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Trans bathroom law, convention boos: Cox weighs in on Utah’s hot-button issues

By Katie McKellar - Utah News Dispatch | May 17, 2024

Laura Seitz, Deseret News, Pool

Gov. Spencer J. Cox speaks to reporters during the Governor's Monthly News Conference at the PBS Utah Studios in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 16, 2024.

Is the enforcement mechanism of Utah’s transgender bathroom law — currently being flooded with thousands of hoax complaints — effective, or should there be any changes to the law?

Should Utah make reform its caucus and convention system, which critics say has become less representative of Utah’s Republican voters?

These are just a few questions reporters flung at Utah Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday during his monthly PBS Utah press conference.

His answers, if simplified, boiled down to maybe.

Questions covered a wide array of issues facing the state of Utah. Here’s a breakdown of how the governor weighed in on some of the highest profile issues stirring debate across the state:

Transgender bathroom law roiled by hoax reports

In recent days Utah Auditor John Dougall — who is among five Republicans competing in the June primary to replace Rep. John Curtis in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District — has been loud and clear about his frustrations with Utah’s newly implemented transgender bathroom restrictions and the Utah Legislature sticking him with the role of “bathroom monitor.”

Dougall, a Republican himself, has attacked other conservatives and the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature for passing a law that he’s said is more “show than substance” as more than 12,000 hoax reports have flooded his office through its online complaint website.

The issue has raised questions about the effectiveness of Utah’s newly passed transgender bathroom law, which restricts transgender people from accessing certain bathrooms and locker rooms of the gender they identify with in publicly owned or controlled buildings. It also casts a spotlight on infighting between Dougall and other Republicans over the law.

In his latest video posted on X on Wednesday — the second of which Dougall has filmed of himself in a bathroom — the auditor said he’s been “scolded that I don’t take my role seriously,” but he argued it’s ridiculous that his office’s team of professional accountants, economists and data analysts are “fielding frivolous complaints about bathrooms.”

Dougall described it as “a sad sideshow in the culture wars.”

“Now, I take my role as Utah’s watchdog very seriously. I just don’t take these MAGA antics seriously,” he said.

When asked about Dougall’s complaints and the effectiveness of the enforcement mechanism of Utah’s transgender bathroom law — which requires the Utah auditor to ensure Utah schools and other agencies are complying with its restrictions — Cox said he’s open to entertaining changes to the law if need be, but he wants to give it time.

“The effectiveness remains to be seen,” Cox said. “Like with any bill, I think there will be a time where we learn from it, see what’s working (and) what’s not working, and we’ll come back and figure out ways to make it better.”

However, Cox said the hoax reports and the problems plaguing the auditor’s office show “obviously the reporting structure is misaligned.”

Cox said what’s most important “is that we’re protecting women in women’s spaces, that was always the intent of the bill, and would be the intent if there are changes going forward.”

While Dougall has expressed frustration with the “reporting piece” of the bill, Cox said “I do believe that the underlying piece of the law is still sound.”

To those submitting frivolous reports, “obviously we would encourage people not to do that,” Cox said. “It’s not good. It’s not helpful. It’s not healthy.”

When pressed about Dougall’s complaints that the law and its fallout have resulted in a “culture war” sideshow, Cox said he disagrees with Dougall’s frustration with the law itself.

“It is important that we protect women’s spaces, women’s athletics, all of the things we’ve talked about many times,” Cox said. “I do lament the direction the culture wars have gone, for sure, but I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think there are people — who are not part of maybe what he would refer to as MAGA or culture wars — who have legitimate concerns. And I think it’s important to hear those concerns as well.”

Title IX lawsuit

On Wednesday, Utah joined three other states — Kansas, Alaska and Wyoming — in a lawsuit against President Joe Biden’s administration over new Title IX rules to protect transgender students in schools.

When asked about the lawsuit, Cox told reporters he supports it because he and other Republican state leaders “believe that (the Biden) administration has overstepped and, again, actually undercuts the original intent of Title IX.”

