IVINS, Washington County — Spencer Cox officially became Utah’s 18th governor Monday at 45 years old, succeeding now former Gov. Gary Herbert.

Cox and his lieutenant, Deidre Henderson, took the oath of office against a backdrop of red rock cliffs at the Tuacahn Amphitheatre in Ivins. The date also marks Utah’s 125th anniversary of statehood.

Cox began his first speech as governor quoting an early explorer from 1849, Parley P. Pratt, who described the land that would later become Washington County as a “rugged, stony, sandy almost indescribable country, thrown together in dreadful confusion.” Pratt also described it as a “country in ruins dissolved by the pelting of storms ... and turned inside out, upside down, by terrible convulsions of some former age.”

Those same words, Cox said, “could also be used to describe the year 2020” in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If I’m being honest, we all probably feel a little tired,” Cox said. “Lady Liberty has been holding that torch for so long. And sometimes it feels like her hands — and ours — hang down.”

While the pandemic has raged, “We have learned that our people are smarter than ever imagined,” Cox said, crediting scientists, chemists and medical experts with developing “life-saving vaccines in record time.”

“And yet, at a time when we have more knowledge at our fingertips than any generation in history, we have somehow become more susceptible to disinformation, conspiracy theories and lies as too often we all struggle to find accurate sources of truth and unbiased information,” Cox said.

While Utahns demonstrated with millions of dollars in donations and food more kindness and charity “than we ever thought possible,” Cox said, “we have sadly realized that we are more divided than at any time in our lifetimes as the news is filled with civil unrest and protests, including one right outside this venue here today.”

Dozens of protesters lined the street leading up to Tuacahn Amphitheatre before the inauguration. Many held Trump 2020 signs and anti-mask mandate signs. A pair of signs read “Cox = Herbert = Tyranny.” Another read, “Free Utah from the mandates,” and another read, “Do Your Job!! Protect Our Rights!!”

“Hateful rhetoric dominates our political discourse,” Cox said. We are facing a crisis of empathy; a scourge of contempt. Very little feels ‘united’ about the United States today.”

“Let me be clear,” Cox said. “Conflict and passionate debate around ideas can be healthy, but contempt and contention will rot the souls of our nation and her people. And this division isn’t just ugly or unfortunate. It’s dangerous.”

Cox quoted New York University Professor Jonathan Haidt, who recently warned there “is a very good chance that in the next 30 years we will have a catastrophic failure of our democracy.”

“The reason? ‘We just don’t know,’” Cox quoted from Haidt, “‘what a democracy looks like when you drain all the trust out of the system.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks to the crowd after his inaugural oath ceremony at Tuacahn Center for the Arts in Ivins, Washington County, near St. George on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A call for ‘civic charity’

Cox used his first speech as governor to call for what former federal Judge Thomas Griffith has written would help save the U.S. Constitution: “civic charity.”

“We must seek to understand one another, to treat each other not as enemies, but as friends, and to secure justice for all without demonizing and ostracizing those with whom we disagree,” Cox quoted from Griffith.

Now, over 170 years after explorers came to Washington County, those who live and visit see beauty, “not a country in ruins” as Pratt wrote, Cox said.

“The very thing that has made this land so beautiful over the millions of years of its history has largely come from those harsh, often unexpected moments in time when ferocious rains beat down or hurricane-force winds blow, and the earth shakes,” Cox said.

Cox grew audibly more passionate as he neared the end of his speech.

“I promise that our children and our children’s children will learn about this moment in our history, when the earth has both literally and figuratively shaken beneath our feet,” Cox said, referring to the magnitude 5.7 earthquake that rattled the Wasatch Front in March. “My fellow Utahns, our moment, our rendezvous with destiny, has arrived. It is time we rise to that challenge. 

“At times our hands may hang down and our hearts may fail us, but even when we feel tired, we must never give up,” Cox continued. “In Utah, we never give up. It’s our turn to write the next chapter of Utah’s history and prove that yes indeed our greatest days still lie ahead.”

With his oath of office, Cox said he and his wife, Abby Cox, and the rest of his family “pledge our hearts and our hands to you these next four years. We will succeed together as one Utah. Let’s go.”

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Members of the National Guard fire off a 21-gun salute after Gov. Spencer Cox takes his oath of office during an inaugural ceremony at Tuacahn Center for the Arts in Ivins, Washington County, near St. George on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In the moments after Cox concluded his oath of office — for which his wife held the Bible, accompanied by three of their four children — a 19-gun salute by the Utah National Guard’s 2nd Battalion 222nd Field Artillery howitzers fired off, causing some in the audience to jump in their seats. The deafening booms echoed off of the red rock cliffs behind the stage. As the booms faded into silence and the smoke from the cannons cleared, helicopters flew over the amphitheater.

After Cox’s speech, David Archuleta and Nathan Pacheco performed the song “Homeward Bound.”

Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gave the benediction.

To conclude the ceremony, Herbert sat in a Utah Highway Patrol car behind stage and used the radio to sign off-duty as the leader of the UHP, officially ending his 11 12 years as governor. Cox then hopped in the same patrol car and spoke into the radio to sign on as the new “Car One,” or head of the UHP.

