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August 26, 2020 News » Cover Story

Cake Walk 

Spencer Cox may seem a shoo-in for Utah governor, but opponent Chris Peterson hopes you'll make him earn your vote

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Spencer Cox is "tired."

That's the one-word response he offers when asked to use a sentence to describe himself. It's a silly question, intended to do little more than break the ice, but it's the one I keep coming back to as I think about my recent chat with the man who will more likely than not be Utah's governor next year.

I'm tired, too, and I tell Cox and his Democratic opponent—career lawyer and University of Utah professor Chris Peterson—as much in separate interviews. Between the pandemic, protests, creeping fascism, a bottomless Netflix library and the seeming inevitability of a Cox victory in November, it's all I can do to fight the urge to tune out until January.

It doesn't help that when I ask both campaigns for an hour with their candidate, the Cox team offers 30 minutes, which ultimately turns out to be 20 over the phone while Cox drives between two higher profile appointments on his calendar.

I don't begrudge him that. He's a busy man, holding elected office while running a gubernatorial campaign and heading up the state's official coronavirus task force. But it kneecaps my ability to write this article. It is what it is.

We didn't even get to the topic of policing, or how a potential Gov. Cox will act the next time the Utah Legislature takes it upon themselves to reject a majority vote. A good portion of our 20 minutes was spent arguing whether or not Utah's public schools are the lowest-funded in the nation.

It's a well-documented fact that they are, for the simple reason that the Beehive State's overflowing abundance of children stretches thin whatever education dollars are available, however well-intended those dollars may be. But for reasons that escape me, the Herbert administration—and apparently the soon-to-be Cox administration—have decided to downplay the per-pupil numbers in favor of gross sums that mean little for schools but make the state look better.

It's a bad-faith argument, like scolding a hungry family of 12 because they have as much food in the fridge as the bachelor living next door. And further disappointing is Cox's proposed solution, a continuation of the grin-and-bear-it penny pinching that is somehow expected to make three nickels out of two.

"There are ways that we can save money," Cox says, offering up some apocryphal example of an elementary school somewhere in the state being built with glass handrails. "I believe we have enough revenue. It's just where we spend it that matters."

Would that it were so simple.

Serving is a noble decent thing
For my interview with Peterson, we sit on the porch of his historic Avenues home, which a plaque by the door tells me was built in 1892. We had never met before, and he looks the very picture of a hip Utah Democrat with his sleeves loosely cuffed below the elbow and his blue-on-blue shirt and tie combo slackened just so at the collar.

Peterson is taking on what is, in my opinion, the single most thankless task in Utah politics. His answers are detailed and thoughtful—albeit a touch over-rehearsed—and nearly as soon as we sit down, he's stumping about the state's pandemic response.

click to enlarge Christopher Peterson - COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF UTAH
  • Courtesy University of Utah
  • Christopher Peterson

He tells me he's worried about returning to the University of Utah campus to teach his students this fall and particularly worried about high schools, where a combination of older children and hourly class shuffling could be prime conditions for the spread of COVID-19.

"If we don't start making serious adjustments, I'm concerned that we could be looking at a tinder box," Peterson says. "We're really putting a lot of kids and their parents and grandparents and our teachers and the staff at risk by not having gotten more serious about getting this virus under control sooner."

It tees up a theme that Peterson will return to frequently during our chat. Cox, he says, is a cog in a political machine that prioritizes relationships and backroom deals over teamwork and transparency. That means no-bid contracts for testing software, he says, and a disregard for the public's wishes on Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana, gerrymandering and sales taxes.

"The Legislature, in cooperation with the Governor's Office and my opponent, rewrote and watered down every single one of those ballot measures," Peterson says. "So, you tell me who is more in tune with the state of Utah? We know that those issues are winning issues in this state, and we know that my opponent is on the wrong side of those issues."

When I ask him to describe himself in a sentence, Peterson talks about a career spent fighting for fair treatment of ordinary working families. And when I ask why he's running for governor, he similarly holds up his resume as a former Department of Defense attorney and senior adviser with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau during the second Obama administration.

