SALT LAKE CITY — On day one of his term beginning Jan. 4, Gov.-elect Spencer Cox will be stepping into the vortex that is the COVID-19 pandemic as the state’s new captain.

The task at hand for Cox’s first four years is vast: Not only yank Utah from the crushing depths of the pandemic and begin resuscitating a state that has seen so far 1,269 deaths from the virus, but also chart a path forward for its economic revival.

All this on the heels of a presidential election year with unrivaled levels of political volatility that has divided Republicans and Democrats further apart than ever. It’s a climate that is the polar opposite of what Cox says he wants to make popular, not just in politics but in Utahns’ day-to-day lives: unity. And agreeing to disagree with civility.

He’ll be under a microscope. He’ll be measured against his predecessor and former boss, Gov. Gary Herbert, with both his critics and supporters comparing the Cox administration and Herbert administration: How they differ, if at all; whether he’ll exercise his powers more or less effectively than Herbert did to combat COVID-19; and whether he’ll cross any lines with the Utah Legislature, which now has the power to call itself into special session in an emergency.

“Gov. Spencer Cox will be taking office at a moment of real challenge,” said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. “His powers of persuasion and his ability to navigate these challenging issues will be put to the test right away. And it will be fascinating to see how he does.”

Gov.-elect Spencer Cox walks on his family’s farmland in Fairview, Sanpete County, on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

First steps

The COVID-19 vaccine is the shining light that sets Cox up in a more hopeful position. Cox said he’ll have a laser focus on vaccine distribution.

“It has to be,” he said. “That will be the single biggest policy initiative we have going forward, making sure we’re effectively and efficiently using the vaccine in the best possible way.”

Testing and contact tracing is another “important piece” that Cox said he’s been “shouting for from day one.” He said he’ll be “putting as much money as we can” toward that effort, and he’s hopeful the new wave of federal dollars will be helpful in increasing testing numbers and contact tracing in major ways.

“We’re hiring people every day for contact tracing, and we just placed orders for I think close to a million tests for January and February,” Cox said in late December. He also said he plans to expand availability for rapid testing.

Cox said he wished the federal government put as much leadership as it did into Operation Warp Speed — which he called “some of the best leadership we’ve seen in history”— into testing, which he said was approached with “some of the worst leadership we’ve seen in history.”

“If they had done the same thing with testing as they did with Operation Warp Speed, we would have saved tens of thousands of lives,” Cox said. A larger federal emphasis on testing technology could have “greatly reduced the spread of this virus.”

“We should have been putting billions of dollars into rapid testing, at-home testing, asymptomatic testing, routine testing, that would have done more to keep our economy open,” he said.

In mid-January, Cox is slated to present his first proposed budget for the Utah Legislature to consider. As part of that budget proposal, Cox said he and his economic team are looking to target specific segments of the economy that have been hardest hit amid the pandemic, especially small businesses.

“There are industries that are doing better today than ever before,” Cox noted. “And then there are some that are just being demolished and destroyed.”

Cox said he’s been working with members of Congress, particularly Sen. Mitt Romney, to pinpoint those struggling segments of Utah’s economy and “use the budget of the state and the resources we have to elevate those that are struggling.”

Cox’s plan for long-term economic recovery that he laid out along the campaign trail builds on the Utah Leads Together Plan outlined by Herbert’s Economic Response Task Force.

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

A new approach, or more of the same?

A question that continues to hang over Cox is if he’ll act as an extension to a familiar Herbert administration, or what he’ll do to differentiate himself from his former boss.

“Will he take a new approach that is different than what has happened under Gov. Herbert, or will this be sort of a continuation of essentially the same policies and approaches we’ve seen before?” Karpowitz asked.

Herbert’s critics have complained his local control approach — and what he’s called the “soft velvet touch of government” — hasn’t been what the state has needed amid a time of crisis. Even though weeks of data indicated Utah was already on a trajectory of increased cases and dangerous hospitalization levels, it took Herbert months to enact a statewide mask mandate and stronger COVID-19 restrictions.

Along the campaign trail, Cox was careful not to step out of Herbert’s shadow on issues including a statewide mask mandate. “If I get to be the governor, I’ll tell you about that,” Cox said in an August interview in response to a question about whether he would enact a statewide mask mandate if he were governor. “But right now I can’t get out ahead of him (Herbert) on this. He’s asked me not to get out ahead of him on this.”

In an interview with the Deseret News at his family farm in Fairview, Sanpete County, this month, Cox would not discuss details of any disagreements he has had with Herbert.

“I love Gov. Herbert,” Cox said. “He has made the best of just a terrible situation. And he would tell you that we all had disagreements, things that we would have done differently. And sometimes he was right, sometimes maybe I was right. But none of that matters, and I will never say a negative word about the way he has handled the pandemic. And I respect him. I don’t think it was possible, but I respect him even more than I did nine months ago.

“So no,” Cox added. “Nothing significant worth talking about. Really, I mean that. The governor has my full support.”

When asked if he believes Herbert’s approach was effective, considering Utah’s late-year spike in COVID-19 cases, Cox said, “It’s a really, really good question.”

“I will tell you, it’s something I’ve been grappling with and trying to figure out the answer to,” he said. “As a former mayor, city councilman, county commissioner, local control is really important to me. All of that being said, pandemics are just so unique that there’s an expertise that is needed.”

Cox hasn’t indicated that he’ll ramp up COVID-19 restrictions, but Karpowitz noted that if he does, he’ll have something Herbert didn’t: a vaccine.

“If more (restrictions) are needed, he could emphasize these things are going to be temporary,” Karpowitz said. “If he could get the Legislature on board with more temporary steps that would save lives, that would be a marker of very effective leadership.”

