Spencer Cox, the Red-State Governor Not Afraid to Be ‘Woke’

EThe governor of Utah is aware that his anger, no matter how it comes out of his mouths, is not in keeping with his character. “There is nobody more cowardly than Tucker Carlson,” Spencer Cox says, gesturing with both hands over his plate of puntas de filete a la norteña. “This idea that you’re a coward for being kind, it’s so anti-Christian. It’s so anti-American. I mean that.”

Over lunch at the Red Iguana, Salt Lake City’s most famous Mexican restaurant, the Republican governor of one of America’s most conservative states is trying to explain how he came to be accused of the gravest sin on the right these days: being “woke.” In March, Cox vetoed Utah’s proposed ban on trans girls in sports, expressing sympathy as he did so with “Utah’s female athletes and our LGBTQ+ community” and adding, “To those hurting tonight: It’s going to be OK. We’re going to help you get through this.”

In response, Carlson, the top-rated Fox News prime-time host, devoted his show’s 10-minute opening monologue to Cox, whom he ridiculed as a “low-IQ weekend MSNBC anchor” and “cut-rate Gavin Newsom imitator,” over a chyron reading “HOW DID UTAH GET SUCH AWFUL, LIBERAL LEADERS?” and a graphic of a puzzled-looking elephant. Conservative National Review accused Cox of “a pedal-to-the-metal zeal for many of the most corrosive and radical aspects of left-wing cultural ideology.”

Cox’s veto was merely symbolic, as the GOP-dominated legislature quickly overrode it by a wide margin. However, the governor said that he will not resign. “It’s the epitome of cowardice, you know, this idea that we use fear and demagoguery and lies, outright lies, to tear people down to try to build ourselves up,” Cox says. “And that’s the kind of stuff that’s destroying our country.”

My question for Cox was essentially the same as Carlson’s: Why rock the boat? Why step right into America’s hottest culture war for no apparent political benefit? Cox, a 47-year-old former farmer and telecom executive, signed a “Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion” shortly after taking office last year and has been known to cite his pronouns: “He, him and his.” At the same time, he’s slashed regulations, expanded gun rights and presided over the banning of almost all abortions after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. He’s determined, he says, to prove it’s possible to be a socially conscious Republican. “I believe I’m a conservative,” he tells me. “I think my voting record would show I’m a conservative. But just because I’m not constantly railing against the other side, you get painted as a [Republican in Name Only].” In a time when his party’s platform often seems to consist entirely of humiliating liberals, Cox jokes, “I’m not trying to own the libs, I’m trying to convince the libs that there’s a better way.”

Cox says that this project is more than just changing the name of the GOP to reflect a Latter day compassionate conservatism. It’s about bringing people together at a time when political divisions have become dangerous. At a moment when Republicans and Democrats can’t even agree on what the nation’s problems are, much less how to solve them, large majorities across the political spectrum tell pollsters they view polarization and divisiveness as a top national concern. Ironically, one of the problems that unites us is worrying about our divisions.

Yet while everyone talks about “unity,” few seem to be doing anything about it. Politians give lip service but then go back to blaming their enemies. And why wouldn’t they? As governor, Cox has worked to find bipartisan solutions to issues like criminal justice and critical race theory, but he understands why his approach isn’t more widespread. “It takes real work, and it’s much harder,” he says. “There’s more risk involved, for sure. If I listened to Fox News every evening and followed their lead the next morning (which a lot do), my job would be much more simple. We must break the cycle of anger, vitriol and hostility. The only way is to reach out to others who are not like you. It’s not just a talking point, that we need to be nice and united. We have to back it up with our actions.”

Cox ran in 2020 for governorThe political discourse alarm him. He feared violence, as did many Americans. He recalls thinking: “If Trump wins, the left is going to burn it down. And if Biden wins, the right is going to shoot it up.” Cox approached his Democratic opponent, Chris Peterson, and pitched him on a joint ad that would seek to lower the temperature. His consultants counseled against it: Why give your opponent a platform when you’re already coasting to victory? Cox insistently demanded that Peterson be given complete control of the story. Released in late October, the ad featured the two candidates side by side—Peterson in a blue tie, Cox in a red one. “We can debate issues without degrading each other’s character,” Peterson says. Cox adds, “We can disagree without hating each other.” The pair went on to record a sequel in which they voiced a shared commitment to democracy and pledged to support the peaceful transfer of power.

