Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is sworn in as Utah’s 18th governor

Utah’s new leader bemoans division and contempt but says it’s not too late to fix.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Spencer Cox is sworn in as Utah's 18th Governor at Tuacahn Center for the Arts in Ivins on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021.

Ivins • Throughout his rapidly ascending political career, Spencer Cox has served as city mayor, county commissioner, state lawmaker and lieutenant governor.

On Monday, he took on his biggest role yet, becoming Utah’s 18th governor after an early afternoon oath of office ceremony at the Tuacahn Center for the Arts in Ivins.

Standing in front of the southwestern Utah redrock after his inauguration, Cox reflected on the “valuable lessons” learned over the last year, which has been marked in Utah by a pandemic, an earthquake and the spread of misinformation that seemed to move, at times, as fast as the virus.

Through the challenges of the coronavirus outbreak, he said “individuals, communities, industries and countries have found ways to adapt and innovate through impossible circumstances.” And he marveled at the ways Utahns in particular have stepped up amid the chaos, sewing six million masks and gowns and helping neighbors fix uprooted trees and damaged homes after earthquakes and hurricane-force winds.

But Cox, 45, also recognized the many challenges facing the nation and the state, including the political divisiveness that was on show even at his inauguration, as dozens of protesters lined the road into the event, chanting “God’s country, not Cox’s country!” and holding signs decrying state coronavirus mandates.

“We are more divided than at any time in our lifetimes as the news is filled with civil unrest and protests, including one right outside this venue here today,” Cox said. “Hateful rhetoric dominates our political discourse. We are facing a crisis of empathy, a scourge of contempt. Very little feels ‘united’ about the United States today.”

Cox argued, though, that “it’s not too late to fix this,” and quoted a series of American leaders in issuing a call for the state’s residents to come together “to write the next chapter of Utah’s history and prove that yes, indeed, our greatest days still lie ahead.”

“I come to you from the smallest of small towns and the humblest of circumstances,” he concluded, his voice cracking with emotion. “In taking a sacred oath today, my family and I pledge our hearts and our hands to you these next four years. We will succeed together, as one Utah.”

The inauguration ceremony — which took place on the 125th anniversary of Utah’s statehood — was open to a small number of in-person guests and media who tested negative for the coronavirus within 24 hours of the event. It was marked by addresses from Cox and his running-mate, former state Sen. Deidre Henderson, and included musical performances, a 19-gun salute and a helicopter flyover by the Utah National Guard.

Along with Cox and Henderson, state Auditor John Dougall, Treasurer David Damschen and Attorney General Sean Reyes also took their oaths of office at the ceremony on Monday.

Cox said on Twitter Sunday that Henderson’s speech marked the first time in the state’s history that a lieutenant governor has spoken at an inauguration ceremony.

During her remarks, Henderson, the state’s second female lieutenant governor, promised opportunity for all Utahns under the Cox administration, assuring them “that there’s room at the table for you” but that there would be no “token leadership.”

“We don’t need more women in the public sphere solely to provide expert opinions on women’s issues. We don’t need more people of color in the halls of government only to help us resolve issues related to minorities. And we don’t need more rural Utahns serving in our administration simply to help the people in their hometowns,” she said. “No, we need representation of all of our voices, so that we can solve the hard problems in front of us in the best way.”

In addition to the remarks from the lieutenant governor, the location of the inauguration marked another deviation from tradition. The ceremony has typically been held at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City (with the recent exception of a three-year period starting in 2004 when the building was undergoing renovations) and Cox said this was the first oath of office event ever held outside of Salt Lake City.

The event also looked different than ones in years past because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Attendance at the open-air Tuacahn amphitheater was capped at around 25% of its usual 1,920-seat capacity and guests were required to physically distance.

Cox arrived in southwestern Utah ahead of the inauguration for a “day of service” with the Utah Food Bank on Saturday. On Sunday, he and Henderson attended several church services as part of a “day of prayer” before attending a “freedom fireside” hosted by the St. George Interfaith Council.

On their way back to Salt Lake City Monday afternoon, Cox and Henderson made several scheduled stops, including one in Fairview in Sanpete County, where Cox was born and lives on his seventh-generation family farm. The caravan also stopped in Fillmore and in Spanish Fork, where Henderson lives.

In Fillmore, the group visited Utah’s historic territorial statehouse and Cox signed his first executive order, instructing state agencies to review occupational licenses with an eye toward eliminating barriers to work.

“Often around occupational licensure, we say that we’re putting regulations in place to protect people when what it really does is protect people who maybe are in power or who already have the things that they need,” he said. “And we end up hurting people who are trying to get into an industry, who are trying to make a living.”

Cox gave the example of an old Utah law that required anyone who was paid to braid hair to go to beauty school and log hundreds of hours to obtain a license. A lawsuit ultimately overturned that regulation, which he said hurt “single moms who were trying to make a living for their families.”

“Those are the types of regulations we’re talking about,” Cox added.

As part of the executive order, agencies must report back to Cox by the end of June with recommendations for deleting rules and regulations that are outdated or can be relaxed without risk to public health and safety.

Cox also signed on Monday to the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, which has five key tenets for addressing racial disparities.

“Unfortunately, racism does still exist in our country,” he said. “It was unfortunately a founding principle of our country and something that we’ve worked over generations to fix. We’ve come a long ways and we’ve gotten better, but we still have a ways to go.”

The new governor said he believes Utah can be a leader in the country in ensuring equity and inclusion.

Cox’s inauguration ushered in the state’s first new administration in more than a decade, with Gov. Gary Herbert exiting office as the nation’s longest-serving current governor. And as he steps out of his predecessor’s shadow, the incoming governor has expressed a desire to take on “big and bold ideas and policies.”

Cox told The Salt Lake Tribune in a recent interview that one of his first tasks as governor will be to try to build confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine and that he’s been researching how to win the public’s trust.

He reiterated that aim during comments to the media in Fillmore on Monday, noting that vaccine distribution was “first and foremost” his priority. He said he plans to meet this week with “everyone that is participating” in distribution and will be evaluating lessons learned to see where the state can do better.

“I assure you that over the next few days and the next couple weeks, we will see a significant increase in the pace and number of vaccines being distributed,” he said.

The goal, he said, is to exhaust the weekly supply of vaccines the week they are received.

A schedule of Cox’s first week on the job shows he plans to fill much of it with meetings — including with cabinet members, education stakeholders, minority leadership and other legislators — and with interviews with the media. On Thursday, he plans to unveil his 2022 fiscal year budget.

- Reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this report.