Kristen Cox 'just plain does it'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SALT LAKE CITY -- With the game tied after one period of overtime, Kristen Cox was given the ball. She was in junior high school, playing on a youth league soccer team despite an advancing vision loss that limited her sight to just a few feet.

During games, she relied on her teammates to get in place. "The ball's on your right, Kris!" they'd shout to her. "It's two feet away!" But now, she was out there by herself, with one shot on a goal she couldn't see to win the game.

Cox lined up, ran toward the ball and took the penalty shot. It sailed past the goalie's hands and into the net. Cox's team had won.

"She had all the confidence in the world," said Connie Merrill, Cox's mother, in an interview in her suburban Salt Lake City home last week. It's why Merrill isn't surprised that her legally blind daughter agreed to run for lieutenant governor with Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. She said Cox never let her disability keep her from her goals - or, on a soccer field, the goal.

Cox, 36, says she has a great life now, but it wasn't always easy.

Her youth in Utah - growing up with nine stepsiblings, attending public schools that did little to accommodate her - was marked by the compromises and adjustments necessary to live a life close to normal under trying circumstances.

She skied, her stepfather at her side, talking her down the slopes. She ran track and went to her high school dances. When her friends got cars, she got a motor scooter to ride to school.

"She just plain does it, and that's the beauty of her," said her stepfather, Taylor Merrill, who married her mother when Cox was 11. "She just does it."

When the National Federation of the Blind offered a job in Washington in 1998, Cox moved across the country and met a congressman who would later be governor. Ehrlich asked her to join his administration in 2003, made her secretary of disabilities and then chose her as his running mate late last month.

"She certainly had no trouble getting into people's offices," said Paul Schroeder, who, as vice president for programs and policy for the American Foundation of the Blind, crossed paths with Cox in Washington. "I think she puts people at ease by having a likable, almost charming style. But she's no pushover and she's no softie."

As head of the Maryland Department of Disabilities, which Ehrlich elevated to Cabinet level in 2004, Cox has worked on providing additional services to disabled high school students who are entering community colleges. She also helped improve the on-time rate for the paratransit service, which provides rides to people with disabilities.

But disability advocates say that while Cox talks a good game, the governor has not given her department the money and authority needed to make real change. The department has a budget this year of $6.8 million. It has oversight and policymaking authority but does not administer programs.

"I think to really judge somebody, I'd want them to have a position of power, and I'm not sure she really had that," said Lauren Young, director of litigation for the Maryland Disability Law Center.

Cox says her department can effect changes in programs run by other departments and has lobbied for more money to be spent on services for the disabled.

"To say this department isn't empowered, when you look at the track record, that isn't accurate," Cox said.

Politics was not the path Cox's parents imagined for her. Her degree is in educational psychology, and for a time they thought she might be a special education teacher. But politics, they say, is a means for her to pursue her ambition of helping people with disabilities.

"She's committed to a cause, and this [campaign] is a step in that direction," said her father, Gary Eyring, a management consultant who lives in Seattle. "She wants people to be freed up, to be self-directed."

Cox was born in Bellevue, Wash., where she lived until her parents divorced when she was 3. She then moved with her mother, a schoolteacher, to Sandy, Utah, a comfortable suburb near the Uinta Mountains south of Salt Lake.

As a child, she was driven and competitive. She was at the top of her class, and she and her friends tore up her mother's backyard with their soccer games.

Her vision started failing in the fifth grade, when she was 11. At first, doctors thought she had suffered burns from looking at the sun too much. But by sixth grade, she was diagnosed with Stargardt's disease, a rare genetic disorder that involves juvenile onset of macular degeneration.

In high school, Cox had to give up some of the activities she enjoyed most. She found other ways to fill her time - student government, the debating team.

Though her family lived in a spacious cedar home on a golf course, Cox and her older sister, Trina Eyring, had to work for the things they wanted.

Cox worked the snack bar at the golf course, earning money to pay for the fashionable clothes she liked to wear.