These ads became viral and set Twitter on fire. They also landed the appearances of Cox and his wife in international and national media. This was proof-of-concept for Cox. “It was reaffirming, that there is an exhausted majority out there,” he says. He’s not surprised at recent polls showing many voters wish there were more than two parties to choose from; he says he would tell a pollster the same thing. “Millions of people out there are tired of what we’ve got,” he says. “But it’s all we have.”

Then-Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (left) and Democrat Chris Peterson during a September 2020 debate held in Salt Lake City

Trent Nelson—The Salt Lake Tribune/AP

Cox is energetic and baldheaded. He also enjoys reading, which he eats a lot of Acela Corridor. In our interviews, Cox will name-drop New York. TimesColumnists Thomas Friedman, Ezra Klein and Jonathan Haidt (political theorist) are among the many articles. Atlantic. His conversation is littered with pop-intellectual buzz phrases: “deaths of despair,” “happiness gap,” “empathy crisis,” “trust barometer.” He’s the kind of politician who quotes George Will in speeches and answers questions with an eager, “You want to hear my theory? Because I think a lot about this stuff.”

Cox, who was 10 years old when his parents separated, grew up on a Fairview Farm in dirt poverty. Cox was not exposed to gays or lesbians. “The attitude around me growing up was very much that that’s, you know, an extreme lifestyle,” he recalls. There were a few people who were “different,” he recalls, but their sexuality was never discussed. “I wasn’t a bully at all, but you’d say things behind their backs and wonder,” Cox says.

After attending Utah State University, Cox was accepted to Harvard Law School but chose Virginia’s Washington and Lee instead. Cox returned to Fairview to serve as a Fairview city councilor, mayor and county commissioner, before he was elected in 2012 to the statehouse. He was appointed by Gary Herbert, the governor at that time to succeed Gary Herbert as lieutenant governor.

After 49 victims were murdered at Orlando’s gay club, Cox was asked to address a Salt Lake City vigil. Cox accepted the governor’s permission. Cox immediately regretted his decision. “I was the last person they wanted to hear from,” he recalls: “A straight, white, Mormon, middle-aged Republican.” As the time for his speech grew nearer, Cox struggled to figure out what to say. Cox finally decided to lock himself up in his hotel room. He told his secretary to keep his phone ringing and then he began praying. “And the one thing that came to me was, like, just apologize,” he says. “Tell them you’re sorry for the way you treated people many years ago, and that you’re trying to be better, and you hope that we can all be better.”

Cox, who was a victim of past inhumanity, choked back his tears and took to the podium at the event. Then he addressed the heterosexuals in the audience: “How did you feel when you heard that 49 people had been gunned down by a self-proclaimed terrorist? That’s the easy question,” Cox said. “Here is the hard one: Did that feeling change when you found out the shooting was at a gay bar at 2 a.m.?”

Byron Russell is a Salt Lake City activist and writer and gay Black Democrat, who says that Cox’s speech was a significant landmark in the history of the LGBT community. “It was so genuine—and so important,” says Russell, who got to know Cox while co-chairing the Utah Multicultural Commission and has introduced him to such varied figures as the composer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda and the social-justice activist Bryan Stevenson. Cox wasn’t afraid to share uncomfortable messages with his tribe, he said. “It takes a person who is comfortable with their self, with their faith, with their being, with their politics, with their party,” Russell says, “to be able to express what people need to hear.”

It will be April 2021Cox hosted a virtual townhall with students from across the state just months after he was elected governor. Midway through, a senior from Utah’s rural southwest corner asked what he planned to do about the high rates of suicide and mental illness affecting LGBT youth. The girl identified herself as bisexual and gave her pronouns as “she/her/hers.” In response, Cox said, “My preferred pronouns are he/him/his, so thank you for sharing yours.” Cox had previously chaired a teen-suicide task force and championed hate-crime and nondiscrimination legislation, and he responded to the question by talking about the importance of increasing both mental-health services and societal acceptance. “You do belong, you do matter, no matter what you might be feeling,” he said.

