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Election news from across Utah's statewide and national races in 2020.

GOP Gubernatorial Candidate Spencer Cox On Local Government Experience And Mental Health Outreach

A man in a suite gestures while speaking into a microphone at a podium.
Trent Nelson
The Salt Lake Tribune
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox speaks while debating Chris Peterson in Salt Lake City on Sept. 29.

Utah has the first open seat for governor this year since 2004, and in the lead up to the November election, KUER is bringing voters conversations with both major party candidates.

Politics reporter Sonja Hutson spoke with Republican candidate Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who’s played a central role in the state’s pandemic response, about his vision for the state.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sonja Hutson: Why are you the best candidate to lead the state of Utah?

Spencer Cox: I have a very unique set of experiences that I believe make me the most qualified candidate to be governor. We've never had a candidate for governor that has served on a city council, as a county commissioner, in the state Legislature and in the executive branch as a lieutenant governor.

I'm the only candidate this year that lives off the Wasatch Front and has lived in both rural Utah and in urban Utah and understands the differences and how to bridge that divide. More than anything, it's that set of experiences that has given me insight and prepared me for the very large task at hand.

SH: How do you think the state has handled the COVID-19 pandemic so far? And if you're elected and take office in January, what does the response look like under your administration?

SC: Under this global pandemic, there have certainly been some major victories and some places where we have fallen short. We're learning more all the time. And I think that's the most important part of this response.

At the high level grades, we've done very well. We have two master goals. On the health side, it's keeping the case fatality rate under 1%. The national average is just over 3% and we're at 0.64%. So, we've done very well there.

On the economic side, we've been recognized as the best economy in the nation over the course of this pandemic, with unemployment at 4.1%. But at the same time, we recognize that we have a surge in cases right now. That's very concerning and something that we're watching closely.

What we've been able to do over the past six months is really refine this response. We have this incredible coordination that is happening right now on the health side, on the economic side. We have people responsible for dozens of different metrics and they're reporting out on what they did last week and the goals that they have moving forward.

The job of the next governor is going to be taking advantage of the new tools that are coming our way. The big one will be vaccines, making sure we can get those out to people and distribute those is going to be crucial. It really is about coordination moving forward and helping to restore the trust of our citizens that they've lost, especially in the federal government and the poor response we've seen there.

SH: Utah has one of the highest rates of suicide in the country, and it is the leading cause of death for Utahns aged 10 to 17. How would you address this issue as governor?

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.

SC: We're working very closely with the Legislature and with the health care community to increase funding on mental health related programs, and that's where we need to increase. A couple of the big things that come out of that are mobile crisis outreach teams. When someone's having a mental health crisis, instead of dialing 911 and sending a police officer, an ambulance, a fire engine — none of which are trained to deal with these crises and it also is very expensive — we're working really hard to send out a nondescript minivan with a couple mental health professionals who can de-escalate and actually solve the problem. We need exponentially more of those mobile crisis outreach teams.

We need more trained therapists and more psychologists and more psychiatrists. But it takes years and years and a tremendous amount of funding to train psychologists and psychiatrists. But if you can intervene early with usually some simple counseling, oftentimes you can avoid the more serious mental illness that does require a psychologist or psychiatrist and is very expensive to administer. I've been talking to the legislative leadership about what we can do to get more low level counseling and just get people the tools they need, especially young people, to overcome some of the anxiety that they're feeling before it deteriorates into something far worse.

SH: And lastly, Lt. Gov. Cox, what, if any, police reforms do you support at the state level?

SC: There are several and many of them we've already implemented or we're in the process of implementing.

One of the first ones was very simple. We were one of the first states to ban the use of chokeholds by police officers. Another one that is really important is increased training for our officers in de-escalation, in implicit bias and in how to connect better with our multicultural communities. And that's happening. Last week, we announced some major changes in our POST training for new officers.

Then really there's a huge piece of this that is holding people accountable when serious offenses occur. We are working with law enforcement as well on review boards to make sure that they're transparent and when there are bad apples out there, that they are being held accountable.

I'm very optimistic and very hopeful. My plan is to continue that progress if I get a chance to serve as governor.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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