Last Monday, Spencer Cox was sworn in as Utah’s 18th governor, with Deidre Henderson as lieutenant governor. Your columnists have interacted — at many different levels — with state chief executives for the past 40 years. As ancient politicos, we are generously offering unsolicited advice for the new team.

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What pointers do these old-timers have for the new administration?

Pignanelli: “Political advice is a bit like your average Christmas fruitcake: something everyone gives and no one wants.” — Bob Dole  

The inauguration of a new governor is always exciting as a harbinger of change and action for the state. Yet, political honeymoons end quickly. Thus, tried and tested rules of politics (a nice description of our ramblings) are invaluable.

First, understand the media and their role never to be a friend or cheerleader. They view themselves as a deliverer of news and a vital constitutionally protected check on government operations. Thus, necessary political maneuvers are often described in a negative tone. But fear of the press must not prevent the pursuit of objectives.

Many politicos incorrectly view political capital as a checking account that is drawn against to support projects. Rather, it is an investment account that usually increases in value through riskier initiatives. Undertaking huge endeavors will attract massive opposition but the payoffs can be huge. So, go big!

No one believes public statements from politicians dismissing polls, so don’t try. But remember they are only a snapshot in time, and results can be moved — in either direction. Avoid unfounded fears of temporary lower approval ratings to prevent freezing action.

Abraham Lincoln utilized a “team of rivals” approach which saved our republic. Past slights and minor offenses should be ignored as the instigators can be your greatest champions if embraced.

Finally, be patient with curmudgeons like us.

Webb: In his first week in office, Cox has shown he has “the vision thing” down pretty well, and he’s plenty adept at using symbols, anecdotes and effective communications with a large dose of social media. At age 45, Cox isn’t Utah’s youngest governor ever (about the same age as Jon Huntsman and a few years older than Mike Leavitt when they took office), but he does represent a new generation of leaders.

He’s called for unity and civility in an emotional inaugural speech, hired a very diverse and geographically dispersed Cabinet and staff, held a Day of Prayer and attended a half-dozen different church services, presented a “Freedom Fireside” (livestreamed on the Governor Cox YouTube Channel), pushed out dozens of press releases, images, video clips and social media posts, and raised $200,000 and 35,000 pounds of food for food pantries.

I’m not being critical about all this feel-good stuff. Symbols and effective communications are essential tools for governors. Cox’s likability and good PR are what got him elected. When I worked for Gov. Leavitt we had a rule that every important issue had to be symbolized, personalized and simplified to communicate effectively to citizens.

Substance, of course, has to follow. But I don’t think that will be a problem. The Cox team faces some very tough issues that will be divisive and unpopular. That will be the test. 

So, my only piece of advice is to remember that winning in politics requires only 50% support, plus one. If you have 70 or 80% support, you’re probably not spending your political capital to get big, important things done that will benefit the state over the long term.

So, don’t waste your political capital on trivial things, but invest it wisely on issues that make a big difference. Use all of your charm, communications skills, social media, symbols, personalization and simplification to sell the top, tough priorities. If you get it done, but end up with 50% support, plus one, that’s a demonstration of real leadership.

What do the newly appointed cabinet members say about the new administration? Any advice to them?

Pignanelli: An organization assumes the personality of its leader. If the governor and lieutenant governor consistently exude innovation, transparency and vision then so will their cabinet and agencies. New blood is helpful but also remember “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”.

The new appointees are intriguing. Cox has fulfilled his commitment to increase department heads from off the Wasatch Front. This ensures a practical and interesting approach to state government.

Webb: Cox has a well-balanced, nicely diverse staff and cabinet. He has reached across the state. They need to remember who’s the boss. You succeed if the boss succeeds.  

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Any recommendations for working with the Legislature?

Pignanelli: Cox and Henderson possess legislative experience and understand the dynamics of those bodies — which is crucial to success. A veteran lawmaker once expressed to me, “Legislators want the governor to lead us, even in an aggressive manner. But we will exercise our fundamental right to complain and oppose him.” Such conflict is the essence of democracy. Understanding and leveraging such guarantees success.

Webb: Cox and Henderson will do fine with the Utah’s 104 independently-elected lawmakers. They already rather like each other. But there will be real tension, as there should be, between the executive and legislative branches. Some legislators view the Herbert/Cox pandemic responses as too onerous. And there is unease in the governor’s office over the Legislature’s new ability to call itself into special session.

The governor enjoys the bully pulpit and is far more visible to citizens. Legislation needs his signature. But Utah’s lawmakers aren’t shy about exerting their authority. Political arm-wrestling is healthy exercise.

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