Utah’s governor-elect Spencer Cox talks pioneers, pandemic trials — and the joys of being the Primary chorister

If the Church News had spoken with Spencer Cox during the first month of 2020 rather than the final month, Utah’s governor-elect still would have envisioned a year like no other.

As the Beehive State’s lieutenant governor, Cox was charged with overseeing voting matters across Utah during a high-profile election year. Simultaneously, he was staging his own bid to become the state’s next governor.

But it would be an understatement to simply say 2020 has transpired as expected for Cox.

Besides fulfilling his traditional civic duties and running a successful gubernatorial campaign, Cox participated in the state’s response following a destructive earthquake, several wildfires and a once-a-century windstorm.

And then there’s COVID-19. Since the arrival of the virus, Cox has headed up Utah’s coronavirus task force.

Gov.-elect Spencer Cox speaks during a briefing on COVID-19 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020.
Gov.-elect Spencer Cox speaks during a briefing on COVID-19 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

But for Cox, 45, and his wife, Abby, the memories of the past year — both joyful and difficult — have also been defined by challenges and opportunities within his own family.

Counted among Spencer Cox’s many titles — governor-elect, lieutenant governor, attorney, COVID-19 task force chief and, yes, Primary chorister — he’s also proud to answer to “Missionary Dad.”

Ask him to talk about his “love and appreciation” for his son, Elder Kaleb Cox, and every other missionary giving their all during a global health crisis. His voice cracks with emotion.

“We’ll be talking about these kids for generations,” he said. “It’s been quite a roller coaster.”

Elder Cox was originally called to serve in Tahiti. It was a tropical paradise. In one area, his father said, “my son could see Bora Bora right outside his front door.” 

Then the coronavirus arrived. Like legions of other missionaries, Elder Cox returned home for a few months. Then he was reassigned to Montreal, Canada. But he was unable to enter that country because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. “So now he’s down in New Mexico in a small town on the Navajo Reservation chopping wood in the snow.”

Such faith-fueled resiliency, said the elder Cox,  “has been a real inspiration to our family.”

Drawing upon a pioneer legacy; missionary lessons

Generations of ancestors have played key roles in forming Spencer Cox — small-town kid and returned missionary who will soon become Utah’s 18th governor. 

His profiles typically begin with a visit to his hometown of Fairview — a Latter-day Saint settlement in Utah’s rural Sanpete County. Cox’s pioneer ancestors endured mob persecution before trekking West and moving to Manti, eventually settling north about 30 miles in the farming community of Fairview, “after Manti got a little too big,” he said, laughing.

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.
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. Credit: Steve Griffin, Deseret News

That pioneer legacy has had a “tremendous influence on my life,” said Cox, who still calls Fairview home. Some of Cox’s ancestors were actively involved in the Church. Others, not so much. “But they all had a real drive to improve their community.’

The journals and histories of one particular grandfather, he said, “have had a huge impact on me. They grounded me and gave me the foundation that I needed to overcome some of the trials I’ve had in my life.”

It’s humbling for Cox to consider his own unlikely trek from Fairview farm boy to Utah’s top elected leader. “But I do feel honored to carry on that legacy.”

A few decades have passed since the future governor answered, like son Kaleb, to “Elder Cox”. But many lessons he learned laboring in Mexico are serving him well today. 

His Spanish skills are appreciated by visiting delegations from Latin America. And Utah is increasingly becoming a bilingual state. Many of his constituents speak la idioma de su misión as their first language.

“We’ve used those Spanish-language skills to help connect with a segment of our population that was really struggling early in the pandemic with numbers that far outweighed the percentage of the population they represent,” he said. “We’ve been able to bring those numbers back in check.”

Gov. Gary Herbert, third from left, and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, fourth from left, serve Thanksgiving meals at the Rescue Mission in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018.
Gov. Gary Herbert, third from left, and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, fourth from left, serve Thanksgiving meals at the Rescue Mission in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. Credit: Deseret News

Serving in Mexico also taught Cox to learn to love people from a different culture and a different country . In return, he felt their love and acceptance.

Missionary work, he told the Church News, “played a huge role in the way I approach life, the way I approach politics and the way I try to be more inclusive…. It continues to impact me today.”

A hometown bishop

Cox was a year shy of his 30th birthday when he was unexpectedly called to be the bishop of his Fairview ward.

He and Abby were raising a young family.  “And my career was starting to take off,” he said. “Our business was really starting to expand and I had run for mayor.”

It all seemed too much too soon, and Cox battled feelings of inadequacy. But he accepted the call.

“I had been taught from a very young age that we don’t say no to those types of things,” he said. “God has a plan for each of us and a pathway that He wants to take us down. He has lessons that we need to learn.”

A wise priesthood leader at the time taught Cox that the Lord provides those He calls “with the capacity to serve — and [He places] people around you to help pick up the slack and make you equal to the task.”

Emma Kate Cox, left, walks with her parents, future Utah first lady Abby Cox and Gov.-elect Spencer Cox, on the family’s farmland near their home in Fairview, Sanpete County, on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.
Emma Kate Cox, left, walks with her parents, future Utah first lady Abby Cox and Gov.-elect Spencer Cox, on the family’s farmland near their home in Fairview, Sanpete County, on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. Credit: Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Cox jokes that he was “probably the worst bishop ever.” He made a few mistakes along the way.

“But we found so much love and support from the good people of Fairview — both members of the Church and people who were not members of our church. They knew the burdens we were carrying and they stepped up and helped us in so many ways.”

Serving as a bishop during a hectic time in his life also reminded Cox he could do more than he believed possible. “Not by ourselves,” he said, “but with the [help] of other people.”

When Utah Governor Gary Herbert extended a “call” in 2013 to serve as his lieutenant governor, Cox drew again upon what he learned as a bishop: identify and lean upon smart, good-hearted people.

“We feel blessed by how the people of Utah rally around each other and help each other out,” he said.

Some elected leaders opt to keep religious beliefs a private matter. But Cox is comfortable offering his constituents glimpses of his faith- and family-driven life through his social media platforms, without being preachy or heavy-handed.

“I’ve always believed that when we elect someone, we elect the whole person,” he said. “And I’ve tried to be transparent and honest with people about who I am. 

“I don’t want people to vote for me because of my faith. But I don’t want people to vote for me because I hide my faith, either. I want people…. to know who I am as a person.”

Regardless of one’s convictions, he added, “I hope you believe that the universe is pulling for you and that we are better together than we are apart.”

Dealing with a health crisis

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the GOP nominee for governor, speaks during a press conference outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. On Monday, Cox and his running mate, state Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, were declared the winners in the GOP gubernatorial primary.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the GOP nominee for governor, speaks during a press conference outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. On Monday, Cox and his running mate, state Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, were declared the winners in the GOP gubernatorial primary. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

COVID-19 has proven to be a phantom left hook that has buckled millions, including Spencer Cox.

He laments how the pandemic has become politicized and divisive. In quiet moments during the ongoing health crisis, Cox and Gov. Herbert have sought inspiration to make decisions regarding policies and procedures.

His family and his gospel testimony, he said, “have maintained us throughout this very difficult year.”

Like many other Latter-day Saints, he’s felt the void of not worshiping with his fellow members in traditional ways during the pandemic. He’s grateful that technology keeps units functioning, but he can’t wait to once again be in front of the Primary kids in his ward, leading them in song.