How Spencer Cox, an ‘angsty’ farm boy, grew up to become the governor of Utah

FAIRVIEW, Sanpete County — Twenty-year-old Abby Palmer planned to break up with Spencer Cox that very day.

She had made up her mind. She was caught in the middle of two men, both intent on marrying her. She described it as a “really awful,” awkward situation — one that she knew needed to end.

“This was probably the single biggest decision of my life,” she said. “He was a good person, but Spencer had been my best friend all these years.”

She knew her decision would result in a broken heart.

Cox, then 21, was fresh off a mission in Mexico for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. About two months before his return, he found out his high school friend, who had dated others while Cox was on his mission, “had a very serious boyfriend who wanted to marry her.”

“That was my ‘Dear John’ moment,” Cox said. Not wanting to let her slip away, Cox told her, “I only ask you not to have a ring on when I get home. Just give me a chance.”

When Cox made it back home, there indeed wasn’t a ring on her finger. At least not yet.

But that day in August 1996 — the day when Palmer had called Cox to come over to her house to have that dreaded breakup talk — didn’t go as she planned.

Cox, who had been close high school friends with Palmer before one of their first dates together to Palmer’s junior prom, was also close with her family. On that summer day, sitting in the yard on lawn chairs, Cox sat next to Palmer’s father and had a long chat about politics, about President Bill Clinton’s run against Bob Dole.

“We had a great conversation,” Cox recalled. “Then Abby and I went into the house and talked. And life was great.”

What Cox didn’t know was in the back of Palmer’s mind, the decision that she thought she had already made weighed heavily on her. Watching Cox sit and talk with her father, and then in their casual chat inside, something inexplicable prompted her to change her mind.

“It was one of those things where I sat there and ... I don’t know how else to say it,” she said. “I just knew he was it when I sat there in that moment. I just knew.”

The next day, Palmer called Cox and told him she had broken up with the other guy — a guy she joked that will be known only as “he who will not be named” because Cox “still can’t say his name.”

Three weeks later, “we were engaged,” Cox said.

Cox and now Abby Cox, told their love story as they walked side by side on a dirt path that circles their family farm in the small rural town of Fairview. They walked around a golden field, cut and dormant in the cold of winter.

Utah Governor, Spencer Cox, walks with his wife, Abby, and daughter, Emma Kate, on their farmland in Fairview, Utah.
Utah Governor, Spencer Cox, walks with his wife, Abby, and daughter, Emma Kate, on their family’s farmland near their home in Fairview, Sanpete County, on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

One of their four children, 14-year-old Emma Kate, tagged along. As did their family dogs, including a black border collie mix named Shadow who greets visitors with kind brown eyes and a panting smile.

Abby Cox recalled a joke that Gov. Gary Herbert once told: That “other guy” might have been elected Utah’s next governor had she picked him instead of Cox all those years ago. The two chuckled.

But in all seriousness, Cox said there likely isn’t another moment that changed the trajectory of his life as big as that day — and it was all left up to Abby.

“We all have sliding door moments,” Cox said. “It’s hard to imagine a bigger sliding door in my life if she had broken up with me that day.”

Sliding door moments that shaped Spencer Cox

Though none probably measure up to the very Utah story of their marriage, a number of “sliding door” moments have shaped Cox’s life path and eventually led Herbert to hand pick him as a newbie lawmaker to become his lieutenant governor in 2013, and then to his win of this year’s election to become Utah’s next governor at the age of 45.

Many of those moments — and decisions at crucial crossroads along the way — seem to have pulled Cox repeatedly back to what he says has kept him centered and grounded through his life: the generational, 150-acre family farm, tucked in the rolling hills of Fairview.

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Governor of Utah, Spencer Cox, stands behind his dog, Shadow, on the family’s farmland in Sanpete County in December 2020.
Governor of Utah, Spencer Cox, and his dog Shadow walk on the family’s farmland near the Cox home in Fairview, Sanpete County, on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

One of those moments has to do with a bumper sticker.

After graduating from Washington and Lee University in Virginia, where he received his law degree, Cox was working as an attorney with the Salt Lake law firm Fabian and Clendenin. He was on track to make partner in a few years. At that time, Spencer and Abby Cox had settled in a Kaysville subdivision. By then, they had three boys.

They began questioning if the suburban life is what they wanted for their family. Abby Cox, who grew up a farm girl herself on a 600-acre farm near Mt. Pleasant, wondered how she was going to teach her children what hard work meant living on a quarter-acre lot.

