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Natalie Gochnour: Generational change will impact the 2020 Utah governor's race

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is joined by his wife, Abby, as he talks about their decision for him to run for governor in the 2020 election. They spoke from a shared office space in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 14, 2019.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is joined by his wife, Abby, as he talks about their decision for him to run for governor in the 2020 election. They spoke from a shared office space in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 14, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

I grew up with a large weather vane atop the family garage. I enjoyed watching it shift as the winds changed. During a winter storm, southeasterly winds signaled lake-effect snow. In summer time, northeasterly winds often brought rain. Our weather vane served not only as an architectural feature but also as an indicator about the future.

The winds of change are blowing in Utah. Over the next several years, Utah’s weather vane will turn as Utah’s baby-boom generation passes the leadership baton to the Generation X and millennial generations. I view this change as an inflection point with profound implications for Utah’s future.

Utah’s baby boom population tallies approximately 523,000 Utahns, or 16 percent of the population. They lead most Utah businesses, serve as publishers for the state’s largest newspapers, represent some of the state’s wealthiest residents, hold four of six seats in the Utah Congressional delegation, and occupy the governor’s mansion.

But each year their leadership ranks contract as people retire, pass away or are passed over for a younger leader. Utah’s Gen X and millennial populations, which tally 1.3 million people and 42 percent of the state’s population, increase in relevance each year.

The most visible indicator of this change is the Utah governor’s race. Gov. Gary Herbert, who has said he will not seek another term, was born in 1947, the second year of the baby-boom generation. At 72 years, he’s governed by applying conservative principles that have supported the state’s longest economic expansion. Now, with less than a year and a half left in office, the gubernatorial weather vane makes a decisive turn.

Potential successors include a bevy of well qualified candidates, all from a different generation than Herbert. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the only candidate to formally announce, is 43 years of age. Former House Speaker Greg Hughes, 49 years of age, will announce his candidacy later this summer. Other likely candidates include (with their ages in parentheses): Jeff Burningham (41), Thomas Wright (45) and Aimee Winder Newton (45). I don’t think Sean Reyes or Greg Miller will seek office, but they too are Gen Xers. Jon Huntsman, Jr., born in 1960, is the only talked about candidate who is a baby boomer … but, let’s be honest, he doesn’t act like one.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is joined by his wife, Abby, as he talks about their decision for him to run for governor in the 2020 election. They spoke from a shared office space in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 14, 2019.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is joined by his wife, Abby, as he talks about their decision for him to run for governor in the 2020 election. They spoke from a shared office space in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 14, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Why does generational change matter? The Gen X candidates and their millennial supporters bring style and policy differences to Utah’s highest elected office. They are known for their sense of community, independence, civic engagement, open-mindedness, tech-savviness, environmental sensibilities and idealism. Look no further than Cox’s campaign with its positivity, social media focus, heavy involvement of his wife and emphasis on service. He’s not talking policy; he’s planting trees!

Utah will change as the next generation of leaders bring their ideas to the forefront. As policy proposals begin to emerge, we will start to see a different Utah — with public policies that are different than the days of Govs. Bangerter, Leavitt, Walker, Huntsman and Herbert.

I’ll wage a few predictions. Watch for Utah’s growth narrative to change from an all-growth mindset to a quality growth mindset. The next generation of leadership will be even more selective about economic development opportunities because of concern about traffic congestion, air pollution, housing affordability, critical land conservation and other growth challenges.

Watch for gubernatorial candidates to elevate the status of women in our state — as governor, first lady, lieutenant governor, chief of staff, cabinet members, appointees to boards and commissions and other roles. The Gen Xers and millennial women grew up with more opportunity and have shined in leadership roles. They will expect more and Utah will reward them for their talent.

Finally, watch for cultural integration to become a higher priority. Racial/ethnic diversity, LGBTQ rights, religious diversity, refugee assimilation, and new migrants will be valued in refreshing ways. “The world is welcome here” will take on new meaning.

Utah’s weather vane is turning. Each generation gets their chance to serve. Make way for a new generation of leadership in Utah.