It can’t have been an easy first year in office for Utah Gov. Spencer Cox.
All of those problems predated Cox’s inauguration early last January, and it would be too much to expect that most of them will be fully solved by whatever year he leaves office.
But it is high time our governor — elected with nearly 64% of the vote and riding an approval rating nearly as high — started throwing his political weight around a little and pushing the state, its agencies, its Legislature and the community as a whole to more actively engage our problems, pushing back against those, in politics and out, who are far too attached to a backward-looking status quo.
There are many problems that require bold executive leadership, but two that must come to the top of the list. One is properly called a public health and social crisis. The other is merely existential.
Right now the most crucial call for leadership, for the exercise of some raw political power, is the COVID-19 pandemic. Though Cox is saying many of the right things — mostly urging everyone to get vaccinated — he has been far too timid in rousing his constituents and his party to action.
Most of the sentiment from members of the Utah Legislature and other political activists has been to engage in magical thinking, to set a totally artificial endpoint for the pandemic and, once that date had passed, to stand down from mask requirements and oppose vaccine mandates.
Yes, if Cox had vetoed the Legislature’s foolish pandemic “endgame” bill, that veto probably would have been overridden. But he should have vetoed it all the same, with a stinging message that he was not going to fail in his duties even if lawmakers were eager to shirk theirs.
Case counts in Utah are skyrocketing. Deaths are no longer limited to the aged or those with significant pre-existing conditions. Hospitals are full, procedures are being cancelled, beds can’t be made available to patients because so many nurses and other providers are themselves out sick. People in charge of providing health care, including those at the state-owned University of Utah Health, are pleading with everyone to get their full battery of vaccinations as the only possible way out of the problem.
Businesses and schools are likely to close, not because of any government order, but because there won’t be enough staff, students or customers to make things run.
Cox’s contribution has been mealy-mouthed at best.
“If, for whatever reason, you have been putting off getting vaccinated or boosted, now is the time,” Cox said.
“For whatever reason?” There are no reasons to put off getting vaccinated and boosted, and it is up to the governor to say so.
Rather than give up his weekly COVID briefings, Cox should be out there every day, on TV, at clinics, at schools, not just asking people to pretty please do the right thing but demanding it, sending his lawyers off to find something, anything, that would stand up as a necessary executive order in a time of crisis and double-dog dare the Legislature to get in his way.
The governor should also be out on the hustings pushing Utahns away from the way things are, which is doomed, and toward the way they should be, which could be a very bright future indeed. If, that is, our leaders would help us abandon our affection for fossil fuels and take full advantage of our state’s potential as a hub of renewable energy and a sustainable recreation-based economy.
Cox has done none of that. Instead, he talks up a continuation of the destructive path we are already on, supporting rail projects dedicated to drilling for more fossil fuels and pipelines that will carry water from one dry patch to another.
The governor sits upon the votes of 918,754 Utahns. Cox is affable, good on TV, uses a self-depreciating sense of humor to his advantage. He has three more years before he has to face the voters again and, even then, with no Utah Democratic Party to speak of and the power of incumbency on his side, there is very little chance that Cox won’t cruise to re-election no matter what happens between now and 2024.
That is a balance of political capital that should embolden this governor, any governor, to move beyond posturing, to become dissatisfied with being a mere manager, to risk making a few enemies and disenchanting a few big-money donors, and really lead.
Constitutionally, the Legislature makes the laws and spends the money. But, also constitutionally, Cox’s constituency is the entire state. No single member of the Legislature can claim that.
Each lawmaker gets his or her job based on the ballots of around 15,000 (in the House) or 30,000 (in the Senate) people. Most districts are slanted so far Republican or (in a very few cases) Democratic that re-election is assured as long as nobody rocks the boat too much. Campaigning is less about wooing voters than about raising money.
The great majority of Utah voters probably can’t even tell you who their senator or representative is.
Most of us, though, know who our governor is. If he were to go over the heads of the legislators and rally the people to rise to their better natures — which isn’t all that different from their real long-term self-interests — he, and we, would all be looking at a much brighter future.