Then Spencer and Abby Cox saw a bumper sticker that read: “It’s 99% of the attorneys who give the other 1% a bad name.”

Cox asked his wife: “Is the world a better place because of what I do here?”

She was brutally honest.

“Absolutely not.”

At that time, Cox’s father, Eddie Cox, also invited him to come back to Fairview and help run the family business: CentraCom, a telecommunications company that has been in the Cox family since his grandfather bought it in 1919 to help support the family beyond farming. At that time it was a telephone company. Since then, it’s evolved to also provide internet and television. It would mean a big pay cut, but the Coxes were drawn back by the promise of a rural life for their children.

When Cox sought advice from U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart, for whom he had clerked, Stewart told him he’d find more “fulfilling opportunities to serve the community, your family and the church” if he went back home.

Spencer Cox’s farmland is the focus of the shot as the Utah governor talks about the challenges he’ll face in his new role. 
Gov.-elect Spencer Cox talks about the challenges he will face as governor from his family’s farmland near his home in Fairview, Sanpete County, on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Went home he did.

While Abby and Spencer Cox enjoyed their rural life, Cox had the opportunity to serve as a Latter-day Saint bishop. He also went from spending 16-hour days at the law firm to spending more time with his kids, coaching them in football, basketball, baseball.

Meanwhile, another calling in life tugged at him: politics.

Cox had watched public service play a big role in his family. His father served eight years on the Fairview City Council, one term as mayor, and then 10 years as a Sanpete County commissioner.

Eddie Cox said he always knew his son had a future in politics. As a young boy, he said Spencer was “always up on current events and reading the paper. He had always been really interested in what was going on around him.”

Cox followed in his father’s path. In 2004, he filled a vacancy on the Fairview City Council. He went on to become mayor. In 2008, he was elected as a Sanpete County commissioner, serving four years before he was elected to the Utah House of Representatives in 2012. Cox was still a freshman — only nine months in — when Herbert picked him to succeed former Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, who personally recommended Cox.

Calling him optimistic and bright, Herbert was also drawn to Cox’s rural background and experience in local government. It was another big moment for Cox. And it was almost one he turned down. While weighing the decision, he broke down in sobs after he watched his daughter step off the school bus from the steps of his farmhouse. It was moments like these he didn’t want to miss.

Cox ultimately agreed to be Herbert’s No. 2, on the condition he could commute the 100 miles from Fairview to Salt Lake City each morning, and the 100 miles back at night. Three hours a day, all to keep that farm life Abby and Spencer Cox cherished.

His attachment to the farm dates back long before his time. And for reasons far beyond himself — as life on that farm wasn’t always rosy.

Spencer Cox: The lieutenant governor who almost said no

Gov. Cox has deep roots in Utah

Walking the dirt path around the farm, Cox stopped at a rusty old tractor, tucked in an old barn next to a pair of snowmobiles and an aging camper trailer. He guessed it had to be something like 60 years old — far older than him.

He didn’t dare try to fire it up in the winter cold. But he said if he wanted to bring it to life, he probably could with some mechanical help. Even though it’s not a tractor he uses today, he said he keeps it around to remind him of what it taught him as a young boy.

Spencer Cox, governor of Utah, stands near an old Case tractor that he learned to drive as a child on his family’s farm.
Gov.-elect Spencer Cox stands near an old Case tractor he learned how to drive as a child as he talks about growing up on his family’s farmland near his home in Fairview, Sanpete County, on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

“This is where I learned and thought about life,” he said. “I’d get on this tractor, and eight hours later I was still on this tractor. Dust and sweat. ... It’s just kind of a connection to a past life. I didn’t know my grandpa; he died when I was 1. But he would sit on this tractor, too. It’s taught me a lot about work and responsibility.”

Being “rooted to a place,” Cox said, “there’s something grounding to it. It keeps us humble. It helps us remember why we do what we do, and there are bigger things than us. And I’ve often said we are who we are because of where we came from.”

To Cox, that’s certainly the case for him and his wife. “And at the heart of it, it’s this place.”

Today, the Cox family continues to work the fields, mostly growing and selling alfalfa to livestock owners. But, to them, it’s not the alfalfa that gives the farm its true value.

“My dad always said, ‘The only crop worth raising here are kids,’” Cox said, shaking his head because he remembered how he “hated it when he said that. I didn’t know what it meant.”

