‘Peculiar people’: Gov. Cox urges Utahns to ‘stay weird’ as state grows and becomes more diverse

Citing the Book of Mormon and Bible, Republican Gov. Spencer Cox delivered his 2024 State of the State address on Thursday. Cox faces multiple challengers from the political right in his bid for reelection.

Utah is weird, Gov. Spencer Cox told lawmakers in his fourth State of the State address Thursday night. Poking fun by making jokes about fry sauce and the Bear Lake monster, he said he wants the Beehive State to stay that way.

Polarization over social issues continues to fracture the growing and diversifying state as lawmakers debate imposing further restrictions on transgender people and, at his behest, rolling back diversity programs throughout state institutions. But Cox said he doesn’t believe such issues impact relationships between Utahns as much as they do the rest of the country.

“Sadly, a majority of people in a majority of states are now acting that way — as zero-sum thinkers with endless pity parties and complaints of victimhood,” Cox said in the address. “They are buying what the conflict entrepreneurs in our politics and media are selling. But not so much in Utah.”

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Cox pointed to the 2023 legislative session as a “display” of “our prosperity and abundance mindset,” saying lawmakers both managed to cut taxes and give teachers raises.

Those raises, in part, were attached to a school voucher program that the state’s largest teachers union said “jeopardizes the future of public education.”

The governor also acknowledged that “there were difficult and controversial bills” last session, referring to an indefinite ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender youths, “which I supported.” Cox signed that bill after vetoing another — which remains entangled in court — that would prohibit transgender girls from participating on school sports teams that align with their gender.

“I know there are people impacted who are angry and upset with me and with many of you gathered in this room,” Cox said, while the Democratic lawmakers who voted against the bill looked on with straight faces.

Cox criticized the media for spending more time covering the sports bill than “a ban on conversion therapy.” The latter bill initially aimed to weaken an already-existing ban on conversation therapy but ended in a compromise backed by LGTBQ+ advocacy group Equality Utah that allows mental health professionals to provide care to minors seeking information about sexual orientation or gender identity in a “neutral” way.

As lawmakers consider a bill that would legally define sex to exclude trans people from gender-specific spaces, Cox said, “We want you to stay with us. Even when we disagree, and disagree passionately, we must still love.”

All of the most pressing challenges facing Utah, though, Cox said, are related to growth. He highlighted the centerpiece of his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, which includes an “audacious” proposal to build 35,000 new starter homes in the next four years.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox arrives to the House chamber for his 2024 State of the State address at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

The speech referenced his Latter-day Saint roots and the “peculiar people” — a biblical term leaders and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often use when speaking about themselves — who entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.

He quoted from the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, in praising lawmakers, saying, “When you are in the service of your fellow beings, you are only in the service of your God.”

The top Democrats in the Legislature responded to the address in a four-minute video that aired afterward, saying Utah has “the power to shape Utah into a state that supports every member of its diverse population.”

“We affirm our commitment to you and your family that we will fight for the priorities that resonate with the people of the state of Utah,” said Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla of Salt Lake City, “and we will continue to fight against the extremist agenda that undermines the well-being of all of our citizens.”

‘Stay weird, Utah’

The Republican incumbent faces multiple primary challengers from his political right.

Over the course of his term, Cox seemingly has been pressured further in that direction, too, as he signed a gender-affirming health care ban for transgender youths into law in the wake of GOP backlash over his veto of the 2022 sports bill.

One of those challengers, Republican state Rep. Phil Lyman of Blanding, missed the address for an event he hosted at the University of Utah with Riley Gaines, a former college swimmer who has become an activist against trans women being welcomed into women’s spaces, including athletics.

Cox gave a nod to the competition, saying “I love you all,” including Lyman and his Democratic opponent, state Rep. Brian King.

Last year, Cox invited his kids and the children of state lawmakers to attend the State of the State and focused on the future of Utah. As the Legislature started its 2023 session, he also requested, “Rather than spreading fear, let’s build more and tear down less.”

As lawmakers and their guests entered the House chamber, Cox’s staff passed out T-shirts bearing the term “Stay weird, Utah,” to lawmakers and their guests. His office did not respond to an email from The Salt Lake Tribune asking who paid for the shirts.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox delivers his 2024 State of the State address at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

An email sent to legislators earlier in the day and obtained by The Tribune hinted that his speech would ponder on emerging cultural divides, and how Cox thinks Utah can solve them.

With the theme “Stay weird, Utah,” the email from Cox’s chief of staff, Jon Pierpont, said, “The governor will highlight ways in which our state is unique, different and weird, and how that has helped accelerate our success in a time where division and polarization have paralyzed much of our country.”

In an interview with The Tribune last week, Cox expounded on the ideas that are the basis for his speech. “How do we preserve the best of Utah? And do we fix the worst of Utah?”

“Utah’s a unique place. It’s very different. Some people like that, some people don’t like it,” he said. “So, how do we make sure that with the growth that’s happening, with the changes that are happening, that we’re hanging on to the best parts of us? Welcoming the people that are coming here, making sure everybody feels welcome and included, and doing that in a way that stays true to the culture of our great state.”