‘Equity’ isn’t a dirty word to Gov. Spencer Cox. But is it a priority?

The first-term governor promised to promote inclusivity — both inside and outside of state government.

Gov. Spencer Cox isn’t allergic to the words “equity” or “diversity,” even though these terms elicit suspicion from some in his Republican base and outright disdain from others.

Cox spoke about inclusivity while running for the state’s highest office, gave equality and opportunity a section in the document laying out goals for his administration and asked his senior staff to complete training on empathy, race and “the intersectional Utah story.” He created new positions to coordinate equity initiatives and promote diversity across state agencies.

That alone was enough for outspoken conservative state school board member Natalie Cline to derisively label him “Utah’s woke governor” earlier this year.

Many advocates for gender and racial equity say they are encouraged by his emphasis on inclusion in the first year of his term, especially his efforts to change Utah’s last-in-the-nation status on women’s equality.

“He’s been unusually supportive of gender diversity and other kinds of diversity,” said Patricia Jones, CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute and member of the transition team that advised Cox as he prepared to take office. “I think he is absolutely walking the talk.”

Others say he’s been walking a line, promoting the positive aspects of diversity and inclusion but offering only tepid denunciations of racism in the state.

A Cox spokeswoman said that “addressing racism and encouraging Utahns to help in this effort will be an ongoing commitment of the administration.”

But when 10-year-old Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor died by suicide after reportedly being bullied at her Utah school for being Black and autistic, Cox tweeted that his “heart is broken” and that the state “must — and will — do more.” But he didn’t describe any specific action plans in the tweet and didn’t mention racism.

And while Cox has shown a commitment to installing women in key administration roles, his policy positions don’t always align with gender equity, says Katie Matheson, deputy director of Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive good government group.

Cox’s anti-abortion stance is particularly concerning to Matheson, given an impending Supreme Court ruling that could overturn Roe v. Wade.

“All the statements in the world, all the feel-good women’s groups, all of the nonprofits that try and get more women involved in the workforce … all of those things are great,” Matheson said. “And they are not good enough if women cannot control their own destiny when it comes to starting a family.”

Diversity in leadership

One of Cox’s strengths so far has been in advancing equity and diversity in state leadership positions, boards and commissions and the judiciary, many advocates say. And Cox’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, asserts that he’s “hired and promoted more women and people of color to senior staff and cabinet positions than any previous administration.”

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, only the second female lieutenant governor in Utah’s history, said she feels Cox values her perspective as a woman. In fact, she said, that’s why she decided to join Cox’s team in the first place rather than run an easy race for reelection to the state Senate.

“Gov. Cox has been very, very clear with me and with everybody else that I’m an integral part of this team,” she said.

Yándary Chatwin, former chair and current member of the organization Real Women Run, said she’s taken note of Henderson’s prominence and apparent influence in the Cox administration. It even shows up in simple gestures, she said, such as the fact that Cox and Henderson jointly released the administration’s budget proposal.

“He’s really seeing his lieutenant governor as a partner and a team player in his administration,” she said.

About a third, or nine of 28, of his cabinet members are also female, and the administration is training agencies in attracting a more diverse pool of candidates to state boards and commissions.

Cox has also named three women to the Utah judiciary so far.

Utah has among the least diverse judiciaries in the nation, according to an American Constitution Society analysis measuring demographic disparities between a state’s bench and its population at large.

Seventy-two of 77 district court judges in Utah identify their race as white. And of the judges who have been appointed by governors, about two-thirds are male, according to data recently collected by the court officials.

So Cox’s first choice for the Utah bench, a prominent Latina attorney named Cristina Ortega, was a positive sign for Gabriela Mena, president of the Utah Minority Bar Association.

“The fact that he’s promoting diversity and equity and making it known that that is something that’s a primary focus for him, that in itself is something amazing,” she said. “He’s acknowledging that there’s a problem within our judiciary of it not being as diverse as it should be.”

Gender gaps

Women’s advocates have applauded several administration initiatives aimed at closing the state’s persistent gender gaps. Utah has ranked last in the nation for women’s equality for four years and lags behind other states in gender pay parity, political representation and education.