But high school was also filled with challenges. In school, Cox used a reading machine to magnify her textbooks. But the school wouldn't let her take the machine home to do homework or come in early to use it because staff wasn't there to supervise her.

So her stepfather would go to a photocopy shop to enlarge her homework many times over. Her mother sued the school system for better services. She lost the case and ended up buying a reading machine for Cox to use at home.

Facing difficulties in finding classmates who would read material to her, Cox left high school a year early and enrolled at Southern Utah State University. Again, she struggled, until her family realized they could hire readers to help her. "She's had a real battle of it," Young said. "But she will not tolerate anyone feeling sorry for her."

In an interview for this article, Cox was somewhat reluctant to talk about her disability, saying she did not want people's pity.

"I have a great life, and I wanted a great life back then," she said. "There were a couple of years that were really tough. But I wasn't driven by a need to prove myself and overcome. I was driven, like most people, to have a wonderful, meaningful, happy life."

In her early 20s, she spent 18 months in rural Brazil as a missionary for her church - an experience that her family says made her an advocate for the disabled and impoverished.

Officials with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as the Mormon Church is formally known) said it's "highly unusual" for a blind person to be sent on a foreign mission. Young people with disabilities are excused from mission service, and women don't have the same expectations for service as men.

"I didn't think there was a chance in a million they would send her that far away," said her mother. But Cox insisted on going. "She loved it. She came back committed to helping the poor."

After her mission, Cox enrolled at the church-sponsored Brigham Young University. She met her future husband, Randy Cox, at a business seminar and they married in 1992. Three years later, Kristen Cox graduated from college and had her first son, Tanner.

She began volunteering for the National Federation of the Blind of Utah and in short order was elected president of the Salt Lake chapter and then the state organization.

In 1998, the federation - known for its forceful advocacy but also for its questionable fundraising tactics - asked her to be a lobbyist in Washington. Cox had little legislative experience, but she took the job and moved with her husband and young son to Baltimore, where the federation is based.

During her tenure, the group helped get passed the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act, which requires school districts to make textbooks in Braille available for blind children at the same time textbooks are given to other students. School districts sometimes took months to get Braille books, putting blind students at risk of falling behind their classmates.

Cox also worked on passage of the Help Americans Vote Act, which guaranteed accessible polling places and secret ballots for disabled voters.

Schroeder, of the American Foundation of the Blind, said Cox's people skills helped smooth over the historically hostile relationship between his group and the National Federation.

"It's not always true that we worked well with the National Federation of the Blind, but we worked well with her," he said.

Before joining the Ehrlich administration, Cox worked for the U.S. Department of Education as special assistant to the commissioner of the Rehabilitation Service Administration. She had her second son, Riley, last year.

Cox says she is independent-minded. Her lineage seems to bears that out. Her great-uncle is Henry Eyring, a chemist who in the 1950s challenged the Mormon Church on evolution.

The head of the church had said that Scriptures must be read as literally true on scientific matters. But Eyring challenged that doctrine and argued that each individual should be able to make up his or her mind.

The dispute did not hurt the family's standing in the church. Henry Eyring's son, who is Cox's second cousin, is now a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who are considered by Mormons to be prophets who receive divine inspiration and revelation to guide the church.

Experts on Mormons in politics say Cox's religion should not be a liability. They say voters will be more concerned with larger issues, and any opponent who tries to raise the issue of her faith could see that tactic backfire.

"You start criticizing religion, and Jews and Catholics and others who have been taken on for their religious beliefs will have a bad taste in their mouth," said J. Quin Monson, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young.

Still, a recent poll suggests that, at least on a national level, Mormon politicians face more obstacles than those of other faiths. A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll released this month found that 37 percent of registered voters would not vote for a Mormon for president. Only Muslims received a higher negative rating.

Watching from Utah, Cox's family says she won't back down from a fight and she is ready for what is sure to be a tight, combative campaign. "If anybody gets in her way, they'll wish to heck they hadn't," said Taylor Merrill, her stepfather. "She'll walk right over them."

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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