The compassion of Abby Cox

Does Utah’s First Lady — and her empathy-driven work ethic — spell a new way forward for conservatives in western states?

A black suburban with tinted windows parks outside a gabled, yellow farmhouse. Spencer and Abby Cox emerge from the vehicle and two herding dogs run from around the back of the house to greet them. Abby scans the horizon, surveying a rusted tin lean-to that shelters towers of hay and the acres of crops browning in the October chill.

She wears joggers, sneakers, a Carhartt sweatshirt that drowns her thin frame and a baseball hat atop her long, curled hair. The Coxes have returned to their rural hometown to help prepare their family farms for the winter and briefly escape the state’s capital, where they’ve held the position of governor and first lady for the past two years. It’s the first time the couple has been back to Abby’s parents’ home since her father’s funeral a month earlier.

Utah first lady Abby Cox is pictured in the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Ken Palmer bought the house in 1974, when it was half the size it is now. The 10 Palmer children shared three bedrooms and one and a half bathrooms while Ken and his wife Charlene slept on the floor. Abby’s childhood was one of hard, manual labor and economic uncertainty, with her father’s failed business ventures and a diagnosis that ultimately left him unable to perform the work necessary to maintain the farm. But Abby and her dad had a special bond. When Abby felt lost in a sea of siblings, it was Ken who most often connected with her and made her feel understood. Now Abby, sitting on a worn couch in her parents’ unassuming living room, starts to say something about her late father, but her voice breaks. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m looking around and having a lot of emotions because he’s not here.” 

Abby inherited from her father his empathy and a tenacity that defines her work as Utah’s first lady. While Spencer has made national headlines — for defeating presidential hopeful, ambassador and former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. in a gubernatorial election, for vetoing a bill drafted by fellow Republicans that would prevent transgender girls from competing in school sports and for maintaining consistently high approval ratings — Abby has served as his adviser and sounding board. She’s also launched her own initiatives aimed to increase empathy among Utahns.

But she longs for the life on the farm they left behind. Two years into Spencer’s term, she still doesn’t feel at home in the Governor’s Mansion, or what she calls “the apartment above the museum.” She insists she and Spencer are there not because they want to be, but because they are called to govern. They’re not as interested in reelection, she says, as they are in making their state a better place.

“If people disagree with us, that’s their prerogative. They can vote for somebody else and we get to go home to our farm.” — Abby Cox

And the compassionate conservatism with which they lead may very well set the course for other Republican leaders in the West and beyond. “Conservatism in general has a bit of a question mark around it at the moment,” explains University of Utah political science professor Matthew J. Burbank. “It’s not clear where the Republican Party is anymore.” The unknown provides the Coxes an opportunity to redefine the political movement as adaptive and pragmatic. 

In a time when many in the party seem to embrace extreme rhetoric and policy for political points, 60 percent of Utahns approve of Spencer Cox’s job performance, according to the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll. The young couple with their empathy-based conservatism are well-positioned to spend another six years in the state’s capital. 

That is, they may be the new faces of conservatism in the West. If only they wanted it.

An empathy crisis

From the time Spencer Cox announced his run for governor, he made it clear he was running with his wife. 

The campaign kickoff video released in 2020, for example, begins with Abby saying “We are parents. We are community members.” “We are farmers,” Spencer adds, and the remainder of the video alternates between the two of them making “we” statements about who they are and what they value most. Spencer declares, “We’ve decided to run for governor of the great state of Utah,” while his wife nods. He wanted Utahns to understand he and his wife are a package deal, and by voting for him they would be voting for a team.

Abby and Spencer Cox met in rural Sanpete County, where they both grew up. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“(Abby and Spencer) function like a left arm and a right arm,” a source close to the family told me. 

After Spencer won the election, Abby immediately got to work. She and her advisers spent months talking with members of the community. “Abby doesn’t believe in fluff,” says Sarah Allred, deputy director of first lady initiatives. “She’s not looking for the shiniest or easiest thing to do. She wants to do what’s most helpful.” In April 2021, the team launched Show Up, addressing issues important to Abby: foster care, community service, support for athletes with intellectual disabilities and educator wellness. Her efforts in these areas, Spencer says, have made such a large impact that people stop him in the grocery store not to talk about his work, but to thank him for Abby’s.

