities that have relied on fossil fuels.

I hope he leads from the center, represents all Utahns, speaks as a unifying conscience for our state and puts action behind those words.

I hope he keeps using his Twitter account.

I hope he helps celebrate a Utah Jazz championship during his tenure.

Finally, I hope he recognizes the incredible opportunity he has — starting with a blank slate as a leader of a state that is prospering, even in the midst of the COVID recession — to be a bold leader with big ideas and put an indelible mark on Utah’s future.