Governor of Utah, Spencer Cox, stands behind his dog, Shadow, on the family’s farmland in Sanpete County in December 2020.
Gov.-elect 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

Legislative versus executive

Another challenge that Herbert faced and one that will transfer to Cox is the power struggle between the legislative and executive branches.

Throughout the pandemic, Herbert has grappled with pressures from the Utah Legislature — which now has the power to call itself into special session during an emergency, thanks to a constitutional amendment voters approved in 2018.

Conservative Utah lawmakers have been an active voice against any COVID-19 restrictions that they believe go too far. Take, for example, Herbert’s restriction on social gatherings with individuals outside households — a restriction that Herbert lifted right before Thanksgiving after closed-door caucus meetings in which some GOP House lawmakers complained about government mandates, particularly regarding what Utahns are able to do in the privacy of their own homes.

Asked how he’ll navigate those pressures — responding to the COVID-19 pandemic while knowing that if he angers enough lawmakers he could face a special session to override his moves — Cox said, “Politics is the art of the possible.”

“The way we overcome that is by making sure those policymakers also understand the concerns (health officials) have and why they’re doing what they’re doing,” Cox said. “That hasn’t always been done. We’ve done it with leadership, but we haven’t done it with the other 102 members of the Legislature. So they feel left out.”

Cox said he and the Herbert administration “could have done better in including them, and I’ve made it a mission of mine to do better to include them more, to work closely with them even when we disagree. And I think by doing that we can let some of the air out of that.”

Cox appears to be coming into office on a good note with the Legislature — a former House representative himself, and having already made two major gestures to show he values legislative input.

He picked Sen. Deidre Henderson as his lieutenant governor and nominated Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert to become director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Cox has also backed an effort to create a new statewide commission to coordinate economic development across all government agencies to complement the economic development office — a move lauded by lawmakers who have complained of a fracturing between the governor’s office and the Legislature.

Though Cox has a track record as a moderate, he seems to be “very well liked” among legislators — including those from the more conservative side of the GOP, Karpowitz said.

“He is someone that emphasizes a positive approach to decision-making and coalition building,” Karpowitz said. “He brings with him, at least initially, some level of goodwill, and that sort of political capital can go away. But I think it helps him as he navigates those relationships with the different wings of the Republican Party.”

Both House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said they look forward to working with Cox as governor — and they’re hopeful that his collaborative style will bode well.

Acknowledging lawmakers had their “moments” with Herbert, Adams said, “I think we’ll have a great relationship with Gov.-elect Cox. Time will tell. I doubt whether we’ll see everything exactly the same way. ... I actually believe that we’ll have differences of opinion, but I’m equally encouraged at the fact we’ll find a way to move through those differences and be able to have extremely good policy at the state out of working through those.”

Adams said Cox will need to “respect” that it’s the Legislature’s role to make policy, while the governor’s role is to execute that policy. In the upcoming session, lawmakers are expected to crack open Utah’s emergency powers laws and make changes to address those powers amid a prolonged emergency like a pandemic. Cox has already “reached out to ask us about it and wants to be part of the process,” Adams said, which is encouraging.

Wilson, while also talking about Cox’s “collaborative” style, recalled a time when he was first elected speaker that he “got frustrated” with Cox.

“I’m not going to tell you what the issue was,” Wilson told the Deseret News, but he recalled Cox “was in my office in 15 minutes, and we worked it out. I think that’s a good sign.”

Wilson said the “healthy tension” between the branches of government naturally leads to conflict. But he said a few weeks ago he had a conversation with Cox in which they agreed any conflicts — like vetoed bills — are a part of that process and won’t be “personal.”

“I agreed,” Wilson said. “That’s part of the process. It’s never personal and never about personalities. Spencer is experienced and wise enough to know that’s the way it goes.”

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


Through all this, Cox said he’s striving to maintain a tone that made him and his own Democratic gubernatorial opponent, Chris Peterson, go viral.

Toward the end of the campaign season, Cox and Peterson appeared side by side in a video to promote civility in politics, saying Utah can set an example for the rest of the country in a divisive election year.

Though some say that’s the opposite of President Donald Trump’s style, it’s one that Cox wants to hold onto — a task that could have been harder if Trump had won the election. But for Cox — who idolizes President Abraham Lincoln for his ability to “work with people who not only disagreed with him, but treated him very poorly” — it’s a priority, regardless of how relevant or irrelevant Trump becomes after he leaves office.

“The calls for unity have to be more than just calls,” Cox said. “We shouldn’t wait for elected leaders. It’s the people. ... We have to say, ‘I’m not going to block anyone on Facebook who sees the world different than I do. I’m not going to engage in this fight. I’m going to return evil with good. I’m going to return meanness with kindness.’ We all have to do that, and I think I have a duty to exemplify that.”

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But Cox added people shouldn’t be surprised if he makes mistakes.

“I’m going to screw up,” he said. “There are going to be times when I say something snarky about a legislator or I say something snarky about the president and one of his policies, or I take the low road instead of the high road.”

Cox said that’s part of being human — but most of all he aims to return to the principle that disagreement doesn’t need to be hostile.

“We disagree passionately, but we should disagree the right way and we should go out to dinner together afterwards, when COVID is all over, and tell people we care about them. That’s how it’s supposed to work.”

Utah Governor, Spencer Cox, walks with his wife, Abby, and daughter, Emma Kate, on their farmland in Fairview, Utah.
Future Utah first lady Abby Cox, left, and Gov.-elect Spencer Cox, right, walk with daughter Emma Kate Cox, center, on their family’s farmland near their home in Fairview, Sanpete County, on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News
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