At any given time there are 2,700 children in the state’s foster system, but just 1,300 foster families are able to provide them homes, according to Utah Foster Care. Through her Show Up initiative, Abby hopes to reverse that, with foster families waiting for children and not foster children waiting for families. She also wants every school in the state to participate in Unified Sports, a program that pairs athletes with intellectual disabilities with their peers without intellectual disabilities to compete in sports training and team competitions.

It’s one of the antidotes to what Abby calls our “national empathy crisis,” as is community service, another area of focus. Utah has the highest rate of volunteerism and charitable giving in the nation, and service, Abby says, is one of the best tools we have to combat our worrying global mental health statistics — according to the World Health Organization, mental health conditions and substance use disorders have risen 13 percent in the last decade.

To combat the crisis, she challenged Utahns to show up and collectively serve one million times in 2022. She also hopes to elevate the teaching profession and support educators in the midst of Utah’s teacher shortage, spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic. Abby and her team hosted the Show Up for Teachers conference for over a thousand educators earlier this year, and have received hundreds of letters and emails thanking them for their support.

While Abby’s initiatives are nonpartisan by design, she’s not afraid to share her opinions on policies and legislation. In 2018, when Spencer was still lieutenant governor, Abby testified in a Senate committee meeting against a bill that would have outlawed surrogacy, a cause personal to her as a former gestational carrier. The bill did not pass. More recently, she has shared her opinions on the state of education, a cause near to her heart, having earned her degree in special education from Utah State University. She says she was disappointed by a bill introduced during the last legislative session which would have required teachers to upload every lesson plan for the entire school year online to be evaluated, before school even started. “It’s discouraging,” she says, explaining that the bill, which  was the brainchild of a loud and vocal group from the far right of the Republican Party, signaled that teachers are not being treated as professionals.  

Cox’s statewide initiative, Show Up Utah, announced in 2021, focuses on foster care, mental health and other endeavors aimed at addressing the “national empathy crisis.” | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

In the spring of 2022, with Abby’s support, the governor vetoed a bill that banned transgender children from competing in school sports, citing the mental health impact on transgender youth. He became the center of the national spotlight, and the ire of many on the far right. More recently, though, in January 2023, he did sign into law legislation that bans puberty blockers and surgery for trans youth. But Abby seems unconcerned by the potential political consequences of any legislation Spencer signs.

“We’re never going to apologize for doing what’s right,” she says. “If people disagree with us, that’s their prerogative. They can vote for somebody else and we get to go home to our farm.”

According to sources, Abby’s candor is one of her most consistent characteristics. She even adds a few choice “farm girl words,” when expressing some of her stronger opinions. “I think people have an image or an idea or a stereotype of what a first lady is, or should be or should care about,” Abby says. “Who I am is real, who I am is a farm girl. Who I am is my daddy’s girl who taught me how to work and be who I am and be strong and connect with people.”

Returning home

Ken Palmer wanted a large family and he wanted to raise them on a ranch, undeterred by knowing nothing about ranching beyond what he’d seen on “Bonanza.” In 1974, when he found a plot of land in Mount Pleasant, Ken and Charlene moved with their four kids 120 miles south of their life in Davis County and began teaching themselves the ways of the farm.

A few years later, Abby was their first child born in Mount Pleasant and the fifth of the family’s eventual 10. The two older brothers helped run the ranch while the eight girls were spared the manual labor of farm chores. After the brothers left home, Ken was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, an autoimmune disease that made it difficult for him to move. Finances were already tight after a processing company Ken launched had failed. The family needed someone to be his arms and legs on the ranch, and Abby, who was in middle school at the time, was just the right age to take over the majority of the responsibilities. From the time she was 14, she was running the ranch operations, managing 300 head of sheep and 30 head of cattle, horses and pigs. She baled hay, branded calves and docked lambs. 

According to her mother, Charlene, Abby took to farm life naturally. She recalls a day when Abby was 10 and Ken placed her on his tractor to bale straw on their 25-acre field. Pushing the clutch in was a physical challenge for a child, and Abby had to stand for each gear shift. It was at least six hours before Abby finally returned inside, her face covered in mud and dirt except for the two clean circles where glasses had covered her eyes. Beaming, she handed her mother a bouquet of maple leaves.

Huntsman had the name ID, the money, and the prestige. The Cox campaign was outmanned and outgunned. But they were not outworked.

As she entered her teen years, Abby woke up at 3 or 4 in the morning to bale hay in the frigid February air. “That’s not fun for anybody. But especially not teenage girls,” says Abby’s sister, Hayley Andrus. Abby would return from her away basketball games, bundle up and go out to feed the sheep, she says. “We were a little abnormal,” Andrus says. The sisters were embarrassed to be seen in their farm clothes, fearing no boy wanted to ask out a girl who spent her time milking cows. 

