Utah’s next governor, Spencer Cox, promises bold moves

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this July 7, 2020, file photo, Lt. Gov Spencer Cox speaks during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City.

Utah Gov.-elect Spencer Cox says that even though he’s spent seven years serving next to outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert, Utahns shouldn’t expect a continuation of the status quo when he steps into the top spot.

“There will be some significant differences. Any time there’s a change in administration, it’s the perfect time to reevaluate the government and what we’ve been doing, what we’ve been doing right, what we can do better,” the Republican said in a Wednesday interview, hours after his landslide victory over Democrat Chris Peterson. “You will see some big and bold ideas and policies.”

But he’s not quite ready to talk about what those big moves will be.

Cox did say he expects significant personnel changes” when he takes office as he replaces Herbert’s Cabinet with his own. On the campaign trail, he’s also declared he intends to focus on equity in education, saying he wants to decrease funding disparities that impact students in rural schools and on Salt Lake City’s west side.

Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, has already been examining that issue, Cox said, and his team is in talks with her and legislative leaders to come up with a proposal.

The state’s coronavirus response will likely dominate the early days of Cox’s term, though he’s publicly backed Herbert’s handling of the pandemic so far and has given little indication that he will change course after his inauguration. Cox’s critics have slammed him for the Herbert administration’s decisions during the pandemic, including nearly $100 million in no-bid purchases and a reluctance to issue a statewide mask mandate. They’ve also accused Cox of pulling a disappearing act after taking political heat for his assignment to take a prominent role in the effort.

The state is now in the throes of coronavirus surge, reporting its second-highest number of new cases Wednesday and a record number of hospitalizations. But Cox said he hopes by the time he takes office, Utah will have plenty of rapid tests and a vaccine that will help return the state to normal. His job will be to distribute those resources and preside over the state’s recovery from the pandemic, he said.

Cox spent the day Wednesday in back-to-back interviews with Utah news media outlets but mostly spoke in broad strokes and promised that more details about his plans would be forthcoming this week.

The lieutenant governor has focused on overcoming political divisions during his general election race and issued a call for unity during his election night victory speech, delivered virtually to supporters from a former dance hall that his ancestors built in rural Sanpete County. Cox said he was flooded with emotion as he recalled that Nov. 3 marked two years since the death of North Ogden Mayor Brent Taylor, a major in the National Guard who was killed during a deployment in Afghanistan.

“Many of you will remember that just before he passed away, he had been through elections in Afghanistan. He talked about how incredible it was to see them participating in the democratic process,” Cox told his supporters. “And then he shared a message ... about how important it was for us to participate in the process, in our elections process. How important it was for us to look at each other as Americans, not as Republicans and Democrats.”

Cox continued his speech with a pledge to govern for Utahns of all political stripes. That could mean appointing non-Republicans to his administration, Cox later explained, but it will definitely involve bringing together people from different backgrounds for his “kitchen Cabinet,” or group of closest advisers.

“That’s an area where I feel strongly about including, you know, Democrats and Libertarians and others,” he said, “so that we can have those robust discussions and policy inputs.”

He also committed to listening to people with different viewpoints as he works through policy decisions or considers a controversial piece of legislation.

As he now lays the groundwork for his administration, Cox said he’s leaning on advice from his family and friends, running mate state Sen. Deidre Henderson, former three-term Gov. Mike Leavitt and Herbert.

House Minority Leader Brian King said he’s encouraged by Cox’s bipartisan aspirations but is concerned that the governor-elect will be unable to fulfill them because of the people in his Republican base who are “looking to take up the cudgel in the same way Donald Trump did.”

“I’d love to see us lead out in Utah in a way that really crosses the ideological and the policy spectrum and really incorporates the best ideas regardless of where they come from,” King, D-Salt Lake City, said. “I think that’ll be a tremendous challenge for governor-elect Cox."

Although ballot counting will continue for days to come, Cox enjoyed an insurmountable lead by Wednesday afternoon, with about 64% of the votes tallied so far compared with Peterson’s 31%. Peterson, a University of Utah law professor, conceded the race to his Republican rival late Tuesday night and wished Cox the best in “leading our state toward a brighter future.”

Before he entered politics, Cox worked at a telecommunications business founded as a telephone company in the early 20th century.

Cox first served in public office as a Fairview City Council member and went on to spend time as the city’s mayor and as a Sanpete County commissioner. He was in his first year as a state legislator when Herbert chose him as his lieutenant governor in 2013.