"I'll put that up against anybody else that's running for governor this year," he says.

I follow up by asking why he *wants* to run for governor, and he takes a long pause before answering. He leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees, and he looks, put simply, tired.

He says it's not about name recognition or influence. It's because it seems like a small group of Republican Party insiders, lobbyists and privileged Utahns are calling the shots, he says, and it's pulling the state's policies further and further away from the wishes of the public.

"I'm going to keep fighting," Peterson says. "Other people can tune out or give up if they choose to do so, but I'm going to fight for them. I'm fighting for a better, more decent, more effective, more competent government."

I ask about tax reform, a still-lingering question shoved to the back burner by the omnipresent coronavirus—to whit: Do you, dear reader, remember that you're voting on a major constitutional amendment on income tax spending this year?—and Peterson keeps it simple. He says the Huntsman-era flat tax should be rescinded in favor of a more progressive structure, and that Utah's sales tax incentives and exceptions should be carefully reexamined.

It's not exactly a revolutionary position—it leaves unanswered the much-hyped "structural imbalance" that Republicans are using as justification for obliterating the state's Education Fund and blending together income and sales taxes—but it's a defensible one.

"I'm not talking about a radical restructuring," Peterson says. "I'm talking about going back to some of the policies that we had 20 years ago that were more fair and didn't acquire such acute budget shortfalls."

Peterson hedges the most on policing, taking pains to express his support for both protesters—but not the bad ones—as well as police officers—but not the bad ones. But he goes the necessary next step, saying the state needs to do a much better job with implicit bias training, discipline for misconduct and mental health services.

"I think that communities would be well-served by making sure our police officers have the counseling and mental-health resources that would allow them to approach their jobs with bright eyes, open hearts and the professionalism to protect and serve the way that we all hope they will."

We talked frankly about the long odds against Peterson, and he said he wasn't naive to the uphill climb. He then gave a textbook response, telling me about his great-great-grandfather John Taylor—as in the third president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—who led a wagon train across the plains before serving as the first chairman of Zions Bank and one of the state's first public school superintendents. Aspiring to serve the public, Peterson says, is "a noble and decent thing."

He is surprised "how entitled some people feel to hold themselves out as the mandatory next leader of the state of Utah," he said. "There have been a lot of people who have been around, contributing in the state, for a long time. It's not such a crazy thing for us to have a Matheson- or Cal Rampton-style moderate Democrat nudging our state to a reasonable, decent Utah that represents all of us."

Fill in the blank: "Donald Trump is a ...."
There was a time when I felt enthused about the prospect of a Cox administration. He dazzled during his brief stint in the Utah House of Representatives, issuing the first call for the impeachment of then-Attorney General John Swallow and—in a less publicized moment that I remember vividly—deflating a piece of useless education software legislation by joking that his smartphone was a "magic box."

Once plucked out of relative obscurity by Gov. Herbert to serve as lieutenant, Cox took to the role with a charming zeal for nearly seven years. He leaned hard into the nerdiness of voter registration and election canvassing and received national accolades for his willingness to call a spade a spade during Trump's lowest moments and—in the as-yet signature moment of his political career—issuing a public apology for his youthful intolerances after the Pulse nightclub shooting.

Whether or not that version of Cox will reemerge after the election remains to be seen—and I hope it does—but it was certainly absent from the primary campaign, which saw Cox preoccupied with complaining about his press coverage and reluctant to wade into the deeper waters of 2020.

Case in point, I asked both candidates to fill in the blank on "Donald Trump is a ...?"

Peterson said, "poor role model for our children."

Cox said, "president of the United States."

When I asked Cox why someone like myself, an unaffiliated Salt Lake City resident, should vote for him, he talked about the ease and responsibility of voting and his all-the-boxes resume touching virtually every level of government in the state.

