Wednesday, March 07, 2007

New Huntsman appointee loves taking on challenges

Cox quick to dismiss her disability as she gets set to head Workforce Services
By Glen Warchol The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake Tribune

Kristen Cox laughs when she remembers the voter response to her foray into Maryland elective politics last year. "The reaction was, 'A blind Mormon woman running for lieutenant governor? How weird is that?'" Cox, 37, who will arrive in Utah next week to take over as director of the state Department of Workforce Services, has overcome her share of challenges, even before her unsuccessful political debut as running mate to former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich in 2006. Cox has served as President Bush's special assistant to the commissioner of Rehabilitation Services Administration in the Department of Education. Her close political ties with Ehrlich stem from his asking her to head in 2003 his newly formed Department of Disabilities, the nation's first Cabinet-level position of its kind. Cox had met Ehrlich a few years earlier when he was a Maryland congressman and she was a lobbyist for the National Federation for the Blind, based in Baltimore. She acknowledges her first experience in election politics was "very intense, very humbling." On top of the gubernatorial campaign pressure and her Cabinet responsibilities, Cox and her husband Randy, have two children Tanner, 11, and 22-month-old Riley. Ehrlich's campaign attributed his defeat to voter backlash nationwide against the Iraq War and anger at the GOP-controlled Congress. In Democratic-dominated Maryland, a Republican victory depends on cross-over votes. The failed run "was a very appealing opportunity," Cox says. "To get things done, you have to take risks." And even as voters cast ballots against Ehrlich, they said they were impressed by his running mate. "At the end of the day, it was my blindness, not my being Mormon, that most people responded to," Cox says. "But the combination was unique and it got us a lot of positive press coverage." If there's a career challenge that Cox understates, it's her blindness. "It's an inconvenience in my life," she says. "You learn to work around it." Cox began losing her vision at age 11 as a result of a degenerative genetic condition. The loss came gradually and, at first, she was able to get by with magnifiers and large print books. During her studies at Brigham Young University, however, her vision "took a big dive," she says. "I had some rocky moments in the beginning." She was forced to memorize much of her course content from lectures and by having texts read to her. She graduated in 1995 in educational psychology, certified as special-education teacher. Before graduation, Cox went on an LDS church mission to rural areas of Brazil, futilely lugging along a powerful magnifier. "It was broken when I got there," she remembers. "I was moving around rural areas a lot and repaired units took a long time to get to me. And when I plugged it in in rural areas, it burned out again." Cox has since learned braille, which she uses to read to her children. Virginia Knowlton, executive director of the Maryland Disability Law Center, which has sued the state of Maryland over poor performance on paratransit and other disability services, has praise for Cox, if not the Department of Disabilities. "She accomplished some good things in her role as secretary," Knowlton says. "We were frustrated that she wasn't given more authority and funding that would have allowed the department to do more." Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. spokesman Mike Mower said Cox came to the governor's attention during her campaign with Ehrlich. "Kristen came with strong recommendations as a dynamic leader." Despite her Utah roots - Cox grew up in Sandy and graduated from Brighton High School - and solid political credentials, Cox may not be the kind of Republican Utah's arch-conservatives appreciate. "I consider myself a moderate," she says, but emphasizes that political labels can be misleading. Though Cox believes in government involvement in bringing disabled Americans into schools and the workplace, she argues it is a "two-way street" and the disabled must return on society's investment. Also, as a politically ambitious working mom, feminists - not Utah's most popular group - would welcome Cox into their ranks. "Women have so much to offer. The folks back here in the [Maryland] Mormon community have been extremely supportive," she says of her balancing career and family. "I know there can be that division between homemakers and women at work. I would be disappointed to encounter it in Utah - in fact, I know I won't." Knowlton has a suggestion for Cox's superiors: "She's bright and capable. Give her the reins and give her some money, and she'll accomplish some good things for Utah."

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