‘You don’t get to make up s--- about me’: Gov. Cox responds to ambush about a ‘smart city’ conspiracy

At the Utah Republican convention, a former congressional candidate pressed Gov. Spencer Cox for details about an alleged conspiracy to imprison Utahns at Point of the Mountain.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Gov. Spencer Cox addresses delegates at the Utah Republican Party 2023 Organizing Convention at Utah Valley University's UCCU Center on Saturday, April 22, 2023.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox was ambushed at Saturday’s Utah Republican Party organizing convention by a former congressional candidate spouting a far-right conspiracy theory about urban planning and the United Nations.

In a video of the confrontation, Jason Preston confronts Cox at the governor’s campaign booth. Preston asks Cox about a “smart city” he claims the state is building at the site of the former Utah State Prison at the Point of the Mountain.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s no such thing as a smart city,” Cox says as a volunteer tries to lead him away. “Stop making stuff up to try to make me look bad.”

Repeatedly during the short video, Preston asks Cox to appear on his “We ARE the People” podcast. The show has featured discussions on a number of conspiratorial topics.

During his 2022 congressional race, Preston hired several members of the far-right Proud Boys militia and consultant Roger Stone to run his unsuccessful campaign.

So-called “smart cities,” or “15-minute cities,” is the latest big-government boogeyman on the far-right. The idea, developed by Carlos Moreno in 2010, is an urban design concept that aims to put everyday destinations for most people within 15 minutes of their homes, The New York Times reported.

On the far right, those innocent-sounding urban planning standards have evolved into a conspiracy theory — that the urban planning ideas are a Trojan horse developed by a shadowy cabal of global elites, including the World Economic Forum and the United Nations, who want to imprison people in a small area around their homes.

Plans to create a community on the approximately 600 acres at the Point of the Mountain have added to the hysteria and paranoia. Developers say they aim to create a more sustainable and eco-friendly community, which has drawn the ire of some Utah conservatives and right-wingers who fear such a development in their backyard.

As the short video continues, Preston invites Cox to appear on his podcast.

“You don’t like to have real conversations,” Cox replied, tapping his fists on Preston’s chest.

“You like to make up conspiracy theories,” Cox added. “I know it’s good for your brand, I hope that works for you, but you don’t get to make up s--- about me. Good luck.”

On Tuesday, Cox alluded to the incident as he wrapped up a speech at Box Elder High School.

“Just this past weekend, somebody came, attacked me, and I went into attack mode, and I need to be better. Usually, I’m better, but this time I wasn’t,” Cox said.

When asked about the event, Cox’s office provided a much stronger statement.

“Jason Preston has a history of ambushing public officials with extreme QAnon conspiracy theories, including his latest that Utah is collaborating with the United Nations on a secret plot to take over the state and turning the Point of the Mountain into a digital concentration camp funded by China and the World Economic Forum. Neither Gov. Cox nor any of the mayors and legislators involved in the effort have any idea what this nonsense is about,” a spokesperson wrote.

Preston, who says he is not a follower of the QAnon conspiracy theory, says Cox is lying when he claims ignorance about smart cities. He points to a “Smart Cities luncheon” in December 2019, where then Lt. Governor Cox was the featured speaker.

“Why would he give the keynote there? Why would he say there’s no such thing? His face was on the flyer,” Preston said during a telephone conversation.

The speech in question was sponsored by Utah Ignite, a coalition of business groups advocating for better technology use by cities and governments.

Preston says he doesn’t know what Cox spoke about during his speech, but the flyer and Cox’s reaction are all the proof he needs to know that something is amiss.

“Obviously, he spoke about smart cities. The way he reacted made him seem guilty of something,” Preston said.

Utah Ignite did not respond to a request for more details on Cox’s appearance at the 2019 event.

Preston’s attack on Cox and 15-minute cities has its genesis in a January episode of his “We ARE the People” podcast. His guest, Chelcie Hope, makes several startling claims, tying the development at The Point to a plot involving the United Nations and other global organizations.

“It raised a lot of red flags. It’s a concern, and I’d like to hear the other side of the story,” Preston said.

Hope’s background or expertise on 15-minute cities is never detailed on the show. Preston did not respond to questions about why he invited her to speak on the subject.

There has also been a concerted push to make the video of Preston’s face-off with Cox go viral. A mass text promoting the video was sent out Monday evening.

“Governor Cox exploded at convention when asked about smart cities, then lied about it,” the message read, followed by a link to the video.

Preston did not claim responsibility for the text message but admitted it likely came from someone on his team.