Gov.-elect Spencer Cox names Utah Senate leader, former lawmaker to key Cabinet posts

(Tribune file photos) Sophia DiCaro, left, and Dan Hemmert, who will be appointed to positions in Gov.-elect Spencer Cox's administration.

Gov.-elect Spencer Cox tapped Utah Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, to head up the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. He’s hired former Rep. Sophia DiCaro, who has worked on the economic teams of four previous governors, to lead the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget.

And he’s filled out his senior leadership team with some veterans from the current administration.

The Salt Lake Tribune first reported the appointments Wednesday morning.

Hemmert has served in the Utah Senate since he was appointed in 2016 to replace the retiring Alvin Jackson. Hemmert became the majority whip in 2018.

The owner of the Red Hanger Cleaners chain, he mounted a run for the GOP nomination in the 4th Congressional District in 2020 but dropped out in December, citing conflicts with his business. Hemmert ran unopposed for reelection to his Utah Senate seat in November.

He will take over from Val Hale, who was named to head the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, or GOED, by Gov. Gary Herbert in 2014.

“I’m grateful for a chance to get involved on a full-time basis in an area I spend a lot of my part-time work as a legislator,” Hemmert said.

During his time in the Senate, Hemmert led the charge to reform the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative (USTAR), which moves innovations developed at Utah’s colleges and universities to market. USTAR was ultimately absorbed into GOED as part of a legislative restructuring. GOED’s job is to recruit businesses to Utah, increase tourism, and promote film production in the state.

“I’m interested in taking a hard look at programs to determine what works and what doesn’t work,” Hemmert said. “We need to be willing to ask ourselves if it makes sense to continue doing things the same way we have been for 20 years just because that’s the way it’s always been done.”

Cox tapping Hemmert will kick off a battle in the Senate for the newly open spot in leadership. Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, the assistant majority whip, may be looking to move up. Others who are said to be contenders to join the leadership team are Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, and Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi.

There will also be a fight to see who replaces Hemmert in the Senate. There’s already speculation that Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, and former Rep. Mike Kennedy, who was defeated by Mitt Romney in the 2018 GOP primary for U.S. Senate, are angling for the seat. Republican delegates in Hemmert’s district will pick his replacement.

DiCaro served one term in the Utah House from 2015 until 2017. She was widely seen as a rising star in the Utah GOP until she was defeated by Democrat Elizabeth Weight in 2016.

DiCaro has worked for four governors in key roles. She previously served in the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget in the Mike Leavitt, Olene Walker and Jon Huntsman administrations. She also was deputy director and chief operating officer of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development under current Gov. Gary Herbert. She currently is the chief compliance officer for The Cynosure Group, an investment firm in Salt Lake City.

Herbert appointed DiCaro as a commissioner for the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control in 2017.

“What I have learned through the years is that it’s the people on the front lines that help visions come to fruition,” DiCaro said, “so my first priority will be to establish a relationship with a great team.”

In addition to Hemmert and DiCaro, Cox announced several other appointments Wednesday.

Brittney Cummins will be his senior adviser for education. She currently is a member of the Utah State Board of Education.

Jen Robinson will be the chief of staff for Lt. Gov.-elect Deidre Henderson. She most recently was an adviser to Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton.

The incoming administration also heralded the creation of a new senior adviser of rural affairs, which will be filled by Stephen Lisonbee. During the Republican primary campaign, Cox promised during a June 8 debate he would be the “first governor to add a rural chief of staff” to his Cabinet. However, Jon Pierpont was named chief of staff shortly after Cox was elected.

Cox also announced four members of Herbert’s administration will stay on though in different roles.

Karen Peterson becomes Cox’s legislative liaison after serving as Herbert’s education adviser.

Homeless community advocate Pamela Atkinson will continue her role as an adviser to Cox. This will be the fourth administration she has served.

Gordon Larsen will be Cox’s senior adviser for federal affairs. He was director of federal affairs and director of policy under Herbert.

Herbert’s deputy chief of staff, Mike Mower, was Cox’s senior adviser of community outreach and intergovernmental affairs. He will be a liaison to counties, cities and towns for the Cox administration and handle constituent services.

Cox said in a news release, “We’ve recruited some of the best and brightest Utahns to join us as we strengthen our schools, our rural towns and the overall quality of life here in Utah.”

The release said more staff and Cabinet appointments are forthcoming.

Earlier in November, Cox named Jon Pierpont, the longtime head of Utah’s Department of Workforce Services as his chief of staff, and former Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce to head up his communications team and serve as a senior adviser.