“It wasn’t until we had our own kids it suddenly dawned on us everything we were was because of this place and what it had taught us, and we wanted to make sure they had those same experiences,” he said.

That’s even though farm life didn’t necessarily bring Cox the fondest of memories.

At 3 years old, Cox would watch his father milk the dairy cows. At 6 years old, his father would put his truck in gear and plop him in the front seat, telling him to steer while he walked behind, unloading sprinkler pipe from the back of an orange pipe trailer.

As early as Cox can remember, farm chores were a part of life. And he grew to hate it.

While his friends were off playing, young Cox was stuck sitting on a tractor. That resentment compounded when his parents got divorced when he was 10 years old, leading to several years as an “angsty teen.”

“I was really mad at the world and I was on a dark path, headed the wrong direction,” Cox said.

Cox has spoken openly about his brushes with suicidal thoughts. In 2018, he published an online essay titled “Let’s Talk About Suicide” after he decided to talk about his own struggles at a community suicide prevention meeting in Tremonton. At that event, he opened up about how his parents’ divorce in the ’80s — during a time when broken marriages were rare and frowned upon, especially in conservative Fairview — shadowed his own self-image.

“It just didn’t happen very often. The bad kids in school were the ones who had divorced parents,” Cox was quoted as saying in the Standard Examiner, concluding that “I must be one of them.”

Then, the hardships of middle school bore down. He said in his first week, some boys “grabbed me in the hall and stuffed me in a garbage can,” the Standard Examiner reported. At that age, he said he was “kind of a nerd” with “big, round and thick” glasses. He said he would sometimes think about “what it would be like if I wasn’t here anymore, and how much better off everyone would be if I wasn’t here.”

Cox said he never got to the point of attempting suicide. But he thought about it.

It was the “incredible people in my life,” Cox told the Deseret News, pointing to church leaders, teachers and his Boy Scout leader, in particular, who “saved my life.”

“Just because he cared about me, took interest in me,” Cox said. “He was just always there.” And he credited his stepmother — even though he says he didn’t like her at the time, as resentful teenagers do — for being “very patient and loving me like her own kids, even though I didn’t treat her with the respect she deserved.”

Again, it was the little moments that mattered.

“There’s an old cowboy here in town that always said, ‘Hard times don’t have to be bad times,’” Cox said. “And I just felt bad for myself for those years, but I had everything I needed. I had people who loved me and cared about me. Once I recognized that, my life got a lot better.”

A headshot of the newly elected governor of Utah, Spencer Cox, on his farm in Fairview, Utah, in December 2020.
Gov.-elect Spencer Cox talks about the challenges he will face as governor from his family’s farmland near his home in Fairview, Sanpete County, on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Eddie Cox said his son’s hard times taught him resilience and strength — but also that ultimately he had a family that was going to be there for him.

“It’s a challenge. Fighting the elements and making do with what you have,” Eddie Cox said of farming. “Yeah, he had some tough teenage years as I think everybody does, but he landed on his feet because he did have a solid foundation in family and because he knew he was loved.”

Family life for Utah’s governor

Now on the tail end of raising two teens and in the middle of raising two others, Spencer Cox laughs and struggles to answer when asked how he thinks his own children perceive him as a father.

“I don’t think as parents you ever feel like you’re doing a good job,” Abby Cox said.

“I would say I feel like I’m an inadequate parent,” Cox said, though he added he does prioritize family time. But sometimes, he said, “I’m present but not mentally present because I’m engaged and my phone’s always on.”

His wife quickly jumps to his defense.

“He’s a fantastic father,” she said, reminiscing about how he coached his sons in sports when they were little, and how he was able to spend much more time with them after they made the decision to move to the farm and he quit the law firm.

And she said he has shared his love of music with his kids.

Years ago, Spencer Cox started a garage band with his brother. Ben Cox was on vocals, Spencer Cox on bass. They named it UpSide — for which a YouTube channel still exists. Dozens of videos live on the internet of the brothers and their band, jamming to covers of popular songs by the Killers, Foo Fighters, Matchbox 20, and — of course — U2, for which Cox said he grew up a “die-hard fan.”

Following in his dad’s footsteps, son Gavin, now 22, also started a band.

Abby Cox said her husband has a particularly close relationship with their only daughter, Emma Kate, the couple’s youngest child. She said her opinion of her dad is different from her brothers because “I feel like they’re a lot judgier.”

Abby and Spencer Cox laughed, noting that opinions of parents can change a lot during teenage years.

