‘Remember what makes us strong’: Governor, local business leaders celebrate America

ST. GEORGE — In an event meant to celebrate America featuring the governor of Utah and a former Green Beret commander, the choir from Lava Ridge Intermediate School set the tone. 

The Lava Ridge Intermediate School Choir performs at the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce’s “Salute to America” event at the Hilton Garden Inn, St. George, Utah, Oct. 7, 2022

At a St. George Area Chamber of Commerce “Salute to America” gathering at the Hilton Garden Inn  in St. George Friday, the school choir sang “We Remember” about the 9/11 attacks that took place before they were born.

With the lyrics harkening back to when Americans were “one in song,” the song inspired speakers Col. Colby Jenkins as well as Gov. Spencer Cox, who threw out his prepared remarks in response.

Taking the stage, Jenkins, now a St. George resident and CEO of social and emotional learning platform SchoolPulse, said the song was inspiring and went with his theme that the nation has forgotten that it is stronger united because the nation’s enemies are unified about who their enemy is.

“We must remember to look forward. We must remember how we felt,” Jenkins, who led Special Forces of the U.S. Army teams in Afghanistan and South America, told the assembled group of local business leaders, members of state and local government, and local residents who purchased $25 tickets for the luncheon.

Holding up a piece of shrapnel that nearly hit him during the war in Afghanistan, Jenkins added, “Evil is real, people. They don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat or your sexual orientation. They only care that we are Americans.”

The event filled the Hilton ballroom with political leaders like Cox, State Sen. Evan Vickers and former Rep. Lowry Snow sharing space with several prominent local business leaders, including auto center president Stephen Wade and Black Desert Resort developer Patrick Manning, who spoke to those assembled about the news earlier in the week about the resort securing funding from a government green in initiative program.

Col. Colby Jenkins speaks during the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce’s “Salute to America” event at the Hilton Garden Inn, St. George, Utah, Oct. 7, 2022

It was also another stop on the governor’s “Utah 360” tour of the state that included a town hall at Utah Tech University Thursday. 

While the political leaders touted connections being made with Southern Utah businesses, the overriding theme was not just a celebration of American values. How to return to a less divided and more unified America that, as Jenkens noted, can agree to disagree but also find common ground, also was emphasized.

“It was nice to see the values that I was trying to share,” Jenkins told St. George News after he spoke. “I’m not saying that the world is bad, but that there are very evil forces out there that want nothing more than to destroy America. So it’s important for us to remember what makes us strong, what makes us America.”

Jenkins also took time to brag about his daughter Olivia, who earlier this year became the first woman ever from St. George to be accepted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

After Jenkins spoke, Cox took the stage mentioning he had changed his speech after following the choir and Jenkins.

“This message is exactly what I wish every American and classroom can hear,” Cox told those assembled. He also referred to something Switzerland Ambassador Jacques Pitteloud told him and other leaders during a recent trade mission about America being the hope of the world but is now seen as a “divided house” not leading and needs to come together and find common ground to lead the world again. 

 Speaking to St. George News just before the start of the program, Cox mentioned something he said during the inauguration of Southern Utah University President Mindy Benson on Sept. 23 in Cedar City. He had said he no longer sees people on the political spectrum as left or right or as “builders or disruptors.”  

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce’s “Salute to America” event at the Hilton Garden Inn, St. George, Utah, Oct. 7, 2022

“America was built by builders, both physically and, I guess, our character spiritually, if you will. The founding fathers and mothers of this country sacrificed so much to build and preserve this great nation,” Cox said. “That’s what we need again. We need builders. It’s really easy to tear people down. It’s really easy to tear institutions down.”

The governor also said the reason he attended the event is something that he said will help the nation unite again: making connections. 

“The world needs a strong America right now, more than ever, and that strength doesn’t come from our politicians, it comes from the people that are here,” Cox said. “So making those connections is really important to me.”

Toward the end of the program, Cox took questions from attendees, urging those who want to tell him “he’s doing a bad job.” Local resident Carolanne Simkins took the invitation, criticizing the governor for vetoing a legislative bill to ban transgender athletes that was later overridden by the legislature. 

Cox referred to a four-page letter he wrote and put online explaining why he made the veto and asked Simkins if she had read it. She said she did not and when asked by Cox, few others in the audience raised their hand that they had read it.

Gov. Spencer Cox fields a question from local resident Carolanne Simkins during the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce’s “Salute to America” event at the Hilton Garden Inn, St. George, Utah, Oct. 7, 2022

“This is where it’s so hard,” said Cox, noting that people are getting edited soundbites from cable news hosts. He then mentioned two prominent cable TV figures who have criticized him, including smiling about his “fan” Tucker Carlson of Fox News. For equal time, he noted HBO host John Oliver “hates me too” after he asked Utahns to “pray for rain” to battle the drought. 

“Tucker Carlson never talked to me and told his audience I wanted boys to play girls’ sports. Then he said he hated me because one time I was talking to a girl talking about considering suicide and sharing pronouns with her. Tucker said I go to schools and share pronouns,” Cox said. “If that makes you not want to vote for me, that’s fine. It helped that girl in that moment.”

After the event concluded, Simkins went up to Cox in a different mood. 

“She went into the event not liking Governor Cox at all,”  Chamber President and CEO Shawn Christensen relayed. “She said after listening to his answer, as well as the rest of his presentation, she will now vote for him.”

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