IN UTAH, A REPUBLICAN WHO SETS THE BAR HIGH We're betting that you'll wish to borrow this guy to be your governor
SPENCER J. COX, governor of Utah. CREDIT: Utah governor's office
THIS IS FOR SURE: We don’t do enough to celebrate people who do the right thing. Like Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican who on March 22 vetoed a bill banning transgender students from school sports. The Republican-dominated Utah legislature is expected to override the veto, which is disappointing, but that’s not the point. What counts is how Cox explained his decision, in a five-page letter to legislative leaders, a document that is one of the most elegantly decent statements I've ever read by a politician. The letter is appended to the end of this posting, so you can make up your own mind. But I challenge you to find a false note. Also, when you get to the appropriate parts, try not to weep. Yesterday, I posted a different sort of essay: a typical blast decrying yet another instance of Republican depravity – bullying children – as modeled by Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott, of Texas. The bombastic screeds that I generally write are embarrassingly easy to do, since Republican transgressions are so over-the-top, so cruel and ultimately so dangerous to democracy, that they may seem hardly worth the effort. Still, I think it's important – especially for the majority of us who have zero power and influence – to at least speak out. It’s a cliché, and therefore true, that it’s disgraceful to stay silent. But it's also vital to honor the kind of examples of character and courage that Cox exhibited. Not because you and I agree with him on the issue, although that helps; and it's certainly not to be “balanced," something I’ve come to regard as a journalistic sin dressed up as virtue. Rather, it’s important to herald the positive when possible, because it’s the positive things people do that really count; it's the good things people do that moves the rest of us forward and breathes hope into our lives as individuals and as a country.
SPENCER J. COX, from what I’ve learned from my go-to research source, Wikipedia, is no novice. He climbed the political advancement ladder the old fashioned way, first as a Fairfield city council member, then as a Sanpete County commissioner, a state representative, the lieutenant governor and since 2021, Utah’s governor. A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, he did his mission thing in Mexico. He did his humble guy thing by attending Washington and Lee University law school, instead of Harvard, to which he’d been accepted. And he did the family thing by marrying Abby Palmer, his high school sweetheart, and with her, is raising four children. On the other hand, at 46, Cox doesn’t seem to be a political powerhouse. For one thing, you and I have never heard of him. Secondly, when he ran for governor, he barely made it through the GOP primary, a four-way race in which he got just 36 percent of the vote. Given Utah’s deficit of Democrats, he racked up 63 percent in the general election.
THE VETO LETTER, addressed to the Senate president and the House speaker, is a masterpiece of clarity, candor, thoroughness, and most of all, kindness. When you finish it, you might want Cox to be your state's governor for a couple of years. He might be available, since his letter acknowledges the “political realities” that suggest it could have been prudent for him to have signed the transgender bill. Cox lays out the background with clarity you’d expect in a news story; he explains the legislative double-cross that led to his veto without venom or name-calling; and he spells out his reasons for the veto without boasting or apologizing. Cox explains that the bill had been crafted by legislators who consulted with a variety of interests in the thorny issue of whether students born as boys and transitioned to female identities might have physical advantages when competing on girls’ sports teams. The proposed solution was a commission that would review individual cases, prohibiting participation only in “rare” instances where an athlete might create unsafe playing conditions or unfair competition to “biological females.” Haggling produced changes, but the compromises were acceptable in Cox’s view. Then in moment of chicanery that Rhode Island legislative followers will find familiar, a new version appeared suddenly on the final day of the session, and hours before midnight, the legislature approved a total ban. I know we’re getting into the weeds here, but one of Cox’s compelling approaches is that he understands that the legislative process, and the difficulties with issues like those raised by transgender controversy, are complicated and nuanced, so that explaining the twists and turns is important to the public and takes time.
NOW, TO THE IMPORTANT PART, and this might be a good time to get out the hanky. Cox makes no claim to be a know-it-all, a partisan or a visionary, only that he has been one of many participants trying to feel their way through a murky dilemma that has no obvious or absolute answers. “I must admit, I am not an expert on transgenderism,” he writes. “I struggle to understand so much of it and the science is conflicting. When in doubt, however, I always try to err on the side of kindness, mercy and compassion.” (Memo to holier-than-thou liberals like me: this guy, Spencer, is a Republican, holding down the same sort of job as Ron and Greg, the bullies featured in yesterday's blog). “I also try to get proximate,” Cox says, “and I am learning so much from our transgender community. They are great kids who face enormous struggles.” Cox points to a couple of numbers that show the whole mess to be a farce, a word that Cox wouldn’t use: out of 75,000 students playing sports in Utah, four are transgender kids; just one of them plays in a girls’ sport. Two other numbers are also important, Cox says: 86 percent of transgender kids have thought about suicide; and 56 percent have tried it. “Four kids and only one of them playing girls’ sports. That’s what all of this is about,” Cox says. “Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. “Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are part of something. Four kids trying to get through each day. “Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few. "I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. "But I want them to live.”
I'VE BEEN a reporter and writer for 58 years, long enough to have learned that journalists don't know very much, although I've met some smart ones. Mainly, what reporters know comes from asking other people questions and fretting about the answers. This blog is a successor to one inspired by our dog, Phoebe, who was smart, sweet and the antithesis of Donald Trump. She died Feb. 3, and I don't see getting over that very soon. Occasionally, I may try to reach her via cell phone.