Gov.-elect Spencer Cox adds political rivals to his transition team, names top aides

(Steve Griffin | Deseret News, pool) Gov.-elect Spencer Cox announces details related to the upcoming transition of leadership in the Gold Room at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020.

Gov.-elect Spencer Cox on Thursday named two key staffers to his new administration, picking former Salt Lake Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce as a top aide and a longtime state official as his chief of staff.

Fresh off his election night victory, Cox also revealed that he’s recruited former political rivals and dozens of other community leaders to help him craft a vision for the next four years of governing.

Jon Pierpont, longtime head of Utah’s Department of Workforce Services, will be his chief of staff and the chief operations officer for the state.

Napier-Pearce — who resigned from her post at the Tribune in August — will serve as a senior adviser and communications director for Cox, the lieutenant governor said Tuesday. Cox noted that during Napier-Pearce’s time as editor, The Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize. She also helped guide its 2019 application to become the first privately held U.S. legacy newspaper to convert to a community-based nonprofit.

“She is fair, community-minded and driven,” Cox said in a Thursday news conference announcing two key hires as he prepares to replace outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert. “She’s strong and educated in policy. She has great integrity, [is] ethical and through running a newspaper is connected to Utah’s voice and the priorities within our communities.”

She left the newspaper over unspecified coverage, policy and management disagreements with Paul Huntsman, who is chairman of The Tribune’s nonprofit board.

In a tweet posted Thursday afternoon, Napier-Pearce wrote that her decision to “take a leave of absence” from journalism was a difficult one.

“[B]ut it really came down to two words: civic duty,” she wrote. “Between COVID, the economy, education challenges, racism, etc., etc., Utah’s next governor has some heavy lifting. But there’s tremendous opportunity to rebuild and improve, too.”

And, she wrote, Cox and his running mate, state Sen. Deidre Henderson, have “big ideas, good hearts, solid plans and a clear mandate from the voters.”

Pierpont, meanwhile, has spent 29 years in public service and most recently has been working as the lieutenant governor’s interim chief of staff.

He collaborated with Cox on the two-year Operation Rio Grande initiative, a $67 million campaign to address homelessness and crime in the Pioneer Park area. In a statement, Pierpont said after working with Cox on intergenerational poverty and homelessness, he has the “utmost respect and admiration for who he is as a person and a leader.”

Cox handily beat Democrat Chris Peterson in Tuesday’s general election, capturing 65% of the votes tallied so far. He and Henderson will be sworn in Jan. 4.

One of his first tasks as governor will be to continue combating the coronavirus pandemic and deal with its aftershocks. When asked whether his approach to COVID-19 would differ from Herbert’s, Cox told reporters that he hopes a vaccine will be available after his inauguration and anticipates that his first focus will be on distributing it.

He said he would continue to work closely with Herbert to deal with the disease — which is currently spreading through Utah with record speed. Cox attributed the surge to social gatherings and interactions between family members, saying that Utahns have largely learned how to prevent infections from spreading in public spaces.

“The spread is happening in our homes, and it’s killing people and it’s overwhelming our hospitals,” he said. “This is crunch time. The next two months are absolutely critical. We are in a dire situation.”

Speaking from the Gold Room of the Utah Capitol, Cox also told reporters that he’s convening more than 100 community leaders to review state agencies and prepare “major policy recommendations.” Among them are former political rivals: Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, businessman Jeff Burningham and real estate broker Thomas Wright, all of whom ran against Cox in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

Former U.S. Rep. Mia Love and Susan Madsen, founder and director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah State University, are part of the review group, which also includes: Pamela Atkinson, Bonnie Jean Beesley, Mark Bouchard, Lisa-Michele Church, Amanda Covington, Sophia DiCaro, Kristen Edwards, Francine Giani, Crystal Maggelet, Lavanya Mahate, Steve Neeleman, Val Oveson, Jon Pike, Lester Rojas, Byron Russell and Heidi Walker.

Cox said much of this review will happen this month and in early December and that the participants will be looking for opportunities to improve the state’s efficiency and responsiveness; ways of getting more women involved in government; and policies that could increase education equity.

Steve Starks, CEO of the Larry H. Miller Group of Cos., and Lynne Ward, who served as deputy chief of staff for former Gov. Olene Walker, will lead the transition team as Cox gets ready to become the state’s chief executive. Austin Cox, Cox’s former campaign manager; Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah; and Rich McKeown, who co-founded Leavitt Partners with former Gov. Mike Leavitt, will also work on the team.

“As you can tell, this team is rich in diversity and thought, political persuasion, gender, ethnicity and experience,” Henderson said.

Herbert, who chose Cox as his lieutenant governor in 2013, said he’s looking forward to watching his protégé take his place.

“There’s probably no better training ground to become governor than to be lieutenant governor for seven years,” Herbert told reporters. “He’s had a great ringside, front-row view of how government is run here in the state.