George Pyle: Utah’s new governor is our friend. But is he our leader?

Spencer Cox stepping in for Gary Herbert is like the Goofy Neighbor character getting his own sitcom.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Republican gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Gov. Gary Herbert at an election night event in Mount Pleasant on Tuesday, June 30, 2020.

A long time ago, when rumors started to circulate that a certain amiable movie star might run for president of the United States, not everyone in Hollywood took the idea seriously.

The reaction of big-time producer Jack Warner, according to the legend, was, ’'No, Jimmy Stewart for President; Ronald Reagan for his best friend.”

Monday afternoon, one of Utah’s best friends will become our governor. Or, at least, Spencer Cox will take the oath of office, way down Tuacahn way, and take over from Gary Herbert as the state’s chief executive.

What we don’t know is whether Cox will truly live up to the constitutional title of his office and actually govern. Whether he will be more of a steward — faithful yet reticent. Whether he will move people to refer to him as football fans offer faint praise to a competent quarterback — a game manager.

It is impossible to dislike Cox. He seems too real. Eager but unassuming. Prematurely bald, with a big smile and a self-deprecating sense of humor, he commuted to the Capitol from his family farm in tiny Fairview, 100 miles hither, so as not to lose touch with his roots.

Politics is not blood sport for him. When he garnered his 15 minutes of national fame in 2020, it was because he shared the platform with Chris Peterson, his Democratic opponent, with some really clever public service announcements promoting civility in politics.

As lieutenant governor for the past seven years, Cox’s day job was to run the state’s elections, which he did with earnest devotion. He was one of the few Republican officeholders in the nation to see it as his duty to make it easier for more people to vote. He made goofy videos, with himself the butt of the joke, encouraging people to register and vote.

Cox was far too wobbly on the question of whether the 45th president of the United States was anything other than a disgrace. But he did buck the Republican lies about mail-in voting.

What Cox has not demonstrated so far, what was also lacking in Herbert’s style of governing, is something that steps up from competent management to principled leadership. An ability to inspire, cajole, jawbone, threaten, model, horse-trade and throw his weight around, judiciously, even burning the occasional bridge, in the interest of the greater good.

This whole transfer of power feels less like Captain America turning his shield over to The Falcon than the Goofy Neighbor character in a long-running sitcom getting his own spinoff series.

When Herbert appointed Cox the head of a couple of Emergency Task Forces, as governors and presidents sometimes do to their lieutenants and vices, it supposedly signaled that the governor was taking the matter seriously. But it is hard to see that the results were anything to crow about.

Making Cox the lead on state and local efforts to address the problem of homelessness seemed, to me anyway, to be a trick pulled by then-House Speaker Greg Hughes, who also ran for governor in 2020, to hand Cox an insoluble problem that would only damage his reputation. The only impact Cox seemed to have on the whole process was in the decision to massively underfund the three new resource centers — centers that may yet succeed but that were built mostly as a cover for tearing down the old Road Home shelter in the Rio Grande area to make way for the high-dollar gentrification of the neighborhood.

And appointing Cox to lead the state coronavirus task force certainly did not cover either the lieutenant governor or his boss with glory. In the first several months of the pandemic, the state foolishly placed a public health problem in the portfolio of its budget people, rather than public health experts, and treated the whole thing as a business opportunity for Daddy COVIDbucks-types on the Silicon Slopes.

Cox, of course, has every opportunity now to prove me wrong. He can start by issuing a few uncompromising edicts about getting vaccines distributed. He can tell anti-mask and supposedly pro-business reopen-everything types that they are not only wrong but also a clear and present danger to the state.

He can listen to doctors rather than entrepreneurs when it comes to public health matters. He can tell the plain truth of how vaunted reforms, of prisons, schools, homeless services, public health and everything else, are pointless without adequate funding.

Less Gary Herbert Hoover modesty. More Spencer Baines Johnson arm-twisting.

Cox is right that politics should not be blood sport. But a true political leader will have to bloody a few noses from time to time. Even if he is from Fairview.

George Pyle.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, still thinks it should have been Henry Fonda for president.


Twitter, @debatestate