Utah’s incoming Gov. Spencer Cox faces challenges on vaccinations, education

Utah’s incoming leader says his secret recipe is no secret: competency + transparency = trust.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Gov.-elect Spencer Cox, Dec. 10, 2020, at the governor's mansion. The 45-year-old incoming leader says one of his first challenges as governor is getting the public to trust the COVID-19 vaccine and help get the shot to millions of Utahns.

Gov.-elect Spencer Cox is about to give up his four-hour daily round trip commute.

During his time as lieutenant governor, Cox happily held onto his life in rural Sanpete County, choosing to make the 100-miles drive to and from the state Capitol rather than part from his seventh-generation family farm.

But after Monday’s inauguration, he and his family will shift from their comfortable home in Fairview to a 16,000-square-foot mansion in Salt Lake City, and from baling hay to a professionally manicured lawn.

Cox says the idea of getting caught up in an urban bubble and drifting from his rural identity terrifies him.

“The roots of this place — I’m looking out the window right now at the farm — and it’s so critical to who we are,” he said in a recent remote interview from Fairview. “And I just worry. I don’t want to forget that we’re not as important as other people think we are, and this is the place where we’re reminded of that.”

Cox will assume Utah’s top office at a critical juncture as the state carries out a mammoth vaccination effort and seeks to shore up its economy in the pandemic’s aftermath. His inauguration will also usher in Utah’s first new administration in more than a decade, with Gov. Gary Herbert exiting office as the nation’s longest-serving current governor.

While some wonder if that means a major sea change is ahead, Herbert suspects his lieutenant governor of seven years will maintain the state’s current direction.

“There’s not a lot of adjustments that need to be made. We’re in a good place as a state,” Herbert said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Cox has expressed deep respect for Herbert’s leadership but has signaled that he won’t be governing by autopilot — promising bold moves over his four-year term and announcing new appointees who will supplant some of his predecessor’s senior staffers. And the 73-year-old Herbert, who said he feels like an “old sage” as he heads out the door, does expect that his protege will bring a “youthful enthusiasm” to the post.

At age 45, Cox is one of the younger elected governors in Utah’s history. His rapid political ascent comes as no surprise to mentors and family members. His father has been predicting this since Cox’s youth in Sanpete County.

“I told people for years that he would one day be the governor,” his father, Eddie Cox, says. “And here it is.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) This 2017 file photo shows members of the Cox family in their family garden at their home in Fairview. l-r Spencer Cox, sons Kaleb and Adam, and wife Abby.

Pandemic problems

Utah’s 17 governors have faced their own sets of difficulties, says former Gov. Mike Leavitt, but Cox is entering office at a particularly crucial time.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is unique to the last 100 years,” says Leavitt, who’s been advising Cox. “And there’s little question in my mind that it’s a challenge that will dominate at least the first six months and likely the first year of his office.”

The state’s handling of the pandemic has already been the subject of controversy, with rural communities railing against restrictions and public health experts pleading for stronger government action to contain the coronavirus.

[RELATED STORY: Exclusive: Utah leaders went rogue in early coronavirus response, emails from health experts show]

Cox faced criticism for the state’s decision to award millions of dollars in no-bid contracts in the early days of the crisis and for the controversial purchase of an anti-malaria drug as a possible treatment for COVID-19. Cox says he had no role in approving the $800,000 hydroxychloroquine order, which was later canceled.

To this day, it’s unclear who OK’d the purchase. Even auditors couldn’t find a paper trail or track down so much as an explicit verbal authorization. Emails obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune show the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, then led by Kristen Cox, was a driving force behind Utah’s coronavirus response.

Throughout the public health crisis, Cox has pointed to Utah’s relatively low mortality rates and resilient economy.

But frustration at the Herbert administration has mounted this fall, when Utah became one of the nation’s hot spots and major hospitals warned they might have to begin rationing care.

The coronavirus hammered Cox’s home county during the recent spike, partly because of an outbreak at the Gunnison prison, he says, but also because infections have been spreading through the wider community.

On the day the state first reported 20 deaths from COVID-19, two of the people reflected in that total were Cox’s personal friends. Both were from Fairview — one of them attended church with Cox’s family when he was a child and the other worked for years as the city’s only police officer.

Another one of Cox’s friends, a cancer survivor, fell so gravely ill he was placed in an intensive care unit.

“He said I would rather go through five cancers than what I went through in the hospital,” Cox says. “He related it to putting a plastic bag over your head with a pencil hole and trying to breathe for 10 days.”

Cox’s lieutenant governor-elect, Deidre Henderson, also has had a life-altering struggle with the virus, undergoing several surgeries and being put on oxygen.

Most Utahns probably have stories like that by this point in the pandemic, Cox says, and he hopes that those experiences will motivate people to take precautions until the state can achieve herd immunity through the vaccine.

