Rounding Out The State Tickets

Cox immerses self in intricacies of public policy

Sun Profiles

Lt. Governor Candidates

Maryland Votes 2006

October 30, 2006|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN REPORTER

In the foyer of a handsomely appointed home in Potomac, Kristen Cox receives a warning from her host. "Now hold on, Kris, I have steps down," the host says. "I don't want you to fall."

Cox - who is legally blind and who that morning had run the 3.1-mile Race for the Cure in Baltimore without incident - bristles just slightly. "Oh, I'm fine," she says. "I've got my cane."

In her campaign for lieutenant governor, Cox prefers to talk about complex public policy issues and her record as secretary of the state's first Department of Disabilities. But she knows her blindness is often what people are most curious about, and she sets about quickly disarming them whenever possible.

"How many have heard about the Department of Disabilities?" she asked a room of 50 people at a spina bifida conference on a recent Saturday. "Don't raise your hand - I will not see you!"

Later that day, speaking to about 20 people at the meet-and-greet in Potomac, she says, "If you have questions about my blindness and are afraid to ask, I don't care. You can ask anything - anything but my weight!"

Cox, who is 37, walks three miles daily and clearly has no reason to fear questions on her weight, says she never aspired to a political career - behind-the-scenes policy work is more her bailiwick - but she is adapting to life on the campaign trail. She travels in a black GMC Yukon, with a cooler stocked with water bottles, trail mix and energy bars. She arranges her schedule to be home to put her two young sons to bed almost every night. And she has learned to go on the offensive on behalf of her running mate, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who selected Cox to replace Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who is running for the U.S. Senate.

In a string of campaign appearances, Cox has suggested Mayor Martin O'Malley, the Democratic nominee for governor, is losing support in Baltimore and questioned his statistics on crime and education.

"The mayor is trying to make this race a referendum on the federal government and George Bush," she told the Potomac crowd. "I think that is a way to deflect on what he's done as mayor in the city. And what I try to remind people is I'm not sure if Mayor O'Malley knows who he's running against."

Cox also seized on O'Malley's slip during a debate this month, when he said homicides in the city had fallen below 200 a year, when he meant 300. "I shouldn't know his crime stats better than he knows his crime stats," she said.

The O'Malley campaign says the mayor simply misspoke - but Cox made her point: She's a policy wonk who enjoys studying statistics, tossing off phrases like "wraparound services" and speaking of "regs," short for regulations.

Her comfort with a technical vocabulary comes partly from her background as an advocate for the blind. Cox headed the Utah branch of the National Federation of the Blind before the Baltimore-based organization asked her to come to Washington to be its lobbyist in 1998. She later joined the U.S. Department of Education as a political appointee focused on disability issues.

Born in Bellevue, Wash., Cox was raised in Utah by a single mother who fought vehemently for her daughter's rights. When Cox began losing her sight at age 11 because of a rare genetic disorder, her mother sued the local school system to get Cox the equipment she needed.

Cox did not let her advancing blindness keep her from the rituals of teenage life: She ran track in high school, went to the dances and worked at a snack bar at a country club. She also spent 18 months as a Mormon missionary in Brazil, where she learned Portuguese. (She laments that Maryland's small Brazilian population presents few opportunities to use the language while campaigning.)

Cox got to know Ehrlich when she was a lobbyist and he a congressman. After he was elected governor, he asked her to join his administration, and in 2004 made her secretary of the newly formed Department of Disabilities. Cox has immersed herself in the intricacies of policy and says her blindness has not kept her from doing her job. She carries a speaking laptop with her and says she can read anything that's digital. At meetings, she takes notes on a BrailleNote machine, which is like a personal organizer with a Braille keyboard. And even in unfamiliar venues, she is often several steps ahead of aides, her cane quickly sweeping the ground in front of her.

A theme of her campaign appearances, especially in front of disability groups, is asking more of yourself before asking of others.

"Driving all of this work is this underlying principle and philosophy that we believe people with disabilities can do much more than what society tends to expect of them," she told the spina bifida conference in Rockville. "I think 50 percent of the battle is funding and budget and regs and all that stuff. But another big chunk is wrestling with the hearts and minds of people to get them to expect more of themselves."

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