Blind ex-Utahn on ballot

Published: Saturday, July 8 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich and his wife, Kendal, center and left, are joined by his running mate Kristen Cox; her husband, Randy; and son, Riley, recently in Annapolis. Kristen Cox attended Brighton High and graduated from BYU.

Matt Houston, Associated Press

One of the early signals that little Kristen Eyring was losing her sight came when the strong-willed, competitive tomboy took off her glasses and squinted in a vain effort to read the menu at a McDonald's near her Sandy home.

From that day more than 20 years ago to the day last week when the governor of Maryland introduced Kristen Eyring Cox as his running mate in his bid for re-election, family and friends in Utah say the force of Cox's personality has knocked down nearly all of the barriers created by her blindness.

"Once she's decided something," said her older sister, Trina Eyring, "it's decided, and you go along for the ride."

Cox, 36, will appear on the Maryland ballot this November as the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is seeking a second term.

Ehrlich's decision to add her to the ticket thrust Cox, with her striking blond hair, onto the front pages of Maryland newspapers. The blanket coverage is a new experience for Cox, who attended Brighton High School and and graduated from Brigham Young University. But she has been in the public eye since 2004, when Ehrlich named her secretary of the Maryland Department of Disabilities, the first Cabinet-level position in the United States that focuses on disabilities.

It's an improbable career arc for a woman with Stargardt disease — an inherited form of juvenