Utah’s Governor Wants You to Have a Good Argument
Spencer Cox knows people are going to disagree politically, but calls on Americans to find ways to express their differences without resorting to hatred or violence.
Mike Schultz, who was just elected in November as speaker of the Utah House, had a serious disagreement with the governor a couple of years ago. Spencer Cox was going to veto a bill to ban transgender athletes from participating in school sports. There was really no need for such legislation, Cox believed. There were only four known transgender student athletes in the entire state, he noted, only one of whom participated in girls’ sports. Transgender kids are at risk of suicide and a little acceptance would go a long way, he argued. “Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few,” Cox wrote in his veto message.
Sitting in his Capitol office, Schultz scrolls back through old text messages on his phone, to refresh himself about the flavor of their private debate over the issue. Although it got heated, Schultz notes, their exchange ended with the two men wishing each other a good night. “To have that kind of text exchange shows the amount of respect we have for each other and how we try to find ways to work together,” Schultz says.
Respectful disagreement is emblematic of Cox’s approach. He will occasionally balk at ideas from his fellow Republicans, who hold supermajorities in both Utah chambers. But he tries to work out those differences privately. Last year, he didn’t veto a single bill, with his team working to identify any problems well ahead of passage. When their differences can’t be worked out, Cox refuses to get angry or make things personal. “It’s about disagreeing in the right ways, disagreeing without hating others or tearing them down — attacking ideas and not people,” he said during an interview in the library of the state’s 19th century governor’s mansion.
Cox first drew national attention during the 2020 campaign, when he appeared in a companionable joint ad alongside his Democratic opponent Chris Peterson. Now, as the chair of the National Governors Association, Cox is leading an initiative encouraging politicians and citizens alike to “disagree better.” An “exhausted majority” of the country is sick and tired of hyperpartisanship and polarization, he says: “This is good politics, to stop hating our fellow Americans.”
As much as people recognize the need to turn down the heat in our politics — or at least pay lip service to that idea — Cox has not suddenly found the way to cut against all the incentives in contemporary politics that reward extremism and vitriol. “He’s certainly gotten more attention for that [the disagree better initiative] outside the state than it’s ever done anything for him within the state,” says Matthew Burbank, a political scientist at the University of Utah. “That’s way down the list. It’s a rare conversation where people focus on that, or comment on it positively.”
Some note that it’s easy to talk about being agreeable when your own party rules the state. Cox has signed bills on abortion, gun owners’ rights and judicial nominations that are essentially indistinguishable from legislation enacted in other red states — not to mention a congressional gerrymander that sliced Democrats in Salt Lake County into four separate districts. Even when it came to the transgender athletes bill, the Legislature was able to override his veto. Last year, Cox signed a bill that bans puberty blockers and other gender-affirming care for transgender minors.
“He is very much a creature of supermajority control in Utah and he does not have the spine that I wish he had,” says Brian King, a former Democratic leader in the state House who’s running against Cox for governor this year. “He’s made a conscious choice to lower his voice and lower the degree to which he disagrees with legislative leaders, and go along to get along.”
Cox doesn’t expect to win over everybody. That’s not the point of his initiative. He spurns the term “civility,” suggesting that it smacks of weakness. Americans are going to disagree not just with him but with decisions made by any politician. They just have to learn to do it without treating every dispute as a call to arms. “It ends one of two ways,” Cox says. “Either we collectively decide that we’re not going to hate our fellow Americans, or we start shooting each other. And that, sadly, is the path we are headed on right now.”
Son of Pioneers
Utah is called the Beehive State, not in tribute to any overflow of honey production but because the pioneers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints adopted bees as a symbol of cooperation and collaboration. Where most of the West was founded by rugged individualists (or so the legends tell), Utah’s settlers were all about community and voluntary associations.
“In Utah, there’s a willingness to set aside grievances to build something together,” says Jon Cox, who succeeded the governor to his seat in the state House and is his distant cousin. “There’s sort of a permission structure to work together that’s part of the secret sauce of Utah.”
Gov. Cox rejects the notion that there’s something peculiar about Utah that makes the idea of disagreeing without being disagreeable an easier sell than it would be in Colorado or Indiana or any other state. “While it may be a little easier on the surface here,” he says, “I think under the surface people are hungry for this. It sells everywhere.”
Cox is 48 but looks youthful, despite his balding pate. Forebears on both sides of his family arrived in Utah as settlers in the mid-19th century. At the dawn of the 20th century, the family started a telecommunications company known as CentraCom. Although his father, Eddie, got up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows, he worked at CentraCom. He also served in a series of local offices, as did the future governor. "I knew Spencer's dad because we were both county commissioners at the same time," recalls Gary Herbert, the former governor who chose Cox as his lieutenant governor in 2013.
