Don Olsen: Cox should run the COVID task force or run for governor. Not play politics by doing both.

It strikes me as highly unusual that in one of the most uncertain times in our state’s history, Gov. Gary Herbert has chosen to effectively abdicate his responsibilities related to the COVID-19 outbreak in favor of his hand-picked successor. Doing so introduces politics into a crisis and casts doubt on his priorities.

Is Herbert trying to help contain an outbreak or help clear the path for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox to audition for governor?

Does anyone think if Herbert were running for re-election he would be standing aside and not be front and center? Oh, we have heard from the governor from time to time, but he has appointed Cox, who is in the middle of a gubernatorial bid, to lead Utah’s Coronavirus Taskforce.

Some might argue there is precedence in Vice President Mike Pence handling the crisis at the federal level, but can you imagine the blowback if he were running for the presidency right now?

Look at other states. I don’t see any other governor handing the keys to someone most people in the state know very little about. Every day I see New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo actively working to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus, taking questions from the media and not delegating the top role to anyone. Right or wrong on policy, the governor of California has been the one making the tough calls. That’s because a governor has the bully pulpit and was chosen to lead for the full length of his or her term.

There is a right time and place for politics and this is not it. The last thing the people of our state want is politicians using any part of this outbreak as a political opportunity to benefit themselves. Herbert, who has already publicly endorsed Cox and contributed $50,000 to his campaign, seems to be making an even greater contribution to Cox’s campaign by pushing him front and center at every press conference, figuratively giving him a chance to “try on the crown.”

But last I checked, we don’t do coronations in the United States. That’s why I think it is so important to speak out.

Even more alarming is that while Cox is on the front lines earning free media in the midst of a political campaign, the other candidates have done what health officials recommend and hit pause on the majority of their campaign activities, putting the well-being of Utahns (not politics) first.

There’s more to these shenanigans. Cox came out over the weekend saying he will no longer be running political ads and asking that donations to his campaign go instead to charity. While that sounds admirable, what is not known by most is that the governor cannot raise money legally during the legislative bill signing period. You’d think Cox as a candidate would embrace this same standard anyway. So he’s trying to make it look like he’s staking out some high ground, but it isn’t costing his campaign a cent. And all the while he’s standing front and center on every TV and radio station in the state for free.

At the same time, he’s making it appear as if he’s taking the high road by putting pressure on other campaigns to also stop running ads. It just emphasizes how badly all of this stinks.

It gives me no pleasure to make this public criticism; I worked as a member of the Herbert re-election team in 2010. But as a longtime political reporter with KSL-TV, I have some experience in noticing political sleights-of-hand.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I previously worked for Huntsman Corp. and, though I do not work for his campaign, I am a public supporter of Jon Huntsman for governor. This, however, does not change the facts related to what I believe smacks of a breach of public trust.

As a former reporter, I’ve been waiting for someone in the media to raise questions about what sure looks to me like political maneuvering at the most improper hour. Incumbent campaigns know they are expected to draw a clear and unbendable line between state and campaign resources. But an old political adage comes to mind: Never waste a good crisis. It sure looks to me like Herbert and Cox have embraced that one with both arms.

Don Olsen

Don Olsen, Salt Lake City, a former political reporter for KSL-TV, is a communications and messaging consultant.