“Look, we believe, and I’ve said this many times, that it’s very important to protect our transgender students,” Cox said. “We want to make sure that everyone feels safe and protected.”

However, he said “we also … have to protect women. That’s what Title IX has historically been about.”

Cox argued states are “much better positioned to make sure that we’re protecting … both (groups). We believe that we can do that.”

The new rule, set to go into effect Aug. 1, expands Title IX to include gender identity and sexual orientation. It would codify protections for transgender students from sex discrimination and prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ+ students and employees based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.

Cox argued he doesn’t believe the rule protects all groups of people, but “ultimately a court will make those decisions.”

Cox’s response to getting booed at convention

Last month, Cox caught the brunt of a raucous Utah Republican Party nominating convention, with some delegates greeting him with a chorus of boos as he walked on stage.

He said he “went off script” and delivered a speech in a “very raw moment,” in which he told his detractors — not necessarily those who voted against him, but those who booed him — that “maybe you just hate that I don’t hate enough.”

The line drew anger from many delegates in the crowd — and the moment illustrated a deepening divide between hardcore Republican delegates and the rest of the Utah GOP. It’s a divide that’s been showcased not just this year, but in past election years. Former Gov. Gary Herbert was booed. So was former Gov. Mike Leavitt. And yet they went on to handily win their primary elections.

Cox, however, told reporters he’s a supporter of the caucus convention system — though he acknowledged it has its problems.

When asked if there should be any changes made to Utah’s convention system, Cox said he hasn’t “prescribed any” and he hasn’t heard of any proposals. Mostly, he said he supports it as one of two paths to the primary ballot.

“I love the caucus convention system. I believe in the caucus convention system. I always have. I think it’s really important and unique. I think having an alternative path to the ballot is wise,” Cox said, referring to Utah’s dual path to the ballot through a 2014 law, SB14, which allows candidates to also gather signatures to guarantee their place in the primary rather than solely having to rely on party nomination.

“I think we have the best of both worlds. But I do understand the deep frustration of those who believe that the caucus convention system is no longer representative,” Cox said, noting Utah’s Republican primary voters’ choices haven’t aligned with convention winners in past years.

He reiterated his speech was mostly directed at delegates who were booing him or trying to drown out his speech. “It was the behavior of some, a small group but a very loud group of people that kind of ruined the experience of so many people,” he said.

“I do think that’s very unhelpful,” he added of the booing, “and I think it’s important to call out that kind of behavior. I think it’s bad for our party, bad for our country, bad for our state, and the worst part is it’s not representative of the rest of the delegates, especially not representative of the party.”

When asked what he was hoping to get across when he told booing delegates that “maybe you  just hate that I don’t hate enough,” the governor said this year’s election cycle has been “frustrating” because it’s full of “lies and conspiracy theories.”

He said even though he argued his administration has “passed some of the most conservative legislation in the country,” today’s political climate seems to be “less about accomplishments and more about vibe, I guess, for a lack of a better term.” Some Republicans, he said, don’t seem to like his “vibe.”

“The vibe is that I try to listen to everyone,” Cox said. “I try to not be the governor just to the Republican Party or a wing of the Republican Party, but I try to be the governor of the entire state, and try to be inclusive and try to be persuasive.”

Cox — who has championed his “Disagree Better” campaign as chairman of the National Governors Association, with an aim to discourage hyperpartisanship, tribalism and political hatred –said he still believes “there’s room for persuasion, that I can convince people that our conservative vision for governing is better for our state and better for our country.”

“Too often, though, in today’s polarized world we are more focused on just our team and making the tent as small as possible,” Cox said, “not just in accomplishment or policy, but in tone as well. And I think that’s very unhealthy. I think it’s unhealthy for us as individuals, I think it’s unhealthy for our communities, and it’s really bad for our country.”

When asked what his solution would be to make Utah’s caucus and convention system more representative, Cox said, “we need more people to show up.”

