So much for the political pundits; or those who professed to know the mind of GOP Gov. Gary Herbert.
To the surprise of many, Herbert announced Tuesday that freshman state House Rep. Spencer J. Cox, R-Fairview, is his choice to succeed retiring Lt. Gov. Greg Bell.
Cox was not on any of the so-called “experts’” LG lists that UtahPolicy has seen recently.
And one of Herbert’s top aides told UtahPolicy just before the press conference in the Capitol’s Gold Room that folks would be pleasantly surprised by Herbert’s choice.
Cox’s name will now go before the Senate on Oct. 16 for official confirmation.
It’s unlikely there will be any controversy.
In just a short time Cox has become one of the “up and comers” in the 75-member Utah House, winning his election to House District 58 handily last year.
For UtahPolicy insiders, Cox, 38 and married with four young children, is probably best known for writing earlier this year an in-depth, and scathing, online analysis about how the Utah House should immediately begin impeach hearings on embattled GOP Attorney General John Swallow.
In response to a newspaper reporter’s question, Herbert said that anti-Swallow impeachment analysis was not a factor in his selection of Cox, except as an example of what a “bright” legal mind Cox has. (Herbert has declined to call for Swallow’s resignation, but the governor has said that if Swallow worked for him, Herbert would fire him.)
In fact, said Herbert, in many ways Cox is just a younger and shorter version of Bell (who is 64 and stands well over six feet tall).
Bell stunned Capitol Hill observers last month when he announced he had to resign his post in order to make more money as his retirement approached.
Before Herbert named Bell as his second-in-command in 2009 the then-state senator was a commercial real estate developer.
Bell says that one of his larger projects has not bounced back from the Great Recession, and that he, Bell, can no longer afford to pay that project’s debt out of his personal funds.
Bell said he had to resign to make some cash, and to ensure he and his wife have an adequate retirement account.
In a way, Herbert’s pick of Cox makes sense, both politically and practically.
First off, Cox is a younger version of Herbert.
Cox has been heavily involved in local government – Fairview City councilman and mayor, a county commissioner in San Pete County.
Herbert said he was first impressed by then-Commissioner Cox in the central Utah wild fires of several years ago.
Cox “worked literally 24-7 making sure” county residents’ property and livestock were protected from the flames, said Herbert.
Before former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. picked Herbert as a running mate in 2004, Herbert had served 12 years as a Utah County commissioner.
The governor said he also liked the fact that Cox was a successful businessman (Cox said his rural Utah telephone firm has doubled in size even through the Great Recession).
Both Bell and Cox are attorneys, who stepped aside from legal practice to become locally-leading businessmen.
Herbert was a successful Realtor before being elected a county commissioner, and saw hard times himself when the real estate market in Utah County went south.
Cox said he consider Bell a mentor and friend.
“Everyday I try to be more like Greg Bell,” said Cox.
The two were co-chairs of a rural Utah government board that Herbert set up.
While there may be some new assignments for Cox as lieutenant governor, said Herbert, in many respects he will step into the footprints of Bell.
That’s fine by Cox, who said his main goal, at least immediately, is that Utah citizens won’t see any difference between a Herbert/Bell administration and a Herbert/Cox administration.
Bell is well respected. But the Layton former senator had one misstep last year: Bell asked state Human Services top officials to check on a child custody case for a Davis County neighbor, whose daughter had the state looking into her parenting skills.
The Davis County attorney investigated Bell to see if there was any illegal interference going on, but later cleared Bell of any wrongdoing.
Herbert made a point of saying he thoroughly examined Cox’s record and found him an outstanding, ethical young man.
Cox himself said it was trying over the last 10 days as he and his family had to go through a background check.
Herbert “left no stone unturned” in checking up on him, said Cox.
Herbert said he’s made it clear that being Utah’s lieutenant governor – a job Herbert held for four years before Huntsman resigned to become ambassador to China in 2009 -- is not a job for just “a pretty face.”
“You have to work hard; it is a great responsibility. Greg Bell raised the bar from the guy who went before him (Herbert). And (Cox) will raise it even higher,” said Herbert.
And, who knows, if for some reason over the next two-and-a-half years Herbert has to leave office, Cox would become one of the youngest governor’s in Utah history.