Earlier this year, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget completed a wage analysis that looked for racial and gender pay inequities in state government and concluded that they do exist in some agencies.

Differences in tenure, age and job title explain many of the disparities, so the study suggested that evaluating state recruitment practices for leadership positions and looking at paid family leave benefits could help level the playing field.

And the administration’s “returnship program” to help women and others get back into the workforce represents another effort to promote gender equity, Chatwin noted. Henderson unveiled the program, which gives Utahns the option to pursue return-to-work opportunities in business and government or seek training at state universities and colleges.

But others wish they’d seen the Cox administration take stronger action in addressing a lack of affordable child care and erasing other systemic barriers that women face as they navigate their careers.

In addition, Matheson says, the possibility that Utah women could lose abortion access presents a major threat to gender equity in the state. As a candidate, Cox identified himself as “unapologetically pro-life” and said he would support efforts to pass laws stating that life begins at conception.

Utah has approved legislation that would ban all elective abortions as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade.

“It’s really important that people understand that women cannot be fully equal if they cannot have control over their own bodies,” Matheson said.

Racial inequities

The very first document Cox and Henderson signed after their inauguration was the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, an agreement also signed by former Gov. Gary Herbert and other political, business and community leaders in the state.

The compact acknowledges the existence of racism and describes a commitment to listening and addressing racial inequities through “policies that provide equal opportunity and access to education, employment, housing, and healthcare.”

Since then, he’s kept his pledge to create an equity and inclusion accelerator position to improve recruitment, hiring and promotion across state government. He’s also named a senior equity and opportunity adviser to oversee his administration’s push to dismantle systemic barriers impacting women, people of color and LGBTQ Utahns.

Senior leaders in Cox’s cabinet also went through a 21-day equity, opportunity and inclusion curriculum during the fall.

Weslie Porter, hired in October as the state’s first equity and inclusion accelerator, said officials in Utah government have been open to reforms and believe that a more diverse workforce is also a stronger one.

“If we have the same perspectives … it can cause stagnation,” he said. “The different perspectives that come from the state into state government, that’s going to be innovative. That’s really going to meet the citizens of Utah where they’re at.”

But while Porter said state officials have been supportive, Cox has taken heat from outside far-right groups for adopting diversity goals and hiring staff to carry them out. The job posting for Porter’s future position sparked a wave of online condemnation from right-wing activists, especially those who’ve been pressing state leaders to ban critical race theory from Utah’s education institutions.

One man even wrote in an open letter that he contemplated applying for the position “for no other purpose than to make sure this toxic ideology does not infect our state any more than it already has.”

While these activists have sought to cast Cox as a radical, equity advocates in the state argue the governor has actually been fairly subdued in his public rhetoric.

Darlene McDonald, director of the 1Utah Project, which seeks to increase voter participation and civic engagement by people of color, said Cox has not forcefully denounced those who are trying to ban books in schools or want to squelch public education on the nation’s history of racism.

She’d also like to see him take a stronger position in response to widespread racial harassment found in Davis County schools, Tichenor’s death and other reports of racism in Utah’s schools.

Napier-Pearce said in a response that Cox has publicly condemned racist acts in schools and met privately with Tichenor’s family and with Davis County school officials. In dialogue with Utah school superintendents, he’s urged “interventions and conversations about racism and bullying with teachers, students, parents and administrators,” she said.

In addition, Cox is planning a January meeting with Utah students to talk about racism and bullying, she added.

McDonald acknowledges that Cox is in a balancing act, trying to promote equity without angering elements of his Republican base. Right-wing party members erupted in fury when the governor simply asserted that a Jazz scholarship program supporting minority youth was not racist.

“But at some point, you have to put the well-being of everyone in your state as No. 1 in your top priority. And right now, there’s a threat … in his state with the increase in racism,” McDonald said. “Being silent about that or not being as forceful as I believe he could be on that puts my community — Black and brown community, African American community — in danger.”

— Tribune reporter Kim Bojórquez contributed to this report.