FAIRVIEW, Sanpete County — Before new Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox headed over to his hometown's historic dance hall for an open house in his honor, he spent a few minutes tossing a football around his backyard with his wife and children.
Time with his family and friends in the central Utah town on U.S. 89 so small that it has no stoplight is quickly becoming a luxury for Cox, 38, chosen earlier this month by Gov. Gary Herbert to serve as his lieutenant governor.
"The best part of coming home to Fairview is I'm not the lieutenant governor, and I'm not that attorney from a fancy law school. I'm just the kid who grew up here," Cox told the Deseret News and KSL-TV.
The former state House member said he's settling into a basement apartment in Bountiful owned by an aunt and uncle where he'll stay during what are already long work weeks at the Capitol.
His wife, Abby, and four children ages 6 to 14, are staying behind in Fairview, something Cox pressed for in his discussions with the governor over the post, formerly held by Greg Bell.
Cox said he explained to Herbert that the town 100 miles south of the Capitol is where his family has lived for six generations and where he wanted his own children to grow up, on the same farm that taught him the value of hard work.
He and his wife had moved the family to Fairview after Cox, a graduate of the prestigious Washington and Lee law school in Virgina, had clerked for U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart and worked for the law firm of Fabian and Clendenin.
"It was tremendous," Cox recalled of returning to Fairview a decade ago. "It felt like a weight had been lifted moving back here again, just being around people I've known my entire life that are so accepting and so loving and so caring."
Leaving all that behind — along with his job as an executive at the family-run telecommunications company CentraCom, located next door to the Peterson Dance Hall on Fairview's Main Street — is a sacrifice, Cox said.
"There's a definite hardship there for my wife and children. I'm going to be gone a lot more. That's something that weighed heavily," he said. "It was not the easy decision some would think it would be."
A surprise selection
The governor's choice of Cox to replace Bell, a former state senator who stepped down to earn more money and has been named head of the Utah Hospital Association, surprised just about everyone — including Cox.
The freshman lawmaker and former local government official said he was initially asked to just offer input into the selection. The request was confusing until Herbert reached the last name on his long list of candidates: Spencer Cox.
Even then, Cox said, he didn't see himself as a serious contender for a job widely seen as going to either a trusted staffer or a high-profile Republican who would add to the ticket should Herbert seek another term in 2016.
Cox said the governor told him and his wife in a final interview that he hasn't made up his mind about running again but expected Cox to "be willing to serve as long as I want you to, whether that's three or seven years."
Herbert has assigned Cox, who was already serving as an adviser on rural issues to the governor's office, to reach out to young and Hispanic Utahns, two constituencies often seen as overlooked by the GOP.
In February, Cox identified both as key to the Republican Party's future succes nationally and in Utah in a speech to party leaders in Juab County, warning "it's easy to get comfortable" and ignore changing voter demographics.
During the 2013 Legislature, Cox made a name for himself by calling for impeachment proceedings against embattled GOP Attorney General John Swallow. The House is currently investigating Swallow.
"One of the things the governor said he liked about me was that I wasn't a typical Salt Lake City politician. That means a lot," Cox said. "I don't want to become one, either."
'A hard worker'
That won't happen, according to those who know him best.
"He's very well grounded," said Cox's father, Eddie, a former mayor of Fairview who worked with his son at CentraCom. "He's not going to let this go to his head. I know he can handle it."
Eddie Cox said his own political experience may have influenced his son, the eldest of eight, but he was always an overachiever, getting up early to work on the family farm and keeping up with current events even as a child.
"I'm not sure I taught him a whole lot. He just kind of came that way. He is a hard worker," Eddie Cox said, recalling how his son impressed other rural telecommunications executives from Utah during a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C.
One executive told him, "You'd better enjoy Spencer Cox being your son because it won't be too many years before you'll be known as Spencer Cox's father," Eddie Cox recalled. "And that's the way it's turned out."
Fairview Mayor Jonathan Benson, who helped talk Spencer Cox into making his first run for public office to fill a City Council vacancy, said his longtime friend is down to earth.
"He doesn't get caught up in the limelight," Benson said. "He'll keep it real."
Even Ephraim Mayor David Parrish, who thought he'd easily beat Cox in last year's race for the House District 58 seat, had nothing but praise for his former political rival.
"I think the world of Spencer. He's a good man. But I still didn't like getting beat," Parrish said, calling Cox's overwhelming victory at the GOP convention a shock. "Spencer just did a better job. That was my learning curve."
Parrish said he was unable to find anything negative about his opponent.
"If there is, I didn't get to find out about it. And I mean that. I just didn't find anything bad about him. He is sharp. His is strategic. He is able to communicate with people," he said.
A hometown hero
Cox said he's happy for the impact his appointment is having on the area.
"This is a big deal. Sometimes we have a little bit of a 'little brother' complex in rural Utah," he said. "This means as much to the people of Sanpete County as it does to me."
At Friday's open house, residents of Fairview and neighboring communities lined up to offer their congratulations.
"We've got great hopes for him," said Diana Compton, who retired with her husband, Raymond, to nearby Milburn. "I already told him I want to be invited to the inauguration. President Cox sounds really good to us."