SALT LAKE CITY — Addressing an ornate room in the state Capitol crowded with what looked to be most of his rural hometown, newly sworn-in Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox was overcome briefly by emotion Wednesday.
"This is an honor not just for me, but for the good people of Sanpete County," the Fairview native said, his voice breaking. "I'm grateful for my rural upbringing, for my family, for my parents, for the work ethic they taught me."
His cousin, Kenny Cox, said the momentary display was an example of Cox's humility tempering the confidence and intellect that helped make him Gov. Gary Herbert's choice to replace now former Lt. Gov. Greg Bell.
"It's a lot to take in, especially this soon," Kenny Cox said of his cousin's sudden advancement from a freshman GOP lawmaker to Utah's lieutenant governor at just 38 years old.
While Kenny Cox said he never doubted his cousin would rise in the political ranks, this was much faster than he expected. Now, he said, it may be a while before they perform together again as members of Upside, a rock cover band.
Spencer Cox's maternal grandmother, Phyllis Irons, said she didn't expect him to follow his father and grandfather into politics, serving in local government before winning a seat in the Utah Legislature last year.
His appointment by the governor last week surprised many political insiders who expected a more experienced pick. Irons said the folks back home in Sanpete County were even more stunned.
"I never expected Sanpete to get anything. Sanpete's not very well known. I just didn't think anybody would get up there that far, so I'm real proud of him," his grandmother said.
After Cox's unanimous Senate confirmation vote that came at the end of a special legislative session, Irons said it was all she could do not to jump up from her seat above the chamber and shout, "Hey, that's my grandson!"
Cox told reporters he felt a wave of emotion recalling his rural roots as he faced a standing room only crowd of hundreds of familiar faces in the formal Gold Room of the Capitol.
After graduating near the top of his class from Washington and Lee law school in Virginia, Cox said he turned down numerous offers to return to Utah, working first as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart and then at a law firm.
Then, he said, the family decided to head home.
"It's been the best decision we made as a family. I love my rural roots," Cox said, describing how he and his wife, Abby, grew up working in the fields of their family's farms before and after school, often late into the evening.
His wife and four children will remain in Fairview and Cox plans on staying with a family member in Davis County during the work week. For the next few days, though, the family will be together on a long-planned trip to St. George.
Cox said he had no political goal beyond serving in the Legislature.
"People with political aspirations usually don't move to Fairview, Utah. It's not the bastion of political success for those that are seeking higher officer. It really has just happened," Cox said. "Doors have just opened."
Herbert, who assumed the office in 2009 after former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China, is up for re-election in 2016 but has not announced his plans.
The governor said at Cox's swearing-in ceremony that he felt "like I got divorced and married at the same time" as he bid farewell to Bell and welcomed his new lieutenant governor.
Bell, described by Cox as a friend and mentor, embraced his replacement and said, "I love you" — words picked up by a microphone. The pair were co-chairmen of the Governor's Rural Partnership Board and worked at the same law firm.
The long day on Capitol Hill for Cox started with him ending his time as a lawmaker in legislative interim meetings and the special session called to deal with the impacts of the shutdown.
His House colleagues sent him off by wrapping yellow police tape around his desk and placing an orange traffic marker on it. Cox shook hands and posed for photos before heading to the Senate chamber for the confirmation vote.
There, he was praised by senators before the 27-0 confirmation vote. Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he had asked a dozen or so House members at the end of the 2013 Legislature who was emerging as the star of the freshman class.
"I wanted to know who they felt was standing out, making a name for himself. More often than not, the answer was Spencer Cox," Weiler said, calling him a smart guy with "a good sense of humor and doesn't take himself too seriously."7 comments on this story
Cox told the Senate how surprised he was to be tapped for the post.
"No one was more shocked than me when I got the call from the governor," he said. "In fact, I told my wife, there are at least 100 people more qualified than I am for this position. She wisely said, 'No, it's closer to a thousand.'"