Nearly a year later, this March, the state legislature was finishing its annual 45-day session and the issue of trans athletes in girls’ sports had become a hot button nationally. Legislators from both parties were working with LGBT advocates on a compromise that would create a commission to determine trans athletes’ eligibility on a case-by-case basis. At the very last moment, however, a Republican senator suggested a complete ban.

Cox stated that he will veto this last-minute bill. In a five-page letter explaining his decision, which he also posted to Twitter, Cox pointed out that of the state’s 75,000 high-school athletes, only four were known to be trans, and only one played girls’ sports. In addition, 56% of trans teens in America have said they’ve attempted suicide. “Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few,” Cox wrote. “I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. However, I do want them to be able to live. And all the research shows that even a little acceptance and connection can reduce suicidality significantly.”

Cox during a Utah legislative hearing in 2014.

George Frey—Getty Images

Over lunch, Cox tells me he agreed with the legislature on the central question: “I don’t believe that biological males should be competing against biological females,” he says. “I don’t think that that’s fair, and I believe that most of society agrees with that.” But he wanted to deal with the issue in a humane, nuanced way. “How we do it really matters to me. And if that’s where we’re going to end up, then we should do it the right way, not in the last hour of the session, pulling the rug out from everybody who’s been working so hard at this.” Cox’s process concerns were vindicated, he says, when legislators had to come back in special session to clarify the bill’s legal and financial implications.

After the bill passed, the leaders of the house and senate met in the governor’s mansion for what passes in Utah for a heated meeting, the state house speaker, Brad Wilson, recalls. Wilson says Cox’s focus on compromise shouldn’t be mistaken for weakness. “Even in that situation, he was pretty upset, but we were able to talk it through,” recalls Wilson, a Republican. “He’s not a shrinking violet. He wants to rush right into the problem and work it out.”

Of course, the cable-outrage machine didn’t treat this issue with humanity or nuance. Carlson, after airing the year-old video of Cox mentioning his pronouns, shuddered, “Ugh, what a creepy guy! ‘My preferred pronouns are he, him, and his,’ Cox tells a roomful of children. So we’ve got that cleared up: Spencer Cox identifies as a male, at least to some limited extent.” His critics, Cox says, misleadingly made it appear as if he had taken it upon himself to introduce himself that way, rather than mirroring a constituent to empathize. “I thought the nicest thing I could do for her in that very difficult, tense moment, when she’s on screen and everybody’s watching, was to just reflect back what she shared with me,” Cox tells me. “And then, a year later, somebody cuts that out to make it look like that’s what I do everywhere I go, I just go around sharing my pronouns with everyone. Which is not a problem, but it’s not something I do. And you know, if you have to cut and skew what it is I’m saying to tear me down, I think that says more about you than me.”

In the uproar that ensued, Cox found it telling that the pronouns seemed to get more attention than the actual issue at hand—a symptom of today’s performative, emotionally driven but substance-free politics. Cox was overwhelmed by angry, violent messages on social media and decided to shut down his accounts for a couple of days in order to rest and clear his mind. He says that what bothers him most than any bad tweet is to see well-meaning people being manipulated by poor-faith propaganda. “The part that I hated most,” he says of Carlson’s diatribe against him, “was that people believed what he was saying.”

These people may be able to score high ratings.But no cable news rant ever constructed a road or housed a prisoner. Or resolved an issue regarding water rights. Cox, who was laying the foundation stone for a new $1 billion Salt Lake City prison facility that will hold 3,600 inmates from all backgrounds and offer more room for rehabilitation.

Cox gave a speech that was filled with praises for small government and the importance to get things done. The massive facility would not only reduce recidivism, improve public safety, and save taxpayer money but also the former prison site in Draper will be transformed into housing and shops, which is a huge boon to an area once considered to have been an eyesore. “There are too many small minds in our world today,” Cox proclaimed. “We need to get back to dreaming big.” After the ribbon cutting, Cox personally uprooted the DEAD END sign leading to the complex.

