Don’t Forget Rural Utah in Personnel and Policy Discussions

In a recent Deseret News column, Frank Pignanelli and I listed numerous possible candidates for lieutenant governor to replace retiring Greg Bell.  Sanpete County Commissioner Jon Cox wrote the following response. He makes some excellent points, and I appreciate him taking the time to write.


As I read your Really Long List of Potential Lieutenant Governor Candidates, I was surprised at the choices for a rural LG. Don Ipson? Steve Urquhart? Dave Clark? I like the suggestions, but the fact that these legislators would be your “rural” choice fascinates me. Perhaps LaVarr really is one of the 3 Nephites like we’ve long suspected as the Utah he remembers is from long, long ago when the Cotton Mission down south qualified as rural. The St. George of today is just a little bit different. 

I get that rural Utah is shrinking. Every ten years in redistricting we lose legislative voices because our growth doesn’t keep pace with the Wasatch Front. I understand that Utah is one of the most urban states in the country as 9 out of every 10 residents lives along that same I-15 corridor. But I’d like to think that while we might be one of the most urban states in the country, culturally, Utah is very much tied to its rural heritage. 

The latest Census Bureau tells us that 90.58 percent of Utahns live in urban areas, the eighth most urban state in the nation. And yet the next state in line, Rhode Island (90.73 percent), seems a polar opposite to our Utah home. How do you explain this difference? 

Last summer, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir came to Sanpete County for the dedication of a new garden area next to the Manti Temple. At that performance, all choir members with ancestors from Sanpete County were invited to stand. Around two-thirds of the group stood up. The Census Bureau might consider them all urbanites, but many of these folks are still rural Utahns at heart.

Almost every Utahn likely dried a tear from their eye when they watched the “So God Made a Farmer” commercial in last year’s Super Bowl. And yet, more than 90 percent of them live on the Wasatch Front spending far more time lifting a stapler rather than a bale of hay. So why the tears? I can’t imagine a similar reaction from our Rhode Island peers.

We talk of Utah’s tremendous economic growth, and we boast of top rankings in all sorts of business metrics. But when it comes time to put together our state’s marketing materials, we hardly ever show a photo of a busy downtown street or office cubicle. Instead we publish pictures of a farmer in his field, one of our beautiful national parks, a cowboy on horseback, or a beautiful ski resort. When we talk about business growth, we usually mean urban Utah. But when the conversation shifts to quality of life, we typically mean rural Utah.

And yet if you stripped away all other land in the state of Utah and only kept the Wasatch Front, I strongly doubt you would have the same kind of economic prosperity that we see there today. By a similar token, if rural Utah decided to secede from the state of Utah like some of our rural Colorado peers are attempting to do, we would struggle to sustain a vibrant, diversified economy. You need us, and we need you.

We’ll get skipped over on this LG selection just like we always do. But we can’t ignore one another or talk past each other like we’re sometimes prone to doing on important policy issues. When it comes to rural and urban Utah, we have a common heritage and a shared future. 

Jon Cox, Sanpete County Commissioner