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.
But Herbert also reportedly considered former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate Dan Liljenquist, University of Utah associate dean Natalie Gochnour and a number of others.
The names of several other legislators were also in the mix, including House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden. House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, who is looking at a run for governor herself, took her name out of the running early on.
Legislative leaders said they wanted the governor to consider someone with legislative experience, as Bell had as a state senator. Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said it's clear Herbert was listening.
"Spencer doesn't have the experience that others have, but is a very capable legislator. Even in his freshman year, he showed some great abilities," Niederhauser said. "So I think he has the tools to be a good lieutenant governor."
Niederhauser said he sees the pick of a young and energetic No. 2 as a sign the governor will run for re-election in 2016. But Herbert said it won't be time to make that decision until early 2015.
While Cox's selection came as a surprise to the Senate leader, he said Cox should have no difficulties being confirmed by the Senate on the next interim day, Oct. 16. A confirmation hearing on the appointment is scheduled for Oct. 15.
Cox did create some friction among lawmakers in May, when he wrote in his blog that the Legislature should launch impeachment proceedings to determine if the attorney general has lost the public trust.
Since then, the House has started an investigation into Swallow, who was not charged in a federal investigation into allegations that included influence peddling. Swallow remains under local and state investigation, including by the state elections office, overseen by the lieutenant governor.
The governor said Cox's blog posting on the Swallow situation was something "anybody would read and find compelling" but was only one of many factors he considered.
Bell said Cox will have to decide how to handle the investigation into alleged election law violations, now underway with the help of outside counsel hired by the state.
"He's got to analyze how his public statements comport with the decision he's got to make and give the public and Mr. Swallow both consideration of fairness and due process," Bell said.
Cox's replacement in the state House will be selected by Republican delegates in his district, which includes Sanpete and Juab counties, within 30 days of his resignation, according to the state GOP.