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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: The surprise choice of Rep. Cox and what it means for the future

Published: Sunday, Oct. 13 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Spencer J. Cox was selected by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to replace Greg Bell as lieutenant governor Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013.

Sam Penrod, Deseret News

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Dear Gov. Gary Herbert:

Your selection of Rep. Spencer Cox, R-Fairview, for lieutenant governor is both intriguing and insightful. Congratulations. However, this came as a complete surprise to insiders and pundits — especially us. You single-handedly destroyed our credibility as political prognosticators. You and your staff were disciplined, not allowing leaks or rumors. This is an outrage. What little respect we politicos command is derived from the perception that we are "in the know." Your desire to vet potential candidates without external interference is admirable but destructive to the all-important gossip mill. We demand this responsible behavior stop immediately. Please.

Now, on to additional misguided ramblings:

What was the governor thinking in selecting Cox?

Pignanelli: “Politicians who knew they weren't ever going to be governor were content to stay in the Legislature. They knew that being a Senate committee chair was a better job than being lieutenant governor.” — Dan Schnur

Readers: If you encounter anyone who tells you that they knew all along that Rep. Cox was the next lieutenant governor, immediately check your wallet or purse because the truth is missing and perhaps your money. Having served in the state Legislature for less than a year, Cox was not on anyone's radar and those with longer terms of service were the favorites. Indeed, there are many lawmakers and officials with deep experience — who upon a learning the announcement — gasped, "What?!" (I leave the more colorful adjectives or objections to the reader's imagination).

There is a genius to the selection. In a short time, Cox garnered tremendous respect from his legislative colleagues who agree he will excel as lieutenant governor. Cox is a member of the freshman batch of legislators who espouse conservative principles, but with compassion and community orientation (a.k.a. “nice and not nuts”). Further, Cox is the rural mirror image of current popular Lt. Gov. Greg Bell: both were mayors and hail from the same law firm. Because Cox was the first official to demand action against Attorney General John Swallow, he is viewed as a steward of ethics. Herbert is secure in his political base, but Cox allows him to expand into the younger GOP ranks.

Webb: This appeared to be a very personal decision by Herbert. He completely ignored the conventional wisdom, declining to pick any of the safe, obvious, proven commodities. Cox won’t just be a caretaker. He is a young and ambitious politician, but is also smart and humble enough to understand his role. He will be loyal and won’t upstage Herbert, but will perform his duties well.

Does Herbert's choice for lieutenant governor offer any insight regarding his 2016 re-election plans?

Pignanelli: The Herbert administration is very shrewd in keeping the possibility of a third term alive, thereby avoiding the stigma of a "lame duck." Cox plays into the strategy very well. He will be a fine running mate for a re-election bid in 2016, or a carrier of the Herbert legacy in his own bid for governor or another office. Unfortunately for the pundits, the Cox choice does not indicate Herbert's final decision.

Webb: Re-election was likely part of the calculation in the selection, but certainly not the overriding factor. Herbert has likely not made up his mind about 2016, but he is very careful to avoid doing anything that might damage re-election chances. The Cox selection doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t necessarily help much. Herbert might get a boost in rural Utah, but not many votes exist out there. Assuming Cox emerges as a competent and successful lieutenant governor, he will help Herbert like any good lieutenant governor would.

A more intriguing question, perhaps, is what does this appointment do for Cox’s nascent political career. If he does well, within a few years it puts him on the short list of potential future gubernatorial, congressional and U.S. Senate candidates. Not bad for a little-known freshman state legislator.

Does the lieutenant governor selection suggest a change of priorities for the Herbert administration?

Pignanelli: Herbert and his economic development director Spencer Eccles recently refocused their efforts on increasing high-paying jobs in places other than the Wasatch Front. Cox is a natural complement to this important rural initiative.

Webb: With the partial shutdown of the federal government and overall irresponsible federal dysfunction, a great opportunity exists for the Herbert-Cox administration to rally the nation’s governors and legislators to support a smart, bipartisan, digital-age, problem-solving, balanced-federalism initiative. Such an initiative would not be a right-wing, ideologically driven effort, but would focus on how government should work in the information age. It would be about competency, performance, solving problems and getting things done. It would demonstrate that concentrating all power at the federal level simply doesn’t work. The federal government, like an old, outdated mainframe computer, is too big, too unwieldy, too expensive and too dysfunctional. Smart networks of state and local governments could out-perform the federal government — a good initiative for the Herbert-Cox administration.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D’Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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