Robert Gehrke: What Spencer Cox’s Cabinet picks tell us about how he plans to govern

Utah governor brings more women into the executive branch and more people from local governments.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Putting it mildly, last year’s race for governor was lacking when it came to giving us a solid idea of Gov. Spencer Cox’s vision for the state.

As a result, we’re left reading some tea leaves and, in this case, using his first big decision as governor — the men and women in his Cabinet — to get a sense of the new governor’s priorities, philosophy and governing style.

“I think any leader worth their salt believes the people around them are the most important,” Cox told me.

So what does the makeup of Cox’s inner circle say about how he will govern? A few things jump out at me.

First, his people are from all over, from incoming Agriculture Commissioner Craig Buttars, who is from Cache County, to John Pike, who stepped down as mayor of St. George to become Cox’s insurance commissioner.

“It was intentional,” Cox said of bringing in perspectives from around the state. “It’s hard for people to understand what it means unless you live in one of those areas.”

With the exception of the holdovers from Gov. Gary Herbert’s administration, most of his top advisers come from either county or local governments — like Pike and Jenny Rees, the Cedar Hills mayor who will run administrative services — or are outside government entirely, like Margaret Busse, who spent time in academia before being picked to run the Commerce Department.

And his team will have more legislative experience than any I can recall, potentially an asset when the new administration plunges into its first legislative session this month. Cox served in the House, as did Buttars and the governor’s budget director Sophia DiCaro, while Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and economic development director Dan Hemmert are both former senators.

With the exception of Henderson — where Cox said he wanted a No. 2 with legislative experience — the time the others spent in the lawmaking body is a bonus, but was an afterthought.

And, as you may have noticed, with Henderson, DiCaro, Busse and Rees, as well as Tracey Gruber leading Human Services and Casey Cameron in charge of Workforce Services, there are more women in the mix.

“[I wanted to] find some new faces and be more inclusive, particularly elevating women,” Cox said, adding that he hopes to add more ethnic diversity, as well.

So those are the big picture dynamics. A few individual picks in particular stand out as perhaps signaling a slightly different policy direction than under the Herbert administration.

For example, Tom Ross, the long-time Bountiful police chief, at the head of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice appears to be a shift of focus. The agency has typically been run by an attorney — most recently by Kim Cordova, who brought experience both as a prosecutor and defense attorney.

The commission has a broad mandate, managing the vetting of judicial nominees, the state indigent defense program, substance abuse policy, victims assistance, gang crime reduction, and the sentencing commission. Policing is only a small part of that mission.

But the Cox transition task force that studied CCJJ (and recommended keeping Cordova in place) noted the commission had in the past been overwhelmingly tilted toward law enforcement, but in recent years become more balanced. The report noted frustration from law enforcement members who believed the policies developed by CCJJ “are not always inclusive of all viewpoints.”

Ross, who was head of the state police chiefs association and well-known both among law enforcement and lawmakers, will appease the law-and-order types. But Cox said Ross also understands “the need for reform and how to improve things.”

“I was trying to find that sweet spot,” the governor said, “where we could get somebody who could unify the warring factions when it comes to criminal justice reform.”

Ross is just one of three former law enforcement officers in Cox’s inner circle, along with Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson, and Corrections director Brian Nielson, the sheriff in Cox’s home county for the past decade.

Cox and Nielson went to rival high schools in Sanpete County and Nielson was sheriff while Cox was a county commissioner. Nielson was also one of three people on Cox’s transition team looking at the Corrections Department and prepared a report that was highly critical of the justice reinvestment initiative — designed to shorten sentences of non-violent offenders but has been consistently underfunded.

There is, however, a vast difference between being sheriff in a rural Utah county and running the state prison system.

“It’s a big jump, but I also have complete confidence in his ability,” Cox said. “A lot of people don’t know him well, but he’ll surprise them in all the right ways.”

Corrections has more than 2,300 employees, incarcerates 5,700 individuals, keeps tabs on more than 16,000 parolees and has a budget of more than $350 million. Compare that to Nielson’s role as sheriff, where he managed an office with a budget of just over $7 million in 2019 and ran a 128-bed county jail that expanded to about 350 beds.

That expansion would give him enough beds to incarcerate one out of every 70 adults in the county, which, barring mayhem in Manti, they’ll never use. The counties have built spacious jails, though, in order to get paid to incarcerate state inmates.

That’s been a constant friction-point between county sheriffs who feel like they aren’t getting paid enough by the state, and the department, which is sometimes reluctant to put its inmates in these far-flung jails that often don’t offer the type of sex offender, addiction treatment or other rehabilitative services prison inmates need.

“I think he can help solve the friction, not by saying … the counties can get everything they want, but he can help the counties understand why it’s been the way it has and how we can do things better,” Cox said.

The last surprising pick Cox made was choosing Thom Carter, the former executive director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership, as his energy adviser, because given Cox’s rural roots and conservative policies, I anticipated it to be more tilted toward oil, gas and coal.

Tapping Carter for the spot is, I hope, an important recognition that our energy and air are inexorably intertwined.

The choices he’s made so far at least begin to tell us a little something about Cox’s vision and his awareness of some of the pitfalls as he enters office. But the buck, as they say, will still stop with the governor.