Fairview • Shelly Vrieze sees Spencer Cox’s familiar car dashing north early every morning along the cattle, farms and hills of lonely Highway 89.
“I pass him and think, there he goes again to Salt Lake,” says Vrieze, who often sees him as she travels 14 miles from tiny Indianola to her job as a cook in Fairview in Sanpete County. Cox’s commute is longer: 200 miles round-trip daily to the state Capitol.
She doesn’t call him the lieutenant governor, nor apparently do most people here.
“He’s just Spencer,” she says, cleaning the grill at Miller’s, a gas station and cafe a mile from the Cox farm.
“A lot of people who have high, high, high positions think a lot of themselves. He’s down to earth,” she says. “I think every time I see him in regular clothes, buying groceries or out jogging that he looks a lot different on TV. But he fits in here.”
Cox, 42, says returning to Fairview and its values — both in his daily commute and in some longer journeys away during his lifetime — keeps him grounded, and frees him to do unexpected things, for an up-and-coming Utah GOP politician.
That includes a now-famous speech urging kindness for the LGBT community and apologizing for his own mistreatment of gays. A video of it went viral globally.
He’s also pushed employers to hire refugees, prayed for Mexican earthquake victims, coordinated Operation Rio Grande to help the homeless, criticized fellow-Republican President Donald Trump, was the first to call for impeachment of GOP Attorney General John Swallow, and attacked the caucus-convention system dear to the right wing for usurping power from others.
Cox says part of that springs from “a compassion for the underdog” he developed in some dark times, including when he considered suicide as a youth after his parents divorced and he felt like an out-of-place “nerd with big glasses” — and school bullies even dumped him in a trash can “in front of everyone.”
Part of it also comes because he almost turned down the lieutenant governor’s job and says he doesn’t like it nearly enough to “compromise what I believe in”— or to shy away from politically tricky, tough jobs that need doing, like Operation Rio Grande.
“This is liberating,” he says, looking around his home on a 14-acre farm in Fairview.
“If people like what I say and do, we’ll serve. If people don’t like it — even better. I get to come back here.”
Cox acknowledges he is leaning toward running for governor in three years. He says it would indeed finally force him to move to Salt Lake City — but only for five days a week. “We would come back here on weekends.”
Understanding Cox involves knowing about the journeys he made in his life to and from Fairview, population 1,250. The Coxes have lived there now for seven generations. He lives next to his father and a brother. Their three dogs even run together all day. The human cousins hang out, too.
Cox’s first journey away from that safety and peace wasn’t physical, but more emotional. It was when he was 10, and his parents divorced.
“It was tough — especially in a small town,” Cox says. “I no longer felt like I fit in.” Also, “I wasn’t the popular kid in middle school. I was the kid with big glasses.… I got stuffed in a garbage can when I was in sixth grade in the hallway in front of everyone.”
He says all that put him in a tough-to-escape dark place, and he considered suicide. “I was very fortunate to have loving parents and family — specifically, a stepmom who really came to my rescue and helped to save me,” he says. “I think it’s important for people to know that a lot of us thought those things and went through it. It gave me a little insight into the plight of the underdog.”
Further insight came when he went on a two-year Mormon mission to Mexico.
“I would probably say that, more than anything, that two years changed my view of the world,” he says, because of the poverty he saw and experienced. “We didn’t even have beds until nine months in. I slept on a cement floor with a blanket.”
He remembers “sitting on dirt floors, and seeing people so happy and wondering how that could be — and just learning to love people who were very different than me. It certainly helped me to have compassion and, hopefully, empathy.”
Attorney heads home
Cox would graduate from Snow College and Utah State University, marrying his wife, Abby, along the way. She also grew up on a ranch in Sanpete County. He earned a law degree from Washington and Lee University in Virginia, opting to go there “because it felt right” even though he had been accepted to Harvard.
He clerked for federal Judge Ted Stewart and was on the fast track to become a partner at Fabian & Clendenin in Salt Lake City. Then he saw a bumper sticker that said, “It’s 99 percent of the attorneys who give the other 1 percent a bad name.”
It triggered a discussion in which “I asked my wife if the world was a better place because of what I was doing, and she no. She’s very persuasive and very blunt.”
They also had just had a third son. Cox says the only way they really knew how to teach children to work and have responsibility was on a farm. His father, Eddie, remembers telling his son that the main purpose of that generations-old farm is: “We’re raising kids, not crops.”
