A ‘surreal journey’
Governor-elect reflects on meteoric
rise in Utah politics
By Suzanne Dean
FAIRVIEW—The journey from first-term legislator to governor-elect in seven years has been “surreal,” Spencer Cox said last week.
“I always said they don’t let kids from Sanpete County do things like this,” he said. “It still doesn’t seem real…So the day we won, I still didn’t think it would happen.”
His wife, Abby, said the opportunities and experiences the family has had since October, 2013, when Gov. Gary Herbert made his surprise appointment of Spencer as lieutenant governor, have made the journey worthwhile.
There have been some incredibly difficult times, Abby said, but “the people we’ve met along the way have changed our lives for the better. It’s been an incredible journey, and hopefully, we’ve become better people through these experiences.”
The Coxes, whose roots in Fairview go back six generations, along with two of their children, Adam, 18, and Emma Kate, 14, talked with the Messenger about the changes their family has been through during a Zoom interview last Friday, Dec. 18.
Their two oldest sons weren’t at home. Gavin, 21, who returned earlier in the year from a mission in Africa for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is at Southern Utah University.
Kaleb, 20, was on a mission in Tahiti when the coronavirus broke out. Like all missionaries, he was sent home. Later in the year, he was reassigned to the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico.
During his most difficult period over the past seven years, Spencer said, when he was heading up Utah’s response to the virus, yet being attacked for those efforts by three opponents in the Republican primary, it was his family that pulled him through.
“It was right during that heat (when) we had the whole family together. That was the only thing that saved me. After those long days and nights, I would come home, and they were here, and I had that sense of stability and security. And that was what carried us through those couple of months.”
Back in 2013, the Coxes accepted the appointment as lieutenant governor on one condition: They wanted to continue living in Fairview. That meant Spencer would have to commute from Fairview to Salt Lake City, just under a 200-mile round trip.
“When I became lieutenant governor, it was important that we didn’t change, that we didn’t become something else,” Spencer explained later. “We knew if we stayed here, that would be easier, because quite frankly, people don’t care that I’m lieutenant governor, and they don’t look at me any differently, and I love that.”
His staff helped make the commute possible, he said. “They would generally make it so I could leave after the kids were up, and we had our family gospel study together and had breakfast.” He made phone calls on the way to Salt Lake, worked as late as he needed to, and got home when he got home, which varied depending on the day.
Abby said she scheduled family activities with the scheduler on Spencer’s staff. “I would make sure recitals and ballgames and plays and tennis matches were all on his schedule…and he tried really hard to get there.”
In 2016, Gov. Herbert ran for re-election with Spencer as his lieutenant-governor running mate. Spencer got a taste of a statewide campaign, although it was a cakewalk compared to when he ran on his own in 2020. The Herbert-Cox ticket won the primary by 44 percent and the final election by 38 percent.
One memorable event was when Emma Kate went with her parents to Logan to appear in the Utah State University homecoming parade.
“We were handing out T-shirts at the parade, and I got hit by a mascot,” Emma Kate said.
The mascot, a bull known as Big Blue, was on a motorcycle and almost ran over her, Spencer said.
Early in 2019, the Coxes faced the daunting decision of whether Spencer should run for governor. Everybody in the family felt a lot of hesitation, he said.
“I think around that time was when I started to actually take an interest in what he (his dad) was doing…,” Adam said. “ It was exciting that I actually understood what was going on but scary because of that, too.”
“I had a lot of emotions, like happiness, excitement,” Emma Kate said. “But (I was) also scared a little bit for what was going to happen.”
“A lot of people think ‘That would be so cool, to be governor,’” Spencer said. But because he’d been through one campaign, and because he’d been close to Herbert and had seen what the job of governor entails, any romanticism connected with the role had gone by the board long ago.
In the final analysis, he said, “we’ve always lived our lives with the mantra our parents taught us that we can do hard things, we’re here to do hard things, and we don’t shy away from those things.”
In May, 2019, he announced his candidacy.
