SALT LAKE CITY — The open secret of Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox running for his boss' seat is now no longer a secret at all with Cox's public announcement Tuesday that he is in the Utah governor's race in 2020.
"The governor asked me several months ago if we would be willing to run," he said from his home in Fairview. "It has been a harder decision than many people realize. … Everybody wants to be governor, but nobody wants to do governor."
Gov. Gary Herbert, 71, has said he will not run again. His right-hand man, Cox, said he has seen firsthand the toll it takes to manage one of the nation's fastest growing states with one of the best performing economies.
Still, he said Utah is a state beset with challenges of its own.
"We have challenges of transportation, air quality and the cost of housing," he said, stressing he will make sure rural Utah is not forgotten.
When asked what will distinguish him from the rest of the field, he said it is his family's work ethic.
"First, no one will outwork us. We (his wife, Abby, too) both grew up on farms. We are still farming and ranching today," he said.
Later Tuesday morning, Herbert released a statement in reaction to Cox's announcement.
"Jeanette and I are excited to see the lieutenant governor and his lovely wife Abby make this decision. We sincerely wish them well and hope for their success," Herbert said.
Cox was going to wait until June to announce his candidacy after his oldest son is home from a mission in Mozambique for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but he said now that the rules have changed and they can talk weekly, the family decided to plunge ahead with the announcement.
Cox, 43, started out in politics on the Fairview City Council, became his hometown's mayor, served on the county commission and was elected to the Utah House of Representatives.
In 2013, he became the eighth lieutenant governor in the state of Utah. He and his wife have four children.
As lieutenant governor, he is the state's chief election officer, is the liaison for the governor and serves on 20 different committees and commissions.
He said he hopes the coming Utah gubernatorial race sets the right tone.
"The negativity and the toxicity we see in our elections is starting to infiltrate Utah in a terrible way. We are committed to changing that. We would rather lose the right way than win the wrong way."
Before becoming lieutenant governor, he was vice president and general counsel at CentraCom, a telecommunications business managed by the Cox family since 1919 with operations today in nine Utah counties.
In 2016, he and Herbert were re-elected after winning the GOP primary by 44 percentage points and defeating Democrat businessman Mike Weinholtz in the general election.
"Our campaign will be different because we refuse to let this journey change who we are," Cox said. "Rather than showing contempt for others to get ahead, we will discuss solutions to position Utah for transformative achievements in education, transportation, water, air quality, housing and more."
Abby Cox, the lieutenant governor's high school sweetheart, said the decision to get into the race for governor was difficult, especially given the "toxicity" of campaigning.
"Too many good people won't run for office because campaigns have become too destructive, and we want to show people it doesn't have to be this way," she said.
A bassist who also hosts the Cox & Friends Podcast, he is a social media wizard with 31,000 plus followers on Twitter, which lit up early Tuesday following his gubernatorial run announcement.
His affable ability to work across the aisle drew some Twitter responses like this from @leapforemily: "There aren't many republicans I'd vote for, but Spencer Cox is one of them."
For his part, Cox said controlling his outbursts in his early days on social media was one of his greatest challenges — and throughout his life he's still focused on managing a tendency toward unabashed outspokenness.
"I was the guy who was really loud who yelled at the refs at the games. I sometimes let my emotions get the better of me when I was younger," he said later Tuesday afternoon in an interview in Salt Lake City.
"In the early days of social media it was really easy for me to go back and destroy them," he said. "I realized when I was right and even when I won, I always regretted it. I've worked really hard to replace that with kindness and compassion for people … it almost immediately defuses any situation."
Cox garnered national attention in a speech made at a vigil in the aftermath of the Orlando, Florida, nightclub shooting that went viral, earning praise from Republicans and Democrats alike for its simple plea for understanding and respect for those with differing sexual orientations.
Does that make Cox too moderate for the conservative stronghold in Utah's Republican elite?
He doesn't think so.
"It is interesting that sometimes we confuse moderation with kindness and I hate that. It doesn't have to be that way. That is not the party I believe in. The conservative Republican party I believe in is a party of inspiration, not a party of insults. It is a party of making sure everyone has opportunity and we lift people, especially at the margins, up. By the way, that is where the Republican Party of Utah is. Nationally, not as much."
The couple said they will spend time with family this summer, but they will also start touring the state to spread their message.24 comments on this story
"I think we are going to spend the summer with our kids … but we are also going to tour around and go to all areas of the state and we are going to visit and listen to people and find out what their concerns are and what their struggles are," said Abby Cox.
Cox is the first to publicly announce he is running for governor. Others whose names have come up as possible candidates in the GOP race are Jeff Burningham, Jon Huntsman Jr., Greg Hughes, Jason Chaffetz, Aimee Winder Newton and Rob Bishop.
Additional information about the Cox campaign can be found online at VoteCox.com.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said Lt. Gov Spencer Cox started out in politics on the Sanpete City Council. It was the Fairview City Council.