But at least one boy did.

Spencer and Abby shared a group of friends who all dated each other. But for Spencer, there was something different and special about Abby that set her apart from the rest. The two eventually married and left Sanpete County for Virginia, where Spencer attended law school and the couple had their first two children — Gavin and Kaleb. They returned to Utah and bought a home just north of Salt Lake City, a quick commute to Spencer’s law firm downtown.

Cox, who was running her family’s ranch operations by 14, joined her husband last year on a cattle drive through Salt Lake City to celebrate the Days of ‘47 cowboy games and rodeo. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

But after the delivery of their third son, Adam, Abby suffered from severe postpartum anxiety. She realized she had no idea how to raise three boys on a fourth of an acre when she had been raised on 600. “I really didn’t think in a million years I’d move back,” Abby says, explaining that she took great pride in having spread her wings to pursue a life of her own when so many people never left the hometown where she was raised. But the more she and Spencer talked about what kind of future they really wanted for their family, the more they realized the quieter country life was calling. So they returned to Sanpete County to help run CentraCom Interactive — Spencer’s parents’ telecommunications company — and the Cox family farm. 

They had not been back long when Spencer was approached by the Fairview mayor and some city council members about a vacancy on the council, begging him to run. He was elected in 2004, and became mayor the following year. Each position was part time, allowing their family to stay in Fairview while he continued building his career at CentraCom, but Abby was seeing her husband even less than when he was working at the law firm. 

‘We’re going to do this together’

They were, at least, nearer to family. Abby became especially close with Spencer’s sister Emilee Pehrson and her husband Ben, who hoped to have a second child. Pehrson has cystic fibrosis and her first pregnancy nearly killed her. A second pregnancy would likely actually kill her. So Abby volunteered to become a gestational carrier for Pehrson. Abby’s first four pregnancies had been routine. Her fifth, however, was fraught almost immediately. Three months in she began hemorrhaging and was placed on bed rest. At 34 weeks she began leaking amniotic fluid, and when her doctor tried to stop labor, she began hemorrhaging again. She delivered the baby boy, Lawson, two months early, in November 2010. 

Abby describes the experience as one of high anxiety “like driving someone else’s Ferrari.” Those close to her shared her anxiety and marveled at her selflessness. Her mother told me it took her a while to come to terms with her daughter having a baby who would not be her grandchild. “Behind the scenes, it was really tough,” Andrus, her sister, said. She was pregnant with a daughter while Abby carried Lawson. “I got to bring my baby home and she didn’t, and that was really hard.”

While Spencer served as a Sanpete County commissioner, then, in 2012, was elected to the Utah House of Representatives, Abby devoted herself to her children and the farm and looked forward to more time for herself in the future when all her kids would be in school. She might use her teaching degree in a classroom, she thought. But nine months into Spencer’s term as a legislator, Gov. Gary Herbert asked him to be his lieutenant governor. The couple had to decide whether or not they would make full-time politics their future. Things were going well at CentraCom, their kids were thriving in Fairview and they had enough experience with politics to understand how nasty it can be. “It just wasn’t in the plans,” Abby explains. “It wasn’t anything we thought about or wanted.” 

Cox, left, her sister, center, and husband assemble thank-you kits for foster families in support of Abby’s statewide initiative, Show Up Utah. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Spencer was sure he was going to decline. Abby encouraged him to accept. “Maybe the fact that we don’t want this means we’re supposed to do it,” she told her husband. So he took the job on the condition that their family would stay in Fairview out of the political fray, and he would commute to downtown Salt Lake City every day. It became clear to Abby that the time to herself of which she had dreamed would not materialize for a long while. She pushed her teaching ambitions aside and dug into being the parent at home — a role in which she thrived, according to friends and family — while Spencer spent long days in Salt Lake. 

Three years into Spencer’s term, in 2016, 49 people were murdered at Pulse nightclub in Florida in what appeared to be a shooting targeting members of the LGBTQ community. Spencer was invited to speak at a Salt Lake City vigil. According to Abby, Spencer rarely writes out remarks, but he wrote a full speech for this occasion. While Abby feared Spencer would be attacked by the far right for the speech, she told him she knew speaking was the right thing to do. In his remarks, Spencer apologized for previously held beliefs and actions toward the queer community. Spencer’s tearful and heartfelt speech quickly traveled through the internet and the national news networks, setting the course for his political career. A while later, Abby was at a ballgame in Fairview with her son. A friend, whose father is gay, approached her. In tears, he thanked her for the speech. “It’s about empathy,” Abby says. “It’s about listening to somebody that has a different story, and really trying to understand where they’re coming from.”

