SALT LAKE CITY — Climate change is a matter of everyday conversation in Utah bars and at backyard barbecues. The Great Salt Lake continues to shrink. Pollution persists. Towns have enacted construction moratoriums to help conserve water. And Gov. Spencer Cox has called on residents to scrap their lawns for plants that thrive in the desert heat.
His approach to climate change has left environmentalists frustrated, believing the state is putting a greater emphasis on economic development. But his tone — whether on Covid-19 vaccination or social issues — sets Cox apart from many of his Republican peers navigating their post-Donald Trump politics.
“Most Utahns aren’t as interested in the culture wars and some of the things that divide” the country, said Cox, a lawyer, farmer and former lieutenant governor. “We work really hard to find common ground. We work hard and have said before that the Republican Party in Utah is big enough for Mitt Romney and Mike Lee and we really believe that.”
Cox, who joined President Joe Biden’s 10-member council of governors this summer, has also pushed back on legislation that would’ve barred transgender girls from sports that match their gender identity when many others signed new restrictions this year.
And his attempts to address the pandemic created a tense standoff with his fellow Republicans in the Utah Legislature — culminating in a “Covid-19 endgame” measure that lifted statewide restrictions on gatherings, social distancing and mask-wearing. Now, the federal Education Department has opened investigations into Utah and four other states opposed to school mask mandates.
Cox, in an interview in his Capitol Hill office overlooking the Salt Lake Valley on a day covered in haze from wildfires wafting from California, spoke with POLITICO about managing water in the nation’s second-driest state, navigating the pandemic, and threading the politics of Trump in a deeply conservative place that winces at the brashness of the former president.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve advocated for masks and vaccinations to curb the spread of Covid-19, yet you signed a bill — maybe grudgingly — that cut your powers to manage the pandemic. How come?
While we weren’t thrilled with the bill, it could have been worse. We were able to get significantly more time before the endgame. That was a big piece of it. … I honestly believe we saved lives by doing it that way and so, although not perfect, it was better than the alternative. There was no Delta variant at that time. … So hindsight and all those things, knowing what we knew then, getting those extra weeks was really important to getting people vaccinated.
Would you join other governors who are requiring government employees to get the vaccine?
I will not force state government employees to get vaccinated. I will do everything to facilitate [vaccines] and encourage that and help to make that happen.
Has trying to enforce a mask mandate been your greatest frustration?
I push back a little bit on the absolute certainty that everyone has on this — that every kid has to wear a mask every day and that there’s no negative consequences to mask-wearing. … The legislature has left that decision now to counties and local health departments. So local health departments can make the decision to require masking. In some states there’s a blanket no-masking. Utah isn’t there. What the legislature did was say we’re going to allow counties/local health departments to implement mask mandates and they can do that for 30 days and then the county commission or county council can override that if they want to. It’s left to the local decision. So the school district doesn’t have the authority but the health department does at the local level.
It’s hard for kids, so I understand families who are trying to weigh that. I don’t think it means they don’t love their kids or don’t care about their kids. I don’t think the policymakers think that way either. It’s much more nuanced than the public discourse has allowed these days.
Will your own children wear masks in schools?
My son graduated, so I just have one home and she’s 14 and starting high school. She is fully vaccinated, and we’ve left it up to her if she wants to. Because she’s fully vaccinated, she feels pretty good.
You’ve been pretty consistent about urging people to get vaccinated. Has it hurt your messaging when fellow conservatives promote vaccine skepticism and discourage mask-wearing?
Obviously, it’s disappointing anytime that misinformation or bad information is out there. It’s probably worse when it comes from sources who are elected sources or from talking heads. So that’s been discouraging. But we’ve been encouraged by the increases in vaccinations in the state. We’ve had steady increases [in recent] weeks. We went from as low as 14,000 or 15,000 a week up to 19,000 and then 28,000 and then over 30,000. So that’s been heartening to see 80,000 in three weeks changed their minds about the vaccine.
How much of it do you think is primarily driven by politics?
Certainly, politics plays a role unfortunately in everything these days. We have to choose a side. And it’s almost like we aren’t sure what side to choose until someone does it and then everyone moves to that side. I’m certain that vaccinations would have been different had the presidential race turned out differently … There’s no question that politics has played a role in this. We had an anti-vaccine movement on both the right and the left for some time. But it’s grown as politics has become center stage.
Let’s switch gears to another important issue: Water. The town of Oakley is banning construction to save water. Is that a trend?
That’s something that happens very frequently but doesn’t get reported much. … We have to change the way we do things here in Utah. We actually have extra water in the state [a reference to the Colorado River Compact that allots water among Western states, which are all facing a megadrought]. We’re the fastest growing state in the nation, so we have to conserve more. And that’s something that we have been working on but not to the extent that we could have. It’s our duty now to help lead the state into more conservation measures to help change that atmosphere and to change behaviors and to be smarter about the way we use water. We can do that — and people are doing that. We’ve seen it this year. We’ve done some strong messaging and have seen in every district a significant reduction in water use.
St. George in southern Utah has grown dramatically and consumes a large amount of water. Do you support the idea of building a pipeline from Lake Powell that would bring more water to the area?
The problem in St. George is that it has only one source of water. If anything happens to that one source, it could be catastrophic. So having a secondary source is really important.
Does that mean you support a Lake Powell pipeline and its $1 billion price tag?
Yes. No question it will be expensive, and people will have to pay for it. That’s the case with water now. All the easy and cheap water decisions have been made. It’s going to be expensive and complicated, and it’s still important that we implement the right measures for conservation and water development.
Let’s talk politics. You didn’t personally vote for Donald Trump in 2016 or in the 2020 general election (or for Biden, for that matter), but he won the state with a 20-point margin. How distinct are the factions within the Utah GOP?
Most Utahns aren’t as interested in the culture wars and some of the things that divide [the country]. We work really hard to find common ground. We work hard and have said before that the Republican Party in Utah is big enough for Mitt Romney and Mike Lee and we really believe that. I’m close with both of them.
The state still voted for Trump.
Yes, we are still very much a Republican state. If the choice is between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump and Joe Biden, then Republicans will vote Republican … Donald Trump finished lower than any Republican in the past 40 years in overall share of the vote, so most people will tell you that they like a lot of the policies that were accomplished but people told me that they didn’t like his Twitter account and they didn’t like the personal attacks. That’s certainly more the style here with the Utah GOP.
Who do you see on the Republican ticket in 2024?
In politics, a couple years is a lifetime. While I feel pretty confident in predicting what will happen at the state level, at the national level I’m at a loss. I was wrong in 2016 and I don’t know that I have any confidence in what’s going to happen … I don’t think anyone predicted that Donald Trump would have won the nomination or the presidency in 2016 and so it may be Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who is the dark horse leader for 2024 running as a Republican or a Democrat. So I really have no idea. I don’t think there’s a clear favorite in Utah.