Kristen Cox `just plain does it'

Lieutenant governor hopeful forges on despite blindness

July 15, 2006|By STEPHEN KIEHL | STEPHEN KIEHL,SUN REPORTER

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.

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