Cox insists that all contentious issues can be settled amicably. This year, rather than attempt to bar the teaching of “critical race theory” as many red states have done—bans that are likely both toothless and unconstitutional—he worked with both parties in the legislature to create a working group that will develop a new ethnic studies curriculum for Utah. A conservative, white Republican man from Utah joined forces with a Liberal Black woman Democrat from Salt Lake to create Utah as one of a few red states that Juneteenth is a holiday. Those kinds of victories “don’t get very much attention, but that’s kind of a big deal in this environment,” Cox says. “The incentive structures really aren’t there for that type of collaboration.”

Cox and Interior Secretary Deb Haland hug after signing the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act (May)

Mengshin Lin—The Deseret News/AP

It’s easy to assume that Utah is exceptional—a homogeneous, sparsely populated state where people naturally get along. (As Carlson put it in his monologue: “When you think of Utah, you imagine big happy families, an even bigger salty lake, and a couple of very good ski mountains.”) But with 3.3 million people, its population is bigger than that of Iowa or Mississippi and nearly twice the size of Idaho’s. It’s also increasingly nonwhite, rated the 37th most diverse state by the Census Bureau. And its politics, locals say, increasingly reflect the nation’s divisions. “Oh, my gosh, it’s changed,” says state senator Jerry Stevenson, a Cox ally from Layton, in northern Utah. “I’ve never seen such viciousness.” This year, for the first time in his career, Stevenson faced a right-wing primary challenger who called him a “socialist” but mounted no more substantive critique. “I’m not even sure what my opponent wanted,” he says.

Today, observers say, Utah Republicans are divided into camps that mirror the state’s two U.S. Senators. The first is Mitt Romney who was a well-known anti-Trump figure who voted twice to impeach President Trump. The other is Mike Lee who is a Trump supporter who helped overturn the 2020 elections, according to texts released by the Jan.6 select committee. Lee who eventually distanced himself and voted for certifying the election, will face a challenge from Evan McMullin (an independent anti-Trump activist whose wildly exaggerated 2016 presidential campaign won more than 20% in Utah). Cox is good friends with Lee and Romney, supporting Lee’s Senate campaign while Romney remains neutral. But McMullin tells me he considers Cox to be more on the Romney side of the divide: “Governor Cox has typically been a voice of reason and unity, which is really the way our leaders should govern,” he says.

Cox didn’t vote for Trump during the last two elections. He voted in another candidate. Cox called upon Trump to resign following Jan. 6. The riot was “evil,” Cox tells me, and the forces it unleashed remain “a clear and present threat that we need to address head-on as a party.” But Cox is of the symptom-not-a-cause school of Trump Studies. He understands the frustration of small-town residents like his Fairview neighbors, who’ve been left behind by a changing economy and culture, and who feel let down by decaying institutions and disingenuous politicians. “Institutions have been failing us for a while,” he says. “It led to a place where someone like Donald Trump could have a huge impact.” It’s incumbent on politicians to build trust with their voters, he says, so when they need to convince them of something—like, say, that the 2020 election, which Cox oversaw in Utah as lieutenant governor, was not rigged—they have a chance of being heard.

For his latest bringing-people-together stunt, Cox has taken to mining Utah public records to issue dinner invitations to groups of people who share some random characteristic. First, a list of still-living holders the original 1980s state fishing licenses. Then came a group of couples who’ve been married more than 50 years. The invitees were not told until they arrived why they were being invited to dine at the governor’s mansion, and the resulting discussions, Cox says, were testament to Utahns’ ability to find common ground.

Cox invites me to visit his Grand Office in the Capitol a few hours later after lunch at Red Iguana. It is because he needs to remind him of something. A crystal bowl of Cox’s favorite candy, banana Laffy Taffy, and a cartoon of the administration’s early Zoom meetings welcome visitors to the ornate room. The 1970s satirist Tom Lehrer once said, “There are people in the world who do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that.” In a similar spirit, Cox confesses to me that he has failed to live up to his own standard.

“I believe in being kind and generous and giving grace to everyone, and I didn’t do that in our conversation earlier,” Cox says. “I’m sure Tucker Carlson is a wonderful person if I got to know him. He’s probably not a coward.”

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