"We've never had a candidate for governor with the breadth of experience that I've had at the local level and at the state level," Cox said, "someone who has served on a city council in a small town, as a mayor and county commissioner, in the House of Representatives, as the lieutenant governor and as somebody who has lived in and represented both rural Utah and urban Utah. I hope that's something that would get people's attention."

click to enlarge Spencer Cox - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Spencer Cox

Unsatisfied, I asked Cox a more philosophical version of the question. A vote for Cox, I ask, is a vote for what?

"I believe that Utah is an example to the rest of the country," he said. "It's really important that who we elect is a reflection of who we are as a people and what we want the nation to know about us."

I asked about tax reform, and Cox said he's supportive of the changes made in March after lawmakers were beaten into submission on their food tax hike by an upstart citizen referendum.

The new plan still hinges on removing the constitutional language earmarking all income tax dollars for public education—which by necessity means those state dollars will be diverted elsewhere—but lawmakers threw in enough sweeteners on annual funding increases and local district budget autonomy that the Utah Education Association agreed to stand down and not actively oppose the amendment.

That's what we call a compromise these days.

It's at this point in our chat that Cox and I fall down the per-pupil rabbit hole. But the long and short of it is that in an alternate world without COVID-19, Cox says education funding and particularly teacher pay would be the primary focus of his gubernatorial campaign. So, what's the plan? How do we pay for raises? Prioritization and frugality, Cox tells me, that age-old conservative chestnut.

"No, it doesn't give you any more revenue," Cox says of a post-amendment tax code. "But I've always argued that we have enough revenue. It's about prioritizing and spending it the right way. I think there are things that can be done at the state level but also at the local level."

Enough revenue but still last in the nation on school spending, I ask?

"We don't have the lowest-funded schools in the country," Cox says. "We spend less per-pupil than anywhere in the country."

OK, Spencer.

I do manage to squeeze in a question about the state's virus response, specifically if anything could or should have been done differently in the early days. Cox says it took too long to break through bureaucracies and get the right people talking to each other. And one lesson learned is the need to better prepare in advance of a widespread health crisis.

"We didn't pay enough attention to public health and local public health, which makes sense when you have limited resources," Cox said. "We tend to prioritize the real and not the hypothetical. But when you're dealing with a measles outbreak in a single school, that doesn't need nearly as much attention as something as big as this."

Pet projects
For both interviews, I ended by asking the candidates what they wish we had more time to talk about. While it's hard to picture, logic says that, one day, our collective attentions will move beyond the virus.

Peterson was immediately animated and launched into a monologue about the unregulated dangers of the payday loan industry. Recent legislative attempts to nibble at the edges of predatory lending have only created a false sense of reform, he says, while Utahns continue to be ensnared by unethical interest rates and politicians continue to accept campaign donations from lenders.

"The most prolific litigants in our state are payday loan companies, and they're out there going after single moms, construction workers, public servants, people who are playing by the rules trying to get by every day," Peterson said. "The overwhelming majority of Utahns want reform but it's not happening because up at the state Legislature the payday lenders are very influential lobbyists."

Cox said he would like to have more time to talk with the public about urban planning, population growth and the opportunities for the old Utah State Prison site at the Point of the Mountain. He said the potential for that side is beyond "generational" in its scope, offering a clean slate to imagine a better future.

"I really believe the vision, at least, of what we're going to do with that property to be a showcase for sustainable growth and mass transit and maybe even making the first car-less development in the state, looking at air quality and density and all of those things that we've struggled with along the Wasatch Front," Cox said. "This could really be a model for the future. It's something that I'm excited about and something that I think the people of the state of Utah will be really excited about."

Here's hoping. It would be nice to be excited about the future again.


