Spencer Cox and his only daughter, Emma Kate, watched an episode of “Psych” together nearly every night in 2020 when he would return to their family home in Fairview. They’ve been through the series now three times.
“We don’t even have to pay much attention anymore. We laugh at the jokes before they come,” Spencer says. “We’ve needed that stability in our lives this past year — something to count on that doesn’t change.”
Predictability has been hard to come by. When 2020 began, Spencer was racing toward a Republican primary election against a former governor of the state. The economy was booming and Utah was topping every list of “bests.” He was campaigning to become Utah’s cheerleader in chief.
But the job title switched seemingly overnight, and so did the number of protesters outside state buildings and home residences.
For Spencer, who suffers from “impostor syndrome,” he wondered if he was cut out for the job — and even if he wanted it. On the night of the Republican primary (which was the race for governor, as it turned out), Utah wasn’t 100 percent sure if it wanted him as governor, either. The race was too close to call, but the Cox family still took their planned trip to the Oregon coast — unsure of whether they were there to celebrate … or to commiserate a loss.
The family didn’t find out Spencer would be the next governor until three days later at a Flying J in Eastern Oregon — a fittingly unpretentious location for an unlikely governor with a rural hometown and an obsession for the NBA. Meet our 18th governor and our 2021 Person of the Year: Spencer J. Cox.
Year of a Lifetime
As Spencer allows himself hindsight for 2020, most people would expect him to say being elected governor would top his list of most memorable moments. But that’s not what stands out to him.
The week after two Jazz players tested positive for COVID-19 was actually the most memorable — and also the most intense and challenging of his life.
“That week stands out in ways nothing else ever will,” he says. “The supply chain was disrupted, my son was unexpectedly returning home from his mission to Tahiti, church got canceled, my college son was coming home — and all of these details were layered on top of the decisions we were having to make about schools, businesses and mass gatherings.”
One of the most significant moments in that week of other-worldly events was when Spencer and Gary Herbert were about to announce the suspension of in-person school. This was seismic in terms of its impact to families, teachers, education and mental health.
Spencer was in the governor’s office and the two of them, although individually God-fearing souls, hadn’t regularly sought heaven’s guidance together as the top two leaders in the executive branch of Utah.
“I said to the governor that this was a big decision we were making and maybe we should pray together,” Spencer recalls. “We knew Utah would get through this, but it was also one of those moments when we needed help. I believe we are not alone in this universe. There is a higher power that cares deeply about each of us. We had worked our hearts out as state leaders as we made decisions, but we sought heaven’s guidance at that critical moment.”
Testing the Positive
Spencer’s typical demeanor is jovial with a sprinkle of humor and self-deprecation. But spring 2020 put Spencer to a non-swab test of character and endurance. His wife, Abby, had tested positive for Influenza A and was quarantining. Spencer was fulfilling his duties as lieutenant governor during the last week of the intense legislative session as talk of COVID started intensifying.
“I was technically sleeping in Salt Lake at this time, but there was no sleep to be had,” he remembers. “We were working 20-hour days just trying to process the information about COVID-19 as it was coming in. We were giving Gov. Herbert the best and most current information for him to make decisions.”
And there were phone calls — so many phone calls. For starters, the 4th and 5th COVID cases in Utah were Jazz players. It was complicated to find hotels that would allow them to stay and airplanes that would bring them home from Oklahoma. A few Utahns were also on stranded cruise ships and needed help.
“The most intense moments bring out the best in people and the worst in people,” Spencer says. “I saw people rise to the occasion — and some of them surprised me. I didn’t know they had it in them. And other people shrank from those moments and surprised me the other way.”
The intensity of COVID — while running a campaign for governor (which turned into his distant second priority) — forced Spencer to overcome his typical approach of doing things himself.
“I had no choice but to delegate, and honestly it was fun and rewarding to see people do things better than I could have done them,” he says.
What are we doing?
As COVID wore on and so did the crowded race for governor, Spencer said nearly every day he and Abby looked at each other and questioned why they were doing this.
“Being governor wasn’t something we had always aspired to,” he says.
Adding to the feeling of “what the (farm word) are we doing running for governor” was the fact that protesters followed him around the state, including to his house in rural Utah on a Sunday to let him know he was doing his job wrong.
“The criticism has weighed on us and made us question at every turn why we are doing this,” Spencer says. “But we knew we were running because we were supposed to — not because we necessarily wanted to. We didn’t worry about the outcome of the race. If we were supposed to win, great. And if not, even better. Our lives would be simpler and that would be OK, too.”
During the early days of COVID, Spencer was attacking the problem by day and communicating with the public about it by night. He regularly recorded fireside chats from a corner bookshelf of his home where he told Utahns about the war against coronavirus and what the frontline had looked like that day.
“We have a home office that’s also a bedroom, and with the boys back home that space was mostly a bedroom again. It can be tricky to find a spot around here,” he says.
While COVID brought a lack of answers and a surplus of opinions, it also brought unforgettable moments in Fairview when all four of the Cox children were back under one roof as college and LDS missions were in flux.
“I got to work from home a little bit during that time, and it was so comforting to hear them laughing and spending time in the same space,” Spencer says. “It was unexpected and incredible seeing them come together to lift each other.”
He saw the same contrasts around the state as well, where farmers were stepping up to help feed Utahns. Neighbors were reaching out to check on those nearby who were struggling financially or otherwise.
“For me, this year was a reminder of what matters in life and what doesn’t. Some of the things we thought we couldn’t do without, we did without,” he says.
For Spencer, one of those previously un-missables was the Jazz. He missed it “dearly” and was “so glad when basketball came back.”
In true Fairview fashion, Spencer finds the silver lining in the lack.
“Maybe we’ve taken things for granted such as sports, parades, July 4th celebrations. All we really need is family and friends, and those things have taken priority the past few months,” he says.
Another priority during 2020 was comfort food, and Spencer found himself eating more junk than he had before, which led to him switching things up and drinking more protein shakes than ever before. But rain or shine, COVID or calmness, Spencer is a “cookie guy” — specifically sugar cookies.
“It’s a good thing Crumbl doesn’t deliver at 11 o’clock at night to Fairview. Their sugar cookies are my kryptonite,” he says.
Our 18th governor originally envisioned his adult life starting at BYU where he would rise and shout for his favorite team. But his love for Abby became his true alma mater, and he headed to Utah State where he graduated in political science. The couple later lived for a time in Davis County, but they have never lived in Utah County – unless you count the day they were in Utah Valley Hospital for the birth of their youngest child — and only daughter.
“The next day was the BYU-Utah game with the famous Beck to Harline touchdown,” Spencer tells. “They didn’t have cable in our room, so we were listening on the radio. I started jumping around the room with the baby in my arms. They took her away from me and I don’t think I caused any damage. That’s one of my favorite Utah County memories.”
Other Happy Valley milestones are also sports related.
“I was born and raised a Cougar fan, and I was the crazy kid in the stands,” Spencer says. “I loved going to BYU games with my dad. Abby’s grandpa was a season ticket holder. And one of the first dates Abby and I went on was to a BYU-Hawaii game in Provo for Sadie Hawkins.”
In addition to being part of Cougar nation, Spencer also has Wolverine pride.
“UVU has had two of the most incredible university presidents in our state’s history serving back to back,” he says. “Matt Holland elevated UVU’s profile in the state, and his successor Astrid Tuminez has one of the best stories in the nation.”
Spencer speaks of the caliber of the programs, especially the tech emphasis.
“I’m incredibly bullish on UVU and the future of that university,” he says.
Spencer is also betting on the strength of Utah’s future and since 2012 has been commuting 200 miles roundtrip from Fairview to Salt Lake City — first as a state legislator and then for seven years as lieutenant governor. Now this commute will mostly be on weekends as the family returns to Sanpete County for clean air and clarity of thought.
But the commute has its benefits. Spencer’s drive-routine from Fairview to the state capitol starts when he gets in his Tahoe and focuses on his spiritual development with scriptures and other studies. This gets him to Utah County.
“And then at those stoplights in Spanish Fork, I usually switch to a sports podcast or a book,” Spencer says.
And then he does the reverse when coming home … with a regular stop at Chick-fil-A in Spanish Fork.
“That is about halfway home for me, and it makes it really tough to pass by without stopping,” he says.
Father Knows Best
Although Spencer now leads the state and its 3 million+ residents, at home he’s just “dad.” And he tells the requisite jokes.
“I wake up the kids every morning and tell them today is going to be the best day ever. They roll their eyes,” he says. “I’m not a country music fan, but on road trips I force my kids to listen to Kenny Rogers, Alabama and Garth Brooks — things we never do at home. It drives them insane, which is pretty great.”
Spencer also describes himself as “an insecure dad” who worries he isn’t doing enough.
“I’m always doubting myself and hoping they turn out better than I deserve because of my efforts,” he says.
Spencer gives Abby all the credit for pulling their family together and making things work with their unusually public lives and unusually long distance between hometown and downtown.
“It’s hard to explain how awesome it is to be with your best friend since the time you were 16 — someone who knows me better than anyone else,” Spencer says of Abby. “In our relationship, sometimes I have to be the strong one, and sometimes she has to be strong for me.”
Abby’s unpaid role as Spencer’s sounding board also includes being his respite when he doesn’t want to talk about work or the pandemic. Other times, he desperately needs her advice.
At times, it’s just too much and one of them hits the “off” button.
Two weeks before the primary election in June 2020, Abby had to unplug from social media and all outside influences. The attacks were intense, and she wanted to focus on being there for their four kids.
Abby and Spencer have been “there” for each other since they started dating in 1993 as high schoolers. And now “together” sometimes looks like a handful of texts back and forth in a day. Once in awhile, “together” has meant “not together” as Spencer sometimes stayed in Salt Lake overnight. But when COVID hit, the 200-mile commute roundtrip was worth it to be with his confidante and long-time sidekick.
“I came home almost every night no matter how late it was for about six months straight. We needed each other. I can’t function without Abby, and we needed to be together during that time,” he says.
Now the couple will spend their days and nights in the Governor’s Mansion in downtown Salt Lake City. There might be more “farm words.” There will certainly be more prayers. And in Spencer’s estimation, there will always be bright days ahead for Utah.
THE COX BOX
Utah’s 18th governor shares his faves.
Favorite Utah County Restaurants Communal, Black Sheep, Chick-fil-A, Crumbl
Favorite restaurant statewide Silver Star Cafe in Park City
Favorite Cookie Sugar cookie. “But I’m picky. Chocolate chip cookies are always good, but sugar cookies have to be just right.”
Favorite smells Rain on alfalfa + the smell of Abby
Most common emoji in texts to Abby Half-smirk and gritted teeth
Favorite way to consume music iTunes where Spencer has purchased more than 3,000 songs. “I don’t love streaming services — I want to own the songs.”
Favorite way to splurge Good food and travel.
Favorite day of the week Sundays. “Doing church at home has been special, but I’m also missing my calling as Primary chorister.”
Favorite times of the day “Early morning when I get up before the kids and the other end of the day when Abby and I have time together to reflect on the day.”
Favorite sound “The sound of our kids together quoting movie lines and cracking each other up.”
Favorite family entertainment Comedians Nate Bargatze + Jim Gaffigan
Podcasts Anything sports related
Utah County hotspot Movie theater in Spanish Fork
The Making of Governor Spencer Cox
• Born July 1975 (45 years old)
• Hometown of Fairview
• Served LDS mission to Mexico
• Graduated from Utah State with bachelor’s in political science
• Named Student of the Year at USU with a 4.0 GPA
• Turned down Harvard Law to attend Washington and Lee University of Law
• Plays bass guitar
• Served on city council and as mayor of Fairview 2004-2008
• County Commissioner for Sanpete County, 2008-2012
• House of Representatives, 2012-2013
• Lieutenant governor, 2013-2020
• Governor of Utah, 2021