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Spencer Cox: The lieutenant governor who almost said no

Published: Sunday, June 29 2014 4:30 p.m. MDT

Lt. Governor Spencer J. Cox, his wife Abby and their children Gavin,15, Emma Kate, 7, Adam, 10, and Kaleb, 13, at their Fairview home on Friday, May 30, 2014.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

FAIRVIEW — Spencer Cox once turned down Harvard for a less glamorous school and walked away from a lucrative job with a law firm to move back to his boyhood farm. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that he came within minutes of turning down an offer to be Utah’s lieutenant governor.

Getting the L.G. job is like winning the lottery in politics, and he was only 38 and a rookie state legislator to boot. Yet he came this close to saying no, and the reason he almost said no can be found in Fairview, population 1,300. You get there by following Highway 89, which winds through the sage and juniper country of Sanpete County, with the snow-capped Manti LaSalles framing the eastern horizon, overlooking green meadows and marshes dotted with cattle, sheep and horses.

The Coxes live in a Norman Rockwell painting. Their handsome, two-story brick home sits on seven acres that overlook the valley, backed by a small red barn. On a summer day, the only sounds are meadowlarks, aspen stirring in the breeze and the clack-clack-clack of large Rain Bird sprinklers in the adjacent alfalfa fields. Sitting close together on the family room couch, Spencer and Abby can see their four children — Gavin 15, Kaleb 13, Adam 10, Emma Kate 7 — out the large back window racing around the family’s fields on four-wheelers as they do their chores, chased by a convoy of dogs under blue skies and sunshine.

This is why Cox took the huge pay cuts and left the big city and the law firm and a promising law career. This is why he serves as lieutenant governor while living in Fairview and not Salt Lake City. Living in the city didn’t offer many opportunities for their kids to learn to work. So they gave their children sprinkler pipes to move early every morning and hay to bale and gather. They gave them wide, open spaces to roam and dogs to tend and fences to build and mend and their grandfather’s farm to work and large lawns to mow and sheep to herd.

In 2003, at the age of 28, Cox packed it all in and went home again to take over the family business. He went back to family, back to his ancestral home, back to parents and old friends and the land he knew. He moved from the big city back to the farm town of his youth, where the biggest thing in the community is the annual demolition derby, for which the locals camp out to buy tickets.

For 11 years, the Coxes got exactly what they wanted out of the bargain — the farm, chores for the kids, a dream home, more family time. Then the governor called and offered him the lieutenant governor’s job. Anyone else would have been dancing in the small lane that passes below the Cox home.

Cox cried.

Spencer and Abby were both raised in large families on farms in the area, 10 miles apart. She was the fifth of 10 children — eight of them boys — and he the oldest of eight kids. She grew up on a 500-acre ranch, where cows, chickens, sheep, horses and pigs were raised. Spencer grew up on a 150-acre farm that has been in the family 150 years. Spencer’s children are the seventh generation to live here. Their ancestors are buried in a plot not far from their house.

Spencer and Abby, who both grew up on a daily routine of farm chores, attended the same junior high and high school, one year apart, but didn’t become acquainted until his senior year. They began dating after he graduated from high school. They married shortly after he returned from serving a LDS Church mission in Mexico. They both graduated from Snow College and Utah State.

His career was fast-tracked. He was named Student of the Year in the USU political science department, with a perfect 4.0 grade point average. He was accepted by Harvard Law, but chose Washington and Lee University instead because “I just knew I was supposed to be there.” He was hired by the Salt Lake law firm of Fabian and Clendenin. After a few years, he was on track to make partner. The Coxes settled into a subdivision in Kaysville. Four children arrived.

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