Spencer and Abby centered their primary campaign on a pledge to visit all 248 incorporated towns in Utah, something no candidate had done. They painted a motor home green and yellow, the campaign colors, and put a list of the towns on the side. After they visited a town, they put a heart sticker beside the town name.
“We’d do about a week at a time,” Abby said. “The only time we took all of the kids was one leg through Eastern Utah. It was three days after Gavin got home from his mission….I think the first few days playing cards in the RV were kind of fun. About the fourth day, they called Grandma and Grandpa from Emery County and said, ‘We’re done. Come get us.’ One of the great highlights (of the tour) was having them there at that time.”
One of the biggest days on the RV tour, at the end of a long week, was coming through Sanpete County. Spencer, Abby and some campaign workers visited 11 cities in one day. They ended up in Mt. Pleasant “dirty and stinky,” Abby said. Community members came out in force to greet them.
“It was emotional,” she said.
Spencer was first Republican to get into the governor’s race. As the months passed, other Republicans jumped in, including former governor and former ambassador Jon Huntsman. The other candidates were “all qualified, all well funded,” Spencer said.
Then the coronavirus hit “on top of everything else,” he said. Spencer came out on top at the Republican convention, which surprised a lot of people. But shortly, all three of his Republican opponents attacked him, mainly on his and the Herbert administration’s handling of the virus.
“I don’t think he slept for two months,” Abby said. “He was trying to make decisions with the governor about how to protect people, how to save people’s jobs,” and being lambasted for it.
“He’s getting attacked for not doing things, and I’m watching him at the same time completely putting every ounce of energy and effort he has to help people through the crisis.”
Yet Spencer stuck by his pledge at the time he announced to run a positive campaign.
On election night, the Cox family, along with Diedre Henderson, his ieutenant-governor running mate, her husband and lots of supporters, gathered for a socially distanced celebration at the Basin Drive-in on the north end of Mt. Pleasant. It turned out to be the beginning of several roller coaster days.
As of election night, Spencer was ahead, but the race was close. Two days later, when returns came in from Salt Lake City, the Cox campaign thought they might have lost. On Friday, things looked good again, and on Monday, the Associated Press called the race for Spencer with returns showing him with a 9,000-vote lead.
In Utah, with its overwhelmingly Republican electorate, winning the primary is tantamount to winning the governorship. But the day after the race was called, there was talk of one of Cox’s primary opponents running as a write-in in the final election.
Spencer said he and his campaign staff never felt comfortable until September, when a deadline for registering as a write-in passed without any of his opponents signing on.
“You run a marathon,” Abby said, “and get to the end of the marathon, and they say, ‘No, run five more miles. That’s what it felt like.”
There was a poignant moment at the Basin Drive-in at a time when it looked like Spencer would win the primary. “Everybody was celebrating, and there were horns honking, and the media was there,” Spencer said.
As he stepped out in front of the crowd, Emma Kate came over, gave him a hug, and melted into tears. Some people thought they were tears of joy. In reality, they reflected the stress of recent months and her uncertainty about the future.
The Cox family will be moving to the governor’s mansion in Salt Lake City. With the demands of the governorship, commuting isn’t practical, Spencer said. But they plan to be home most weekends.
Adam and Emma Kate will finish out the school year in Sanpete County. Adam will be graduating from North Sanpete High School and Emma Kate from North Sanpete Middle School,
After graduation, Adam expects a mission call. So in the immediate future, Emma Kate will be the only child moving to Salt Lake City.
Reflecting on the past seven years, Emma Kate said, “It’s definitely changed me personally…I feel like I’ve really grown from all these experiences.”
And Adam said, “It’s been an opportunity for me to get an inside look at some of the things that happen in politics and in government. And I’ve see the problems…And so to watch my dad be the one who’s going to try to fix some of those problems,…it can be very gratifying and exciting.”
“I’m just grateful for the support we’ve had, the incredible people here in Fairview, in Sanpete County,” Spencer said. “We are who we are because of where we were raised…I think the rest of the country, the rest of Utah, is hungry for what we have here. And I’m glad to take some of that to the Capitol.”