About that time, his father invited Cox to return to Fairview — at a big pay cut — to handle legal work and help him manage CentraCom, a telecommunications company his family founded, later sold, but still managed.
Cox asked his mentor, Judge Stewart, for advice — and he urged going home.
“He said, ‘You’ll be so much more fulfilled in your life. You’ll be able to spend more time with your family, your faith and your community,’” Cox remembers. “He was the only voice saying that. All the other voices were like, ‘Are you crazy? Why would you give up this prestigious law firm and go back?’”
He returned to Fairview.
“I’ve had some amazing opportunities. I got to coach my kids. I got to serve as a [Mormon] bishop and do things with the young people in my faith here. I got to serve my community in ways I never expected.”
That included entering politics, serving on the City Council, as mayor and as a county commissioner — all of which his father also had done. Cox also won election to the Utah House.
Winning the lottery
As a House freshman, Cox, at age 38, won the Utah political lottery when Gov. Gary Herbert plucked him from relative obscurity four years ago to appoint him as lieutenant governor — replacing Greg Bell, who retired for financial reasons.
“I was stunned. I didn’t think the governor knew who I was. I’m not sure he did,” Cox remembers. He says he learned later that Bell — with whom he served as co-chairman of a governor’s rural partnership — had suggested him and talked the governor into interviewing him.
He recalls that the governor asked him for a half-hour or so about other people he was considering, then asked what he would think about himself as lieutenant governor.
“I honestly don’t remember anything past that,” Cox says. “I thought I was being punked.”
Herbert says he picked Cox because, as he went through a checklist of what he wanted in a partner, “Spencer Cox lined up better than anybody else out there. He brought a little youthful enthusiasm, which I thought was a nice added bonus.”
He adds, “His background and experience in business and politics was outstanding. And our vision about where the state needs to go is very similar. The fact he was willing to work … that was the frosting on the cake.”
Cox says he was flattered at first, “and then I thought it was terrible.” It would cut his salary by 44 percent. He was told he would need to leave Fairview and the dream home he and his wife had bought a year earlier.
“The hardest piece was my kids and the time away,” he says. He remembered watching his then-6-year-old daughter walking home from school, “and I just lost it” and cried. He was ready to turn down the job.
But he asked for advice from his parents. His father gave him an LDS blessing and told him, “This is what we’ve lived our whole lives for,” and it was an astounding opportunity to serve — “which is what the Coxes do.”
He says his parents promised, “We will pick up the slack. We will be here. We’ll take the kids. We’ll just be part of the family and nothing will change.”
So Cox accepted the gig with the condition that he would commute from Fairview.
He says he leaves between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m., depending on the day. He arrives at the office about two hours later. He tries to leave work by 6 p.m., so he is home by 7 or 8 to spend time with the family. His drive is spent on the phone — hands-free bluetooth — “except for 15 minutes where I don‘t have any cellphone service.”
As an example of one recent day, he left home at 7:30 a.m.; gave a speech at Utah Valley University at 9 a.m.; gave another speech afterward at a tech business; met with a Chinese delegation; hosted an event for former prisoners of war; met with a minister from Oman; and made it home for his daughter’s 6 p.m. soccer game. Later that night, he drove to St. George so he could give a speech there the next morning.
Free to speak
Cox says serving in a job he didn’t seek — and being willing to go back to his old life at any time — leaves him free to speak his mind.
So he does.
He recently told university students that Trump “was diabolically brilliant” in how he attacked NFL players for protesting by kneeling during the national anthem. He said Trump fed red meat to his right-wing base by managing to convert protests over racism into protests about supporting the flag and country.
It wasn’t the first time Cox, the state’s top election official, has criticized Trump. He assailed the president for making “dangerous” and baseless allegations of voter fraud. He called Trump disingenuous and said he “represents the worst of what our great country stands for.” He refused to vote for him.
Still, Cox says in an interview that “the one lesson that we all should have learned from Donald Trump is that people are tired of talking-point politicians who are scared to say anything outside of a formulated postcard of talking points.”
He says he’s vowed not to do that.
His most famous instance of speaking out was after a shooting at a gay club in Orlando, Fla., when he publicly apologized for once mistreating people who were different in high school, who he later learned were gay.