He says one of his first tasks as governor will be to try to build confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine, and he’s been preparing by researching how to win the public’s trust. The basic recipe is competency coupled with transparency, a formula he says he’ll employ in the state’s messaging on the vaccine.

Leavitt, who was secretary of Health and Human Services under former President George W. Bush, says Cox will also have to balance public safety with the economy, act to prevent schoolchildren from falling behind, and manage the logistical challenge of vaccine distribution. The way Cox crosses these hurdles could set the tone of his administration.

“The defining moments for any public service figure comes in the context of emergency,” Leavitt says. “And he has a challenging emergency in front of him in the next six months.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center nurse Catherine Van Straten gives the COVID-19 vaccine to a co-worker on Dec. 23, 2020.

Prioritizing education

Although experts warn the state’s battle against the coronavirus is far from over, Cox also hopes to make progress on other fronts during his first legislative session as governor — and will likely have a leg up in cultivating relationships with state lawmakers after spending time in that role himself.

He’ll assume office ahead of an anticipated growth boom in the state, a population expansion that could create additional challenges for air quality and affordable housing. During his campaign, he’s spoken about reforming economic incentive programs to focus more heavily on homegrown businesses and expressed support for doing away with the state sales tax on food.

But Cox’s campaign named education as its top priority and was poised to make it a primary focus in the governor’s race until the coronavirus hit. Now, as Cox seeks to mend the damage inflicted by 2020, he hopes to take on the state’s teacher shortage and education inequities in his first term.

His administration will push for eliminating excessive paperwork that can drain the joy from teaching, he says. “We would love to see some real regulatory change around ... everything we’re requiring for our teachers, over 300 reports per school district every year.”

Another campaign promise was to increase starting teacher salaries to $60,000 per year, a benchmark Cox wants to reach over the next four years, though he acknowledges it’s a “heavy lift” and subject to the state budget. Boosting salaries, he says, could improve morale and also foster competition for teaching jobs, helping to attract and retain talent.

He’s also working with state lawmakers to deliver $1,500 bonuses to educators in recognition of the burden they’ve shouldered during the pandemic.

Narrowing the gap between schools in wealthy communities and those in lower income and rural areas will take time, Cox says, but he’s already in talks with legislators to formulate a strategy.

While the state provides the same amount of funding for each student across Utah, local property taxes also furnish money for public schools — and that’s where the disparities emerge. Cox and legislative leaders are exploring a redistribution of the annual interest from the state’s land grant trust fund so a larger share goes to students in less-affluent areas.

Cox links this idea to the recent protests for racial justice, which he believes are symptomatic of a lack of equal access to opportunity.

“It’s the one thing that the Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree on,” he says. “We should be able to agree on opportunity, and specifically around education. If we can help at the early childhood level and going into K-12 education to give kids opportunities, we’ll solve so many of society’s ills on the back end.”

Former Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, one of Cox’s friends and political advisers, says the new governor is bringing a clear vision of what he wants to accomplish and predicted he will waste no time advancing his agenda on education.

“With Spencer, you’re going to see a decisive governor. ... You’re going to see very defined policies,” he says. “You’re going to see very discrete, aggressive proposals.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) In this Jan. 30, 2019, file photo, Gov. Gary Herbert shakes hands with lawmakers after delivering his State of the State address at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Utah's governor-elect, is shown behind Herbert chatting with lawmakers.

Rural roots

As he prepares for the role of Utah’s chief executive, Cox says he and his wife, Abby, plan to steal away on weekends to Sanpete County and to keep attending the same church. (In fact, Abby says she’ll probably spend most of her time in Fairview through the spring so her two youngest children can finish out their school year at home.)

Cox says said he has true friends who will keep him in check if his ego is getting too big.

If that ever happens, he says, and he does drift from his roots, it’ll be time to exit public office.

After all, as his father, Eddie, would say of the family’s telecommunications business: “There’s nobody here who’s too important that we can’t make it without them.”

Eddie Cox says he raised his children on a farm with the idea that “if you can do the physical work, you can handle the mental work as well.” Spencer, his oldest, grew up so determined that he once refused medical treatment for a broken thumb until he could finish his piano recital.

“He did fine, but his thumb was set crooked,” Eddie Cox recalls. “They had to rebreak it and reset it.”

Cox spent his early adulthood away from Fairview, heading to Mexico for his Latter-day Saint mission before attending college, moving to Virginia for law school and taking a lucrative job at a law firm in Salt Lake City. But he and Abby missed rural life, and they moved their children back to Sanpete County.

Once there, Cox spent time at his family’s telecommunications company, where he flourished and innovated, Bell says. He also started winning elections — first as city mayor and then as a county commissioner. Within a few years, he’d snagged a seat in the Utah Legislature.

Abby says she always knew her husband would end up in public office. She just didn’t expect it would happen quite so soon.

“I just kind of assumed it would be a retirement thing,” she says. “Like he’d have his legal career and then, when he got older and wanted to dabble in politics, he’d join the city council or whatever.”

