In May 2013, a largely unknown Rep. Spencer Cox, R-Fairview, became the first state lawmaker to call for the impeachment of Attorney General General Swallow over allegations of corruption.
Then in June 2016, as Utah’s lieutenant governor, Cox generated national media attention and widespread acclaim for his speech at a vigil honoring the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, in which he tearfully apologized for his own previous homophobic behavior and said his “heart had changed.”
In those and other instances, Cox built a personal brand as a politician willing to speak out in the face of a perceived wrong.
But this week, as a candidate for governor and with President Donald Trump drawing vocal condemnation for a series of racist tweets telling four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to where they came from, Cox says he’s “desperately trying to show there is a better way" by refraining from comment.
“I used to feel obligated to respond to everything,” Cox wrote on Twitter on Monday. “But it never made anything better. Just more false choices and divisiveness.”
A spokesman for Cox’s gubernatorial campaign said Tuesday that the lieutenant governor is on vacation with his family and unavailable for additional comment.
Cox’s tweet was in response to praise from Utah County Commissioner Tanner Ainge, a newly-elected Republican officeholder, who had written that he wrestled with how and whether to respond to the latest Trump controversy before seeing Cox’s silence on the issue as an example.
The original tweet by Ainge included a reference to a birthday fundraiser that Cox hosted to benefit Utah’s refugee community.
“Saw that [Spencer Cox] had perfect response by making no comment at all,” Ainge wrote. “He was just busy exemplifying the opposite. Love this guy.”
Ainge told The Tribune on Tuesday that it’s important for elected leaders to respond, when asked, to questions about the latest political controversies. But he added that releasing a formal, proactive statement is often less important than the example a person sets through their actions.
“If you’re just trying to do the right thing and follow your own values,” Ainge said, “in some ways that’s more powerful than making statement.”
Asked about Trump’s tweets, Ainge said racial and ethnic diversity is one of the most beautiful things about the United States, and that racism and slavery is a stain on the nation.
“I think all leaders have an obligation to try to heal those wounds and slam that door shut,” Ainge said. “For a president to stoke the flames of xenophobic and racial tensions is repulsive to me.”
Of the four congresswomen targeted by Trump, all but one were born in the United States. But in criticizing their progressive political stances, Trump falsely wrote that the congresswomen “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” and suggested they “go back and help fix" those nations.
While reaction to the tweets was swift and severe, Trump’s fellow elected Republicans have been slow to condemn the president’s rhetoric. Among Utah’s federal delegation, only Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams and Republican Sen. Mitt Romney have voiced objections, with McAdams saying the tweets were offensive and beneath the dignity of the presidency and Romney calling the tweets destructive, demeaning, disunifying and over the line. Neither one called the remarks racist.
On Twitter, several people wrote that they hoped Cox would join in the condemnation of Trump’s comments.
“Spencer has been at his very finest when he was willing to speak out against wrongdoing,” wrote Alan Wessman, “even at risk to his own political career.”
And Janie Belliston wrote that it is frustrating to hear so much silence from Republicans.
“I feel like there are things [Trump] says that are so over the top that they need to be denounced by people in positions of power,” she wrote.
Others agreed with Ainge in praising Cox for prioritizing action over words.
“He really is just the best,” wrote Drew Martinez.
Liese Rodger responded that she expects elected officials to speak out against racism and hate, and that Cox’s silence hurt her.
Rodger told The Tribune that she remains a supporter of both Cox and Ainge, but finds it disheartening that they appear to have missed an opportunity to elevate the national conversation and hold government leaders accountable.
“I just know that as a person of color, I’m often either misrepresented or not represented,” Rodger said. “If they are going to be people that I support and want to put in power, I want to know that my voice is going to be heard too and that someone is going to stand up for me.”
Rodger acknowledged Ainge’s argument that elected leaders shouldn’t be expected to weigh in on every controversial action by Trump. But she said some issues, and particularly racism, necessitate a response and that the timing of Cox’s birthday fundraiser for refugees add weight to his decision to not comment.
“What comfort does it bring or give them who have found refuge here to know that words like that can be said by people in power and not be condemned?” Rodger said. “I think we’re all pretty aware of what the topics are that really hurt people."
On Tuesday, Gov. Gary Herbert spoke at a kickoff event for Utah’s “Days of ’47” celebrations in Salt Lake City, during which he praised the “pioneer spirit” of past and present immigrants to the state.
“We welcome everybody," Herbert said. "And that pioneering spirit continues today, and we all have roles to play.”
But when asked by a reporter if Trump’s tweets make it hard to speak positively about immigration, Herbert deflected away from the president and toward a general criticism of the federal government and immigration policy.
“There’s plenty of blame to go around,” Herbert said.