Herbert and former first lady Jeanette Herbert rode “off into the sunset,” the announcer told the audience, “in their vehicle of choice: a golf cart,” drawing laughs from the crowd.

Crowd members begin finding their seats for the 2021 state inaugural ceremony for Gov.-elect Spencer Cox and other state officials at Tuacahn Center for the Arts in Ivins, Washington County, near St. George on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A historical inauguration

Cox and Henderson’s inauguration ceremony was the first in Utah’s history to be held outside of Salt Lake City.

The pair decided to hold the inauguration in the city near St. George in the warmer weather of southern Utah to allow for an outdoor ceremony and enough space for social distancing of its 478 attendees as well as to send a message of representation for all Utah communities, not just those on the Wasatch Front.

All attendees were required to complete a rapid COVID-19 test within 24 hours prior to the ceremony. Of about 472 people who were tested on Sunday, two tested positive and one tested positive the morning of the ceremony, disqualifying them from being allowed to attend, according to Cox spokeswoman Jennifer Napier-Pearce. Saturday, 200 others were tested in Salt Lake City, of which 10 tested positive.

All attendees were required to wear masks and social distance, with attendance capped at about 25% of the venue’s usual 1,920 seat capacity.

Most in the audience appeared to keep their masks on and groups were seated away from each other, though as they mingled some didn’t appear to social distance consistently.

Cox, in an interview with the Deseret News on Saturday, said there was a point when they questioned whether they should hold an inauguration ceremony at all due to the pandemic.

“I’ll be honest, there was a moment where we thought and I thought we would have to consider canceling the whole thing,” Cox said. But he credited his staff and the Utah Department of Health for working hard to ensure the ceremony would have required testing and social distancing to ensure safety.

“They said, ‘Look, we need to prove we can do these hard things and we can do them safely,” Cox said. “And that’s important. That’s the resiliency of Utah.”

Cox, who grew up on a family farm in the rural town of Fairview in Sanpete County, also said they decided to hold the inauguration in southern Utah to continue the aim of his campaign, which visited all 248 cities and towns across the state to show “we would represent all of Utah, not just the Wasatch Front.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox salutes the crowd during his inaugural ceremony at Tuacahn Center for the Arts in Ivins, Washington County, near St. George on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“One symbolic way to do that is to have an inauguration that’s not on the Wasatch Front for the first time ever,” he said.

Not all southern Utahns were welcoming of Cox — hence the protesters who lined the streets leading to the amphitheater, shouting “God’s county, not Cox country” to ceremony attendees as they drove by. But by the end of the ceremony, most protesters appeared to have dispersed.

Cox recently told the Deseret News his first priority as governor will be ramping up vaccine distribution and testing with an aim to unite Utahns in wake of a historically volatile presidential election.

His critics question whether his approach will be any different than Herbert’s and if he’ll take a stronger stance on getting control of the pandemic. Others have criticized Herbert’s administration for going too far and infringing on personal freedoms in issuing a statewide mask mandate and other restrictions.

After the ceremony, Cox and Henderson and their families caravanned from the inauguration ceremony to Salt Lake City, stopping in Fillmore, where Cox signed the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. He also signed his first executive order requiring all state agencies to review all occupational licenses to remove unnecessary barriers and limit unnecessary government regulation and submit to the governor recommendations by June 30.

They also drove through Fairview and Spanish Fork, Cox and Henderson’s home towns, on their way to Salt Lake City, where they were slated to end the night on the steps of the Utah Capitol to watch fireworks celebrating Utah’s 125th year of statehood.

Upon their arrival in Fairview, Sanpete County sheriff’s deputies and fire officials escorted the caravan down State Street, where a crowd of Fairview residents welcomed the new governor and lieutenant governor and their families. 

Addressing the crowd of his fellow Fairview neighbors from the steps of his family’s telecommunications business, Centracom, Cox’s voice strained with emotion as he spoke into a megaphone. 

“I held it together so well this morning, better than I thought I would be able to,” he said. “I was doing good until I saw all of you.” 

A visibly emotional Cox pointed out his best friend from high school, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, co-workers, people he went to church with. “People who know all of my flaws,” he said. “All of the bad parts. All of the secrets. And who love me anyways.”

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“I always said they don’t let kids from Sanpete County do stuff like this,” Cox said. “But I was wrong. It turns out that not only do they let us do stuff like this, they want what we have.” 

Cox called Fairview a “very special place. We’re screwed up as anywhere else,” Cox said, pausing before adding to laughter from the crowd, “but we know it.” 

He told of how a police officer once knocked on his door when Cox was mayor of Fairview to tell him his uncle had died in a “terrible accident.” When Cox volunteered to tell his aunt the news, the officer insisted that he would because it was his job.

“Those are the type of people that live in this place,” Cox said. “We love each other and care about each other. I know it’s been an awful year. But there’s no place and no people I would rather spend it with than you. We love you. Thank you for making us who we are. I promise we won’t forget where we came from.” 

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