Cox quickly made a splash in the Utah Legislature, becoming the first House representative to suggest impeachment hearings against scandal-plagued Attorney General John Swallow.

Bell says he could sense right away that Cox’s star was on the rise. And when Bell decided to vacate the lieutenant governor position in 2013, he nudged Herbert to consider Cox as a replacement.

Most politicians, he says, take years to work their way up the ranks in municipal, county and state posts.

“Spencer,” he says, “is more in the ‘a star is born’ category.”

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) In this Sept. 16, 2013, file photo, then-Lt. Gov. Greg Bell is shown in his office in the state Capitol. Cox was appointed to take his place and now relies on Bell as an adviser as he transitions to the role of Utah's next governor.

‘Opened the door’

After learning that Herbert didn’t intend to seek reelection, Cox became the first major Republican candidate in the competition to fill the void. In the primary, Cox clinched a narrow victory against a slate of GOP political heavyweights, most notably former Gov. Jon Huntsman.

Cox promised to avoid divisive rhetoric or attacks as he battled for the governor’s mansion. He and his Democratic opponent, Chris Peterson, even filmed a series of ads together advocating for an end to political hostility and pledging to respect the outcome of the presidential race.

Cox has said he wants to carry that same emphasis on civility into his administration, indicating that he and Lt. Gov.-elect Henderson are sending a message of religious unity on the eve of their inauguration by attending a series of worship services representing a variety of faiths.

“We do have a majority of people who belong to the same religion, to my religion,” he says. “I want to make sure that they know that Utah is a place where all faiths are accepted and welcomed and embraced. And if we can do that symbolically by attending some other worship services, then that’s a good thing for the people of Utah.”

His media diet is also designed to avoid extremes, he says, adding that he reads everything from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to The Atlantic magazine and online Fox News stories. He does not watch cable television, which he believes is “incredibly biased and destructive.”

But the divisions that have long festered in politics and society have only intensified during the pandemic, he says — and this discord has even arrived at his Fairview doorstep.

Cox acknowledged in a recent podcast that he felt a rush of anger when he heard that anti-mask protesters were heading to his home, and his initial impulse was to storm outside and give them a piece of his mind. But he thought better of it, and instead, he and his family decided to bake them pumpkin chocolate chip cookies and hand out cups of hot chocolate.

“It was disarming, in that moment. And I think they saw me as a real person,” Cox said on a recent “Moral and Ethical Leadership” podcast. “I don’t know that it changed their mind, but at least it opened the door for conversations down the road that we can have.”

Already, though, Cox’s push for kindness in the public square has drawn pushback from those who see it as hypocritical, given his support of President Donald Trump for reelection.

Cox refused to vote for Trump in 2016 and harshly criticized the candidate for his inflammatory rhetoric. But Cox was in a different position this year as a front-runner for Utah’s top executive office, and the question of whether to endorse a president of his own party was much more complicated, Bell says.

“[Trump’s] approach is just so confrontational and pejorative and critical,” Bell, who’s now head of the Utah Hospital Association, says. “Well, Spencer is the antithesis of that. So for him to grapple with that and say, ‘I can support this person as the head of my party,’ has been just an existential struggle.”

Other critics of Cox charge him with using politeness as an excuse to dodge tough questions.

During the campaign, Cox long avoided articulating a clear explanation of his views on mask mandates, arguing that he didn’t want to politicize the issue. More recently, Cox remained silent at first when asked about Utah legislators’ move to exclude Salt Lake City teachers from proposed $1,500 educator bonuses.

Later, he wrote in a lengthy Twitter thread that firing off a “snarky tweet” about the Legislature would have accomplished nothing, while private negotiations with lawmakers ultimately yielded an agreement to provide the bonuses to all teachers.

Many on social media praised Cox for taking the higher road, but others found his thread dismissive and argued he was presenting a false choice between civility and openness.

“He seems to equate criticizing bad ideas with ‘writing a snarky tweet,’” one user wrote. “But obviously there are more constructive ways to speak out.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Governor-elect Spencer Cox and Abby Cox, Dec. 10, 2020, pose for a photo at the governor's mansion.

Cox says holding back doesn’t always come naturally to him. During debates in the governor’s race, for instance, he’d have the urge to bite back at his opponents but would check himself by glancing down at notecards where he’d written the word “dad” as a reminder of his children. It was similar to what Sen. Mitt Romney says he did when running for president in 2012.

Cox won’t always be perfect as governor, he says, but people can count on him to try his hardest.

Abby says that because Cox doesn’t neatly fit into partisan categories, he has a tendency to surprise people on both sides of the aisle. Still, they can rely on him to govern with pragmatism and openness, she says.

“He leads with a lot of heart. He leads with a lot of vulnerability,” she says. “And I think that’s why people connect with him.”

— Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this report.