“If every Republican showed up on caucus night, then I think we would have a much more representative sample,” he said, though he added that, “I understand that that is part of the problem, that not everyone can show up on caucus night.”

Cox said he’s not sure if it’s “something that can ever be fixed.”

Trump’s influence on Utah elections

Of the candidates that won nominations at the Utah GOP state nominating convention, many aligned with former President Donald Trump in style and rhetoric. One, Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs (running to replace outgoing Sen. Mitt Romney), was endorsed by Trump the morning of the convention. Delegates welcomed him with wild cheers and gave him the nomination with nearly 70% of the vote.

When asked about Trump’s influence on the primary, Cox — who has had misgivings about Trump, having not voted for him in 2016 or 2020 — said “he should have influence” as the “standard bearer of the party.”

Cox repeated his comments from February when he said the nation was making a “huge mistake” by setting up a repeat Biden-Trump matchup. He said he had hoped “we would find new candidates” for both parties, but the “system, the voters … delivered us the same two candidates.”

On Trump’s endorsement of Staggs, Cox said it “will be interesting to see what kind of impact that has” in Utah, though he added, “Utahns have historically been pretty resilient from outside influence in that people want to make up their minds for themselves.”

When asked whether he’ll vote for Trump this year, Cox gave a curt response.

“I answered this last time,” Cox told the reporter. “You can go back and listen to the tape.”

In February, Cox said he hasn’t voted for a major presidential candidate since Mitt Romney in 2012. For the last 12 years, he said, he’s voted for write-in candidates.

Cox says he’s ‘proud’ of University of Utah’s response to pro-Palestinian protests

Last month, the national wave of pro-Palestinian protests hit the University of Utah’s campus. Police allowed the protest for several hours but swiftly and in some cases violently cracked down when protesters set up tents and attempted to camp on the lawn of Presidents Circle. Since then, at least 21 people have been arrested in connection to the protest.

Cox on Thursday praised the University of Utah’s response to the protest.

“(I’m) just so proud of how that went down,” he said.

Cox said he was in contact with University of Utah President Taylor Randall on the night of the protest and in the days that followed.

“We had phone calls, conversations about what was happening and how to respond,” Cox said. “I thought they handled it brilliantly. If you look at what’s happened in other states across the nation, we absolutely did it the right way. I’m so proud of our first responders who were on scene.”

In a letter issued shortly after the protest, more than 160 University of Utah faculty signed a joint statement asking the school to end its police presence at the recent pro-Palestinian protests and start the process of a divestment strategy “from those profiting from the war in Gaza.” The letter also objected to “unprovoked and unwarranted use of force” against the protesters who were “exercising their right to free speech.”

Randall told Utah News Dispatch on Wednesday that the University’s response to the protest was intended to “maintain the ability for everyone to have free speech within the bounds of the law. And that’s the balance we continue to strike.”

“If individuals want to come and express themselves on campus, there are very clear guidelines,” Randall said.

While critics have pointed out the school previously encouraged and allowed camping in Presidents Circle just months earlier when ESPN’s College Gameday came to Utah, university officials have said that event was sanctioned and the pro-Palestinian protesters did not seek a permit to camp. Therefore, the university said the tents were “illegal structures.”

“This is very easy. We will always protect people’s right to protest no matter what they say or if we disagree with it,” Cox told reporters Thursday. “There’s nothing in the First Amendment that says you get to pitch a tent anywhere you want whenever you want. And there’s nothing that says you get to harass other people or make life miserable for other people. You don’t get to do that, and restrict other people’s ability to get an education and move around on campus.”

Cox said the University’s response to the protest held “those who decided to break the law” accountable. He also said that most people who were arrested weren’t students, but rather “agitators who came from off campus.”

Five of the 21 that were arrested were students, according to the U., while one is an employee. The rest, it said, were unaffiliated with the school. However, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that four of those labeled as unaffiliated were recent graduates of the school, one is a former employee, and six are graduates from Utah high schools and other colleges in the state.

Contributing: Alixel Cabrera

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.


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