The Red-State Governor Who's Not Afraid to Be 'Woke'

·18 min read
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox looks on during an interview at the Utah State Capitol
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox looks on during an interview at the Utah State Capitol

Utah Governor Spencer Cox has taken heat from the right for trying to bridge partisan divides Credit - Rick Bowmer—AP

Even as the words come out of his mouth, the governor of Utah knows his outburst is out of 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. The 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. But the governor tells me he has no intention of backing down. “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.”

To Cox, this is about more than just rebranding the GOP with 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, worrying about how divided we are is one problem that unites us.

Yet while everyone talks about “unity,” few seem to be doing anything about it. Politicians pay lip service to the idea, then go right back to bashing their opponents. 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. My job would be so much easier if I just listened to Fox News every night and did whatever they said the next morning, which a lot of politicians do. But we have to break out of this cycle of anger and vitriol, and the only way to do that is by reaching out to people who are different than 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.”

When Cox was running for governor in 2020, the political discourse alarmed him. Like many other Americans, he feared violence. 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? But Cox insisted, and gave Peterson total control of the script. 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.

The ads went viral, setting Twitter afire and landing the pair appearances on national and international media. To Cox, that was proof of concept. “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 at a September 2020 debate in Salt Lake City<span class="copyright">Trent Nelson—The Salt Lake Tribune/AP</span>
Then-Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, left, and Democrat Chris Peterson at a September 2020 debate in Salt Lake CityTrent Nelson—The Salt Lake Tribune/AP

High energy and bald-headed, Cox is an avid reader whose media diet skews Acela Corridor. Over the course of our interviews, he will name-drop the New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Ezra Klein, the political theorist Jonathan Haidt and articles from The 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 grew up dirt-poor on a farm in rural Fairview, the eldest of eight children whose parents divorced when he was 10. There was little exposure to diversity of any kind, including gays and 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,” 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. He moved back to the farm in Fairview and served as a city councilor, mayor, and county commissioner before being elected to the state house in 2012. In 2013, then governor Gary Herbert appointed him to replace the departing lieutenant governor.

In June 2016, after 49 people were killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Cox was invited to speak at a vigil in Salt Lake City. The governor gave him permission, and Cox agreed. He immediately regretted it. “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. Finally he locked himself in a hotel room, told his secretary to hold all his calls, and prayed. “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.”

Taking the stage at the event, Cox choked back tears as he confessed to his past unkindness. 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, a Salt Lake City mover and shaker and gay Black Democrat who considers Cox a close friend, says the speech was a landmark for the local 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. He found Cox was not afraid to bring uncomfortable messages to his own tribe. “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.”

In April 2021, just a few months into his governorship, Cox held a virtual town hall with students across the state. 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. But at the last minute, a Republican state senator proposed an outright ban instead.

Cox announced he would veto the 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. He also noted that 56% of trans youth nationally say they have 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. But I want them to live. And all the research shows that even a little acceptance and connection can reduce suicidality significantly.”

Cox at a 2014 Utah legislative hearing<span class="copyright">George Frey—Getty Images</span>
Cox at a 2014 Utah legislative hearingGeorge 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.”

The cable-outrage machine, of course, did not treat the issue with nuance or humanity. 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. Barraged with angry and violent social media messages, Cox turned off his mentions for a few days to clear his head and recover. What bothers him more than any nasty tweet, he says, is seeing well-meaning people manipulated by bad-faith propaganda. “The part that I hated most,” he says of Carlson’s diatribe against him, “was that people believed what he was saying.”

They may score good ratings, but no cable-news rant has ever built a road, housed a prisoner, or resolved a water-rights dispute. On the day we met in June, Cox was cutting the ribbon on a $1 billion prison complex outside Salt Lake that will house 3,600 male and female inmates at all levels of security while offering more space for rehabilitative programs.

In a speech laced with paeans to small government and the importance of getting things done, Cox lauded the massive facility as a win-win-win: not only would reducing recidivism improve public safety and save taxpayers money, but the site of the old prison, in the well-populated exurb of Draper, is also set to be redeveloped into shops and housing, a boon where an eyesore once sat. “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 is adamant that even the most contentious issues can be resolved 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. In that same legislative session, a conservative white male Republican from rural Utah and a liberal Black woman Democrat from Salt Lake came together to make Utah one of a handful of red states where Juneteenth is a state 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 hugs Interior Secretary Deb Haaland after the signing of the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act in May<span class="copyright">Mengshin Lin—The Deseret News/AP</span>
Cox hugs Interior Secretary Deb Haaland after the signing of the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act in MayMengshin 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. One is Mitt Romney, a prominent anti-Trump voice who twice voted to impeach the former President; the other is Mike Lee, a Trump loyalist who worked to help overturn the 2020 election, according to text messages released by the Jan. 6 select committee. Lee, who ultimately distanced himself from the effort and voted to certify the election, faces a challenge this year from the anti-Trump activist Evan McMullin, an independent whose quixotic 2016 presidential campaign drew more than 20% of the Utah vote. Cox has good relations with both Romney and Lee, and is supporting Lee in his Senate race while Romney is staying 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 did not vote for Trump in either of the past two presidential elections, writing in other candidates instead. He called on Trump to resign in the aftermath of 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 was a group of the still-living holders of the first lifetime fishing licenses the state issued in the 1980s. 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.

A few hours after our lunch at the Red Iguana, Cox summons me to his grand office in the state capitol for an unscheduled follow-up interview because he wants to revisit something he said. 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.”

With reporting by Mariah Espada and Simmone Shah