Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert surprised just about everyone Tuesday by naming a relatively unknown freshman in the state House, Rep. Spencer Cox, R-Fairview, to replace Lt. Gov. Greg Bell.
It took a moment for some in the crowd gathered for the governor's announcement to recognize the youthful lawmaker known mainly for calling for impeachment proceedings against embattled Attorney General John Swallow.
And University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank paused when asked to comment on Herbert's choice.
"I don't know who that is," Burbank said, calling Cox, 38, "an unexpected pick."
Cox, who has served as a Fairview city councilman and mayor, as well as a Sanpete County commissioner before being elected to the Legislature last year, said he intends to carry on the work of Bell, a friend and mentor.
"My goal is to just serve to the best of my capacity. My sincere hope is you won't notice a difference," Cox said as his wife and four young children looked on. "I am not Greg Bell, but I am trying hard to be every day."
The lawyer and vice president of CentraCom, a rural telecommunications company, joked that in conversations about Bell's decision last month to step down to earn more money he was already "mad at the new guy."
Of course, those conversations were before Cox knew he was on the governor's list of candidates. Cox said little about how he was ultimately chosen, other than that the selection process was thorough.
Herbert said once Utahns get to know Cox, they'll appreciate his pick.
Calling him optimistic and bright, the governor also praised Cox's rural background, local government experience and academic achievements, which includes a law degree from Washington and Lee law school in Virginia.
"You just like hanging around him," Herbert said after beaming during his introduction of Cox. "It's all those things together that fit the bill. It's not just one thing. It's all of those things combined."
Bell suggested he may have had a hand in getting Herbert to take a closer look at Cox, whose name never publicly surfaced during weeks of speculation. Bell and Cox are co-chairmen of the Governor's Rural Partnership Board.
"A couple of times I said, 'Now, have you looked at Spencer Cox?' And when he looked at him, he was pretty impressed, so that drew him in," Bell told reporters after the news conference.
Bell, who is expected to announce his future plans once Cox is confirmed by the state Senate next week, said Herbert had a long list of candidates, including some who started out as favorites.
Bell announced last month he was stepping down so he could earn more money to meet some financial obligations related to his real estate investments and prepare for his retirement.
The governor said politics didn't play a role in his decision.
"I need somebody ready to roll up their sleeves," he said. "It's not an easy job. It's not an easy assignment. There's a lot of work involved."
Herbert knows firsthand the role of a lieutenant governor. He served as former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s lieutenant governor, becoming governor when Huntsman resigned in 2009 to be U.S. ambassador to China.
The governor had been said to be looking most intently for a new lieutenant governor in his own office, including his chief of staff, Derek Miller, and Kristin Cox, executive director of the Governor's Office of Management and Budget.
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