Gubernatorial Contenders of the Third Kind
Interviews by Benjamin Wood

Every election, we see their names on the ballot running alongside the major party contenders. Since they are light on donations and name recognition, third-party candidates often toil in obscurity, struggling to make voters aware of what they stand for. But independent candidates fulfill an important role, which is to inject new life into the two-party system with fresh ideas and party platforms. For the Utah governor's race, Benjamin Wood interviewed Utah's two outsider candidates below:

click to enlarge Daniel Cottam - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Daniel Cottam

Daniel Cottam: Get rid of the DABC!
Libertarian Party

Benjamin Wood: For the uninitiated, what's a Libertarian?
Daniel Cottam: In general, we are very socially liberal and fiscally conservative. We don't care who you're sleeping with. We don't care how you want to dress up. We think that's all your own business. We feel like, financially, the state should always be running balanced budgets and in general should spend less and involve themselves less in people's lives.

What do you make of the state's Coronavirus response?
I am a weight-loss surgeon ... . I've published and done all these models that they're talking about, so I have a baseline understanding that neither of the other two popular candidates have.

If it makes sense, people will do it all on their own. The point, for the mask mandate, is that people have decided all on their own that they want to wear them, and businesses have decided that they want to enforce it. Great! That's fine for them, but the government doesn't need to get involved.

When the government does a poor job of educating people, that's when controversy arises. And the government's done a horrible job at educating people throughout the pandemic. It's just worse than awful. The funny thing about that is Spencer Cox was in charge of all this, and yet it's 99.9 percent likely he's going to be our next governor. So, the person who was bad at it is actually going to be running the whole thing, which is kind of crazy.

Beyond the virus, what would you prioritize as governor?
Qualified immunity is huge for Libertarians. We've been speaking about this since the '70s and '80s, about how granting not only policemen, but also elected officials, qualified immunity allows them to operate above the law.

Another thing I'm big on is occupational licensing reform. We're really horrible here in Utah. We have so many jobs that need to be licensed. It really hurts minorities. It doesn't hurt people like me — surgeons — I have to be licensed no matter what. But since we have so many things, it just creates barriers between people getting into their life and working in a profession, which is really horrible.

The other thing is I would tell you. ... we really do have to be cognizant of how we treat the environment. I would be open to ways to increase the cleanliness of the air and solutions for that, especially along the Wasatch Front.

What should Utah do with its tax code?
We have a giant budget surplus. We have a great rainy day fund, and credit to the Legislature and the Governor's Office before in creating those things. But if we didn't have excess revenue, we couldn't create a rainy-day fund, right? So, the idea that our revenue needs to be radically transformed, now, it's kind of insanity. The government's taking in plenty of revenue right now, there's not a shortage of funds going to the state coffers.

The people of Utah have spoken very clearly: they don't want tax on food. The people, meaning all of us, should be able to say we don't want that and then not do it, because it hurts the least among us. So, why are they bringing it up and doing it?

Would you support changes to the state's approach to policing?
The first thing I mentioned was qualified immunity. The truth is that people will act differently if they know that they're responsible.

I, as a surgeon, have to buy insurance to practice my profession, in case someone sues me or I do something wrong. There should be malpractice insurance for officers. They shouldn't be above the law. And you know what will happen is if they lose their qualified immunity, they will develop a whole new set of rules and guidelines that will allow them to interact with the public just the same.

When you look at the European Union and how big it is, and you look at the USA, they're about the same size. And yet the amount of people that the police officers shoot and kill there, and imprison there is radically different.

To say that the way that we're approaching policing is the only way to approach policing is completely false. We should reform the way that we approach policing on a day-to-day basis and turn cops into your friends.

What else is on your mind this year?
If I could change anything, I would get rid of the [Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control] tomorrow. The fact that we even have one is complete insanity. It's more expensive with fewer options and fewer choices and restricted supply and I'm not quite sure there's any proof that it does anything.

The drug war and our opioid epidemic is a disaster. I would open methadone clinics tomorrow. The truth is we should make methadone free and anyone who wants to get in a methadone clinic should be able to, and I'll tell you we'd end the opioid epidemic tomorrow if we did that.

Fill in the blank: Donald Trump is a...?
...confusing ball of misinformation.

I'm so torn over Donald Trump. [Supreme Court Justice] Neil Gorsuch is as fine a jurist as I've ever seen, and I never would have gotten him if we had Hillary Clinton. But Donald Trump's tariffs, and his import/export policies are unbelievably misguided and hurt Americans.