“She still likes me,” Cox said. “I don’t know how much longer that will last, but we’re close.”

To Cox, his perfect day off — for which there aren’t many, he said — would be a day on the “tiny redneck golf course” in Fairview with the family, even though he and Abby are “terrible golfers.”

“I’m not comfortable in a country club,” Cox said, “but out here, we always run into people we know. ... There’s no place I’d rather be.”

Spencer Cox, Utah governor, walks alongside his daughter, Emma Cate, on their Fairview farm with his wife, Abby, close behind. 
Emma Kate Cox, left, walks her her dad, Gov.-elect Spencer Cox, and mom, future Utah first lady Abby Cox, on their family’s farmland near their home in Fairview on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Moving away from the farm and into the Governor’s Mansion

For as grounded as the family farm has kept him, it’s a place Cox has decided to part ways with for now — at least for the majority of the next four years — when he takes his place as Utah’s next governor on Jan. 4.

Come January, Abby and Spencer Cox will move into the Governor’s Mansion in downtown Salt Lake City, expecting only to return to the farm on weekends.

It will be a stark change for the family, who chose to live in Fairview for their children. But now their kids are growing up. Only Emma Kate, 14, will be moving with them full time. Adam, 17, will be staying to finish his senior year of high school; Kaleb, 20, is serving a Latter-day Saint mission in New Mexico (previously Tahiti before being reassigned due to COVID-19); and Gavin, 22, is attending college at Southern Utah University.

The move is bittersweet.

“We certainly have some apprehension,” Abby Cox said, sitting in a chair on her in-law’s porch. “But I feel like we are at a good place with our family right now. ... Going forward, it can be a really grand adventure. I look forward to doing some really important and meaningful things.”

But at the same time, she said they’ll prioritize returning home as much as they can to stay connected.

“It’s important for us to stay rooted here,” she said. “We’ll try to get here as much as we possibly can.”

While it will be nice to no longer have a 200-mile commute, Abby Cox said she knows her husband will miss its decompression.

“He drives into the Sanpete Valley, there’s a lot of stress and anxiety that sort of melts away from him, because this is a peaceful place. And a place where nobody cares who you are or who you think you are. If you get too big for your britches, they’ll let you know.”

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Spencer Cox stands with his wife and dog on their porch in Sanpete County where they discuss his recent win as Utah governor. 
Gov.-elect Spencer Cox and his wife, future Utah first lady Abby Cox, are joined by their dog Shadow as they talk about the recent gubernatorial election from their family’s farmland in Fairview, Sanpete County, on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

On the drive — which is almost exactly 1 12 hours one way, without traffic — Spencer Cox said he tends to listen to sports podcasts and audio books. His favorite books are almost always political or biographical in nature. His favorite book, he said, is “Team of Rivals,” the biography on President Abraham Lincoln.

While the Coxes both said they look forward to the conveniences of the Salt Lake Valley and variety of food options (Cox himself is a lover of authentic Mexican food), the governor-elect said one of the hardest changes for him will be going from driving himself everywhere to being chauffeured around in the black SUVs of his security detail.

“I love to drive,” he said. “That’s going to be really hard.”

And while Cox said he’ll love the “energy and cultural opportunities” of Salt Lake City, he’ll “hate the noise, the traffic and the air.” But then again, he’ll be submerged in the very problems many Utahns living along the Wasatch Front most care about.

Becoming the governor of Utah: ‘What have we done?’

The decision to jump into the governor’s race was not one that the Coxes took lightly. Just like how he grappled with Herbert’s call for him to be lieutenant governor, Cox said he wrestled with whether he would run to succeed him.

“The truth is we didn’t want to,” Cox said. “I know people don’t believe that, but Abby will tell you the same thing. Every time we thought about it, we were just kind of sick to our stomachs because we knew what it meant. We had a front-row seat to see the toll it had taken on the Herberts.”

Being “awfully close” with Herbert, Abby Cox said they understood “what it takes, what it means and how incredibly difficult it is. We’ve seen the not-so-glamorous parts and the really agonizing decisions” that come with the job. And that was even before COVID-19.

They relied on their faith to guide their choice.

“It was a decision that we prayed about, talked to our family about, and we in our hearts had to feel like it was the right path for us,” Abby Cox said. “That didn’t mean we knew we were going to win. We just felt in our hearts after a lot of prayer and feeling like we could do something really unique, we could try to run a campaign that was positive ... because I feel like people were hungering for positivity in politics.”