As Herbert’s second term neared its 2020 conclusion, the Coxes found themselves, again, wondering if they would pursue politics further. Abby says they wanted the answer to be “no” when they prayed about whether or not they should run. “We would really have loved to go back to the farm and continue raising our kids and doing whatever it was that came next,” she says. The calculation was not what they wanted to do, she says, but what they were supposed to do. And they felt they were supposed to run for governor. “We’re going to do this together,” she told Spencer.

According to friends, family and colleagues, Cox’s candor is one of her most consistent characteristics. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The 2020 campaign was even more difficult than anticipated. Covid-19 not only made physical visits to voters nearly impossible; it further polarized the electorate. “People we knew and loved turned on us,” Abby says. Spencer, who as lieutenant governor at the time oversaw the state’s Covid-19 response, was scrutinized at every turn. If he tried to help businesses stay open, he was called a murderer. If he encouraged people to wear masks and practice social distancing, he was told he was taking away freedoms. 

Like most everyone else in the state, the Coxes expected Jon Huntsman Jr. — Utah’s former governor, son of one of the state’s most prominent businessmen and philanthropists, and a former U.S. ambassador to Singapore, China and Russia — to win the Republican primary. Three other candidates ran — former Speaker of the Utah House Greg Hughes, previous chairman of the Utah Republican Party Thomas Wright, and Huntsman. The Coxes set out to run a campaign focused on positivity, while, Spencer claims, Hughes, Wright, and Huntsman chose to attack the Cox campaign and only the Cox campaign.

The compassionate conservatism with which the Coxes lead may very well set the course for other Republican leaders in the West and beyond.

Huntsman had the name ID, the money and the prestige. The Cox campaign was outmanned and outgunned. But, Abby says, they were not outworked. They visited all 248 towns and cities in the state. Staffers remember Spencer and Abby connecting between stops, Abby’s words seemingly giving Spencer the confidence and energy he needed before visiting the next city.

For the majority of the race, Spencer and Huntsman led the polls. Spencer won the Republican convention, but Huntsman gained momentum among independent voters. The night of the primary election on June 30, 2020, Spencer led with 37 percent of the vote and Huntsman barely trailed with 34 percent. Six days later, The Associated Press called the race for Spencer. He handily beat the Democratic challenger in the general election four months later.

“There’s no way we should have won,” Abby tells me. “I mean, a kid from Fairview?” she says, eyebrows raised, then concludes, “It’s one of the answers that we’re supposed to be here.” 

The hardest path

Spencer is up for reelection in 2024, and while his approval ratings are good and climbing, Abby isn’t making any premature plans for the next five years. “Maybe I’ll be done before I know it,” she says. “But while I’m here, I want to make the biggest impact possible and I have the energy and I have the time. I’m ready to do it.” A source close to Spencer and Abby tells me the impact she’s already had on the people cannot be overstated. “No one expects the first lady to be such a force,” they say. In the past year and a half Abby and her team have organized, facilitated and participated in 75 service projects. They’ve expanded Unified Sports from 30 schools to 200 schools. And teachers across the state continue to express their appreciation for Abby’s efforts to support their profession.  

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The Coxes may not be the darlings of the most conservative wing of the Republican Party, but according to Burbank, the political scientist, being the darling of the conservative wing is not how politicians have historically won statewide races. Instead, Utah voters tend to vote for pragmatic politicians, and the Coxes are both pragmatic in keeping with the traditions of the Republican Party while “being adaptive to the fact that the world is changing,” Burbank says, making them well-positioned to stay in the Governor’s Mansion. 

The Coxs still dream of returning to their rural Utah roots. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Abby still has two years to go, or six if Spencer is reelected. But when the time comes, she’ll be ready to be done. “(Spencer) and I never had ambition for this type of position,” Abby says. “I don’t think either of us wanted this.” She says she’s trying to teach her kids that the right path is not always the easy path. Often it’s the hardest. “This was certainly the hardest path,” she says. 

They say they have no political ambitions beyond the governorship. They’ve given up the best years of their lives in “the apartment above the museum.” They say they can’t wait to get back to the farm.   

This story appears in the March issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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