He also gave a two-question litmus test for fellow Utahns:
“How did you feel when you heard that 49 people had been gunned down by a self-proclaimed terrorist? That’s the easy question. Here’s the hard one: Did that feeling change when you found out the shooting was at a gay bar a 2 a.m.? If that feeling changed, we’re doing something wrong.”
Cox says he’s been surprised to find that even people who disagree with him sometimes “will support you if they believe you are being honest and you’re being true and you are being vulnerable with them.”
He says even people put off by his remarks at times have thanked him for saying what he thinks.
“It’s weird that being honest is refreshing,” he says.
Rural guy over urban problem
Herbert had a second big surprise for Cox when he asked the rural farmer and telecom executive to be the point person for Operation Rio Grande to clean up urban crime in the downtown Salt Lake City neighborhood around the state’s largest homeless shelter and to find ways to help people who were addicted or trapped in poverty.
Cox says it happened in a meeting where personalities had been clashing, and he and the governor decided “we need somebody to wrangle this together.” It ended up being Cox.
He left that meeting to take his family with him to Utah Bar Association meetings in Sun Valley, Idaho. “My head was spinning. They asked what’s wrong. I said I think I just got put in charge of trying to solve the greatest humanitarian crisis we have in the state right now.”
He spent the next many days, nights and early morning hours on the phone trying to settle on plans and implement them.
Herbert says he chose Cox for that task because “he has a personality that is conducive to bringing people together, and yet making sure principles and policies are put in place that are important and productive.”
The governor adds, “It’s proven to be a very good fit. He’s done an outstanding job.”
Cox calls it his biggest challenge as lieutenant governor — and the most rewarding.
“We’re moving the needle. We’re actually making a difference. We’re helping real people who desperately need help and who have been forgotten for years.”
He’s proud of the cooperative spirit of the effort. “I love that we’re proving that people in Utah with different backgrounds — politically, geographically — can come together on a really big problem and find common ground. It actually gives me hope for the other big problems we’re facing.”
Cox adds, “Conversely, if we can’t do it here, I don’t know that it can be done anywhere. This is a problem that may not have a solution.”
Remembering who you are
Cox says he loves Fairview partly because “I like being treated like the kid who grew up here. This is where we feel comfortable.”
He acknowledges feeling out of place among the powerful in government.
“I still feel like a fraud,” he says. “I worry they are going to figure out that I am this dirt farmer from the middle of nowhere.”
His wife, Abby, adds, “The hardest part of this job is being with people who think they are — I’m being careful with what I say — they think they are important…”
“Because we don’t,” the lieutenant governor interrupts, laughing. “We’re not important,” he says, adding it’s something his wife and Fairview folks help him to remember.
His father, Eddie, says he still worries about Spencer “as any father would with some of the things politicians are known for. But that’s not him…. He’s genuine. What you see is what you get.”
When Abby is asked if she’s happy with the decision for Spencer to be lieutenant governor, she says, “The truth is yes and no. It’s tough. He used to have a one-minute commute. He was right in town. He was able to leave and go to ballgames and school programs. He’s gone a lot now.”
But she’s proud of his service and example.
“I will also say there have been incredible opportunities for us and our kids. We met Barack Obama when he was president. We met the Dalai Lama,” she says. She also likes that it led her and her children to work in homeless shelters in Salt Lake City.
“Here, we don’t have a lot of homelessness,” she says of Fairview. “It’s good for our kids to see people who struggle and who are different from us.”
Cox acknowledges he has an eye on running for governor in three years. He says it’s too early to talk about it, but he does a bit.
“We were definitely leaning ‘no’ for a long time. I would say that’s flipped. We’re leaning toward it now,” he says.
“If you do it right, it’s not a fun thing. It’s not glamorous if you do it right,” he says, adding that the timing would mean that all but his youngest daughter would be out of high school, or almost out.
Herbert sees Cox as having the same sort of experience he had as a lieutenant governor that could help him hit the ground running. “The same preparation that I’ve had, I see in Spencer Cox. I think he certainly has the talent and the capability to be a good governor.”
Cox says if he does run, he’ll be fully committed.
“If we decide to run and people want us, we would do it. We would be all in and we would work our guts out, and we would leave everything on the table.”
And if Utahns pick someone else to be the next governor?
“I get a huge pay raise. I get to spend more time with my family. I get a 1-mile commute instead of a 200-mile commute. I would be OK with that,” he says with a wide grin.