Ehrlich notes disability in choice of Cox

He calls blindness a factor in picking running mate

October 06, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he might not have chosen Kristen Cox as his running mate if she were not blind.

Since picking the state disabilities secretary for his ticket, Ehrlich has praised her doggedness and intelligence. But on the Politics Program with Mark Plotkin on Washington Post Radio yesterday, the governor suggested that those qualifications alone might not have landed her the coveted spot that helped catapult Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele - the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate - to national prominence.

Asked by Plotkin whether he picked Cox, 37, because of her blindness, Ehrlich said, "No, but do I think the fact that she cannot see, do I see that as part of a paradigm for what I want to represent? Yes."

Later, after a commercial break, he added without prompting: "I just want to finish the last question, because I think it's a really fair, good question. In my heart of hearts, I cannot answer honestly if Kris had sight, whether she would be the person I chose. I do not know that."

"I do know this: Given my experience with her, my relationship with her, her expertise, her brains, she would certainly be on that list," he said.

Within an hour after Ehrlich's comment, the campaign of his opponent, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, distributed an edited version of the radio segment to the media, saying the governor had "questioned the qualifications of his pick for lieutenant governor and implied that she was chosen because she is blind."

Ehrlich reacted angrily upon learning that the O'Malley campaign had raised his comment as an issue, saying his words were taken out of context.

"They tried to denigrate Michael Steele because of the color of his skin. They can't denigrate Kris because of her disability. I will not allow it," Ehrlich said, jabbing his finger in the air during a public appearance in Baltimore County to receive a state Fraternal Order of Police endorsement.

O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney said it was the governor, not the mayor, who raised the issue. O'Malley has publicly complimented Cox's management of the disabilities department.

"In his heart of hearts, the governor knows he has no one to blame here but himself," Kearney said. "No amount of finger-pointing is going to change that. These stunningly insensitive words, unfortunately, speak for themselves."

Herbert C. Smith, a professor of political science at McDaniel College in Westminster, said Ehrlich's statement was remarkable. The automatic answer for politicians when asked why they chose a particular running mate is simply to say the person is the most qualified for the job, Smith said.

"You have to credit the governor for incredible honesty," Smith said. "Yet, at the same time, he's confessing to pretty blatant symbolic politics."

Ehrlich and Cox met when he was a congressman and she was lobbying for the National Federation of the Blind. In the 2002 campaign, Ehrlich promised to create a Cabinet-level Department of Disabilities, and he has said she was his only choice to lead it.

Cox, a Utah native, moved to Maryland seven years ago and has never run for office before. In addition to her work on Capitol Hill for the National Federation of the Blind, she was a Bush administration appointee in the federal Department of Education.

Ehrlich said Cox is fully qualified to be lieutenant governor and to take over as governor if need be.

"She's part of my Cabinet. She runs an agency. She's been a presidential appointee. She's been a federal lobbyist. She knows the ins and outs of policy very well," Ehrlich said.

After hearing Ehrlich's comments, the National Federation of the Blind issued a statement from its president, Marc Maurer, in which he said the nomination of Cox and New York lieutenant governor candidate David Paterson, who is also blind, is a testament that society no longer thinks blindness is a factor in whether people can serve in public office.

"The National Federation of the Blind has no reason to believe that either Mrs. Cox or Mr. Paterson is anything but highly qualified for the responsibilities for which they have been chosen, because we know that blindness does not in any way limit an individual's capacity to be an effective public servant, or indeed to do anything else," Maurer said.

Despite his protests about Democrats leaping on his comments, Ehrlich repeated yesterday afternoon that Cox's blindness was a factor in his selection, calling her "symbolic and substantive."

The governor was compelled to select a new running mate when Steele decided to run for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes.

"Basically, the question was, if she wasn't blind, would she be lieutenant governor?" Ehrlich said. "She certainly would be on the list. The fact that Kris has a disability is very relevant to what we're trying to accomplish. She takes down caricatures as a person and as a professional."

Cox called it "nonsense" that the O'Malley campaign would raise Ehrlich's comments as an issue.

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