At that time, Spencer Cox was a freshman member of the state House. He readily admits he was on no one’s list suddenly to assume statewide office. He insisted on continuing to live in Fairview, the small town where he’d been mayor, commuting 200 miles roundtrip each day he came to the Capitol. “We’ve seen some significant improvement in economic development in parts of rural Utah,” says Evan Vickers, the majority leader in the Utah Senate, “and a lot of that has to do with his attitude about addressing rural Utah.”
Running on His Own
While still in the House, during a private meeting of Republicans, Cox argued that they had to be willing to investigate one of their own, state Attorney General John Swallow, who later resigned amid a bribery and corruption scandal. “He took a strong, principled stand against a fellow Republican in a way that caught people’s attention,” says King, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
Although Cox had Herbert’s endorsement to succeed him in 2020, it wasn’t enough to guarantee him the GOP nomination. Cox had to outlast both a former governor, Jon Huntsman Jr., and a former state House Speaker, Greg Hughes. Cox won the primary by just over a single percentage point margin. “I can’t remember a single time that he attacked the other candidates,” says GOP state Sen. Mike McKell. “He said he was going to put civility first, and he did. It was impressive to watch.”
He then cut the famous ad with Chris Peterson, his Democratic opponent. That was unusual but still a painless gesture for a Republican coasting to victory in such a solidly red state. Cox, whose approval ratings are consistently in the 60s, should have little trouble winning a second term this year.
Cox still has to navigate some intense political cross-currents, though. He faces a primary challenge this year from Republican Rep. Phil Lyman, who was pardoned in 2020 by President Donald Trump for leading an ATV protest on restricted federal lands. Lyman’s initial campaign video featured images of a transgender individual reading to children. “You didn't elect a governor to politely negotiate the terms of our surrender,” Lyman said.
Republicans control the state, but there are schisms within the party, highlighted by the fact that Utah is home to one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate in Mike Lee, as well as one of the party’s leading critics of Trump in Mitt Romney. Trump carried Utah in 2016 by a mere plurality, with the vote split by a former Republican running as an independent. But Trump carried the state by 20 percentage points in 2020.
Romney has opted not to run for another Senate term this year. In October, a national poll sponsored by the Deseret News of Salt Lake City found that far more Republicans view Trump as a person of faith than believe that’s true about Romney. “I would like the next president in the 2024 election to be a Republican,” Cox said last August. “And I don’t think that Donald Trump can win the presidency as the Republican nominee.”
Getting Along With Republicans
Last year, Cox signed a bill making Utah the first state to require parental consent for minors to access major social media sites. His decision to declare his gender pronouns at a discussion with high school students triggered a lengthy rant from Tucker Carlson, back when he still hosted his show on Fox News. The conservative magazine National Review accused Cox of having “energetically supported some of the most radical aspects of woke ideology.”
But Cox generally follows a conservative line. He describes himself as a “pro-life advocate” and had no problem last year signing a bill to put abortion clinics out of business. (The law has been on hold pending legal challenges.) He also signed a bill that the Utah State Bar and other critics complained will make the judicial selection process more partisan. “The governor and the Legislature are not all that different on most policy positions,” says Burbank, the University of Utah political scientist.
Cox also appears to be a good fit for the state as a whole, with approval ratings consistently in the 60s. Cox and his team, including Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, who often acts as a legislative liaison, try to identify problem bills early on, seeking to smooth over differences so that the governor won’t have to take out his veto pen. (Cox’s first veto was of a bill sponsored by Sen. McKell — who happens to be married to his sister.) The governor also reaches out to legislators to find out what’s on their wish lists, to see what he can fit in the budget. “I’ve worked with three governors and I will say that Gov. Cox is by far the best to work with when it comes to financial and monetary things,” Sen. Vickers says.
Ahead of last year’s session, Cox went out to lunch with Schultz, then the House majority leader. The governor asked him his top priority and Schultz said private school choice. Cox says his main goal was making public schools better. This apparent contradiction helped lead to a major education bill that whipped through the Legislature, giving teachers a record $6,000 raise while also allowing parents to take $8,000 scholarships to private schools. “We made public education significantly better,” Schultz says, “and we gave parents more options.”
It was a classic political deal, with something sweet in it for everybody. Back in 2020, Schultz, a successful homebuilder, donated $440,000 to Hughes, who was one of Cox’s opponents in the GOP primary for governor and had been a mentor to him as speaker. At this point, however, Schultz is one of Cox’s biggest fans, despite their initial spat over transgender rights.
“We figure out a way to come together and that, I think, has built the trust level,” Schultz says. “I will run through a brick wall for our governor.”