We have two presidential candidates who both have been accused of sexual inappropriate behavior, who both want to penalize Americans for buying foreign goods, who both [may be experiencing] dementia. If you're a Libertarian, this is like a no-win situation. They're both awful.

click to enlarge Greg Duerden - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Greg Duerden

Greg Duerden: Quarantine Is Unconstitutional
Independent American Party

Benjamin Wood: What brings you to this race?
Greg Duerden: I've been a newspaper man in Utah for 40 years. I've covered politics, the good, the bad, the "ohmigosh, it's ugly," the corrupt and the not very intelligent things that have gone on. I'm well aware of the history of politics here in Utah.

Primarily, I'm running because I've buried two wives, and I'm on my third wife without being a polygamist. I count in my blended family 18 children, 73 grandchildren and 6 great-grand[children] and counting. Their education has never been up to world standard.

I want to raise the education standard in Utah to something that I could be proud of, and to tell my grandkids they're getting a good education. One of the things I want to do is raise teacher salaries to the national median salary, which is about $59,000 a year at entry level. Most [Utah] teachers have about a $39,000 entry-level wage, so there's a significant jump. But I want to do it without raising taxes.

How would you raise teacher salaries without raising taxes?
We suggest that we get the federal lands back. We can get the land back and then leverage that land into the value of our taxing entities.

Our Legislature and our governor are stuck in the tax-and-spend box. They can't think outside the box. There are other revenue forms and streams that could be used, but it's not easy, and it may be too mentally difficult for them to wrap their brains around.

If I'm elected, I will educate the Legislature that they don't have to keep raising taxes for ballooning budgets.

What do you make of Utah's COVID-19 response?
That's one of my major contentions with our current administration. The shutdown, quarantine and what they've done is unconstitutional.

They can't tell you [that] you can only meet with 10 people or 50 or 100 people. The Constitution says you have the right to peacefully assemble anytime, anywhere, with any size group.

The last part of the Fifth Amendment says government cannot take private property without due process and just compensation. Nobody has been compensated justly for their loss of livelihood, their loss of a business and being—it's not really incarceration when you're quarantined—it almost is like house arrest for six weeks.

... Our governor and lieutenant governor violated their oaths of office to uphold and defend the Constitution when they committed that unconstitutional act. They should be ineligible to hold office from that time forward.

What's an Independent American?
We're one of the few political parties that bring God into the world of politics. We believe the Constitution was inspired by God through the Founding Fathers and are the words of God as much as the Ten Commandments are.

What are your other campaign priorities?
We need more of an independent ethics commission overseeing the Legislature. The Legislature in its collective wisdom has established ethics commissions for the executive branch of state government and all the subdivisions of the state.

They monitor themselves, when it comes to ethics violations, with one of their committees. If that isn't the wolf in the hen house, you know? It's nonsensical for them to say that isn't a conflict of interest.

I would love to see us get away from the pay-to-play mentality that we have in the statehouse and the halls of our Legislature. The lobbyists have a lot more power up there than any citizen does and that is wrong.

Does policing in Utah need to change?
When they first started having the protests in Salt Lake City, policemen from all over the valley augmented the Salt Lake Police Department. The did what law enforcement is supposed to do, they did an admirable job of controlling unlawful assembly. While the people were protesting, they were generally peaceable, and I will defend to the death their right for peaceful assembly and protest.

Law enforcement is an essential thing, and I don't agree with defunding the police. I think respect for the law is important but respect for each other is most important.

I think we do need a lot more police review commissions. That would provide more citizen involvement in policing policy and reviewing incidents. It's never a bad thing for citizens to be involved, actively involved, with their communities.

Fill in the blank, Donald Trump is a...?
...an interesting president.

I don't know if his thumbs or his mouth are his worst enemy. He has done some good things, but he's given the comedians plenty of fodder.

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Benjamin Wood

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