So they made that leap. And when former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. also jumped into the race, they knew they were in for a battle. On the day Huntsman officially announced he was running, Cox tweeted out an illustration, without a caption, of the David vs. Goliath battle from the Bible.

When they first heard a rumor about Huntsman’s run, Cox said they first thought, “Well, that’s probably it for us.” But he said they decided to dig in because they wanted to see whether they could “change the way people run” — not to win, but to just “be yourself and run your race, and whatever happens happens.”

Eddie Cox said he knew his son “had a future in politics and would one day be the governor.” He said he wasn’t surprised when he won.

Spencer and Abby Cox were on the road — driving back from the Oregon coast after some time at the beach to get away right after the primary election — when they got the official word of their victory over Huntsman, with a tight 36.4% of the vote to Huntsman’s 34.6%.

When more tallies from Salt Lake County posted, “We pulled over because we heard The Associated Press called it,” Abby Cox said. That was at a truck stop in eastern Oregon, Spencer Cox said. It was there where he got his concession call.

There was “a lot of shock,” Abby Cox said. “A lot of, ‘I can’t believe this has happened.’ And ‘What next? Now what?’”

He said it wasn’t a moment of jubilation. “It was more of relief, kind of an exhale. And then a little bit of a Gob Bluth moment,” he said, referring to a character in the TV show “Arrested Development.”Maybe we made a huge mistake. What have we done? What do we do now? It was just overwhelming.”

Cox’s personality — including self-deprecating humor, his love of the Utah Jazz, and the endearing jokes he and Abby share — is laid out for the world to see on Twitter. He said he doesn’t plan to change that when he’s governor, even though that may frustrate his staff. But to him, he uses social media in the way he does because “I believe in connecting people” and being the most genuine version of himself he can be.

His use of Twitter is probably the only thing that Spencer Cox has in common with President Donald Trump. Trump’s divisive style is the polar opposite of Cox’s. An early critic of Trump’s polarizing rhetoric, Cox in 2016 said he couldn’t vote for either Trump or Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

“Can’t tell you how liberating it is to not support Trump,” Cox tweeted in 2016. “@MittRomney was right-really is easier to sleep at night.”

Fastforward to 2020, Cox got heat for his criticism of the president, and ultimately said in a debate he supported Trump as the GOP’s presidential candidate. But that didn’t mean he liked him.

“2016 was the hardest election for me of my life. I was very critical of the president. I do not like the divisiveness,” Cox said during the Silicon Slopes Gubernatorial debate in July. “I’m a Republican. And he is running as the president of our party ... I don’t approve of everything he’s done. I’ve been very outspoken on that. And we need a governor who is willing to be honest with himself.”

In that debate, Cox said he believed Trump was going to win reelection.

“And so we do support him. He’s going to be elected, the state of Utah is going to vote for him. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything he does, “Cox said. “His style of politics is not the Utah Republican style of politics. We just have to understand that and accept that.”

Even if Cox feels like he’s open about pretty much everything on social media, there is one thing that Abby Cox thinks Utahns might not know about her husband. It’s how much he cares. And how much the heartbreak of the pandemic weighs on him — the monster of an issue he’ll have to tackle right out of the gate as Utah’s new governor.

“I get kind of sad and frustrated because you’ve got people saying he doesn’t care and he’s not doing enough, and then people saying, ‘You’re ruining my business’ or ‘I’m not an essential worker and you don’t care about me,’” Abby Cox said. “I guess that’s where my heart breaks because I have watched him — not just with COVID but with every issue — and he has a tremendous amount of empathy.”

She added: “He feels deeply when people are hurting. I watched from March until now. There’s not a day that he isn’t thinking about it at night, that he isn’t thinking about people’s lives, about people’s jobs. It doesn’t stop.”

Abby Cox said her husband has spent many sleepless nights and “a lot of anxiety over how to help people in the best ways, how to keep people safe, how to keep people’s livelihoods secure.”

“That’s what people don’t see,” she said, “is the heartache behind these decisions.”

Governor of Utah, Spencer Cox, walks a dirt road with his back to the camera on his farm in Fairview, Sanpete County, Utah.
Gov.-elect Spencer Cox walks on his family’s farmland in Fairview, Sanpete County, on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Correction: An earlier version stated Cox’s son, Kaleb, is serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Tahiti. He was reassigned and is currently serving in New Mexico due to COVID-19.