SALT LAKE CITY (AP)-- Representative Spencer Cox cleared his first hurdle to becoming Utah's new lieutenant governor after receiving the unanimous endorsement of a state Senate committee Tuesday.
Governor Gary Herbert appeared at the committee hearing to support Cox, a 38-year-old freshman Republican lawmaker and the governor's pick to serve as Utah's second-highest state official.
"Spencer has got a lot of talent," Herbert said. "You've seen that in the short time that he's been here at the Legislature."
Besides serving in the Legislature, Cox is a telecommunications executive from Fairview, a small town in central Utah. He is set to replace Greg Bell, who announced in September he was stepping down.
Herbert called Cox a "kind of shorter, younger version of Greg Bell," and said his background in law, business and public service make him the "total package." Cox now must receive final approval from the full Senate, which was scheduled to vote on the matter Wednesday.
Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics and an adviser to the governor, said he expects the confirmation to go smoothly. "He hasn't had a lot of time on Capitol Hill to step on many toes, so I would assume that Senate confirmation would be a breeze," Jowers said.
Cox would be Utah's eighth lieutenant governor and the second appointed by Herbert. Herbert picked Bell for the role in 2009. Herbert was serving as lieutenant governor and became the state's top executive when then, Governor Jon Huntsman resigned to serve as U.S. ambassador to China. Bell, who recently turned 65, said he needed to return to the private sector and save money for retirement.
As lieutenant governor, Cox would serve as a liaison to the Legislature and oversee the state elections office, among other duties. If he's confirmed, the state Republican Party would have 30 days to hold a special election to fill his legislative seat. Votes would be cast by about 50 GOP delegates in Cox's district, which covers Sanpete and Juab counties.
Before he was elected to the Legislature last year, Cox served as a Sanpete County commissioner. He also is an attorney and a former mayor and city council member in Fairview, where he grew up.
Cox served as a law clerk to Utah federal Judge Ted Stewart and worked for a Salt Lake City law firm before returning with his wife to Sanpete County, where he accepted a job as vice-president at telecommunications firm CentraCom.
Kim Pickett, vice-chairman of the Sanpete County Republicans, said Cox gained experience as he rose up through local politics, like his father, Eddie Cox, who also served as a mayor and council member in Fairview and a Sanpete County commissioner.
"The nice thing about Spencer, he's always been willing to listen to people," Pickett said. "He's objective. He's open-minded. He thinks things through very well."
Cox's most notable action in the House has not been legislation but an essay he posted on his blog earlier this year. Cox wrote he would like to see Utah Attorney General John Swallow resign, saying it would save millions in public dollars from being spent on a potential impeachment investigation.
Swallow, also a Republican, has been surrounded by allegations of misconduct since he assumed office in January. He has denied any wrongdoing. As a lieutenant governor, Cox would step into an office that's in the midst of a probe into an elections complaint against Swallow.
The lieutenant governor's office oversees Utah elections and is investigating allegations that Swallow failed to disclose business interests on his campaign disclosure forms last year. Swallow has said he's confident he'll be cleared in that investigation and his attorneys have argued the complaint is without merit.
At some point, a team of outside attorneys will make a recommendation to the lieutenant governor about whether there is probable cause that a violation occurred and if court action should be pursued. The lieutenant governor would make the final call and senators asked about that.
Senator Wayne Harper, the committee chairman, asked Cox whether his essay will cause people to question the office and investigation's impartiality. Cox said he and the office would continue to evaluate that.
But he added, "My assumption is that if I do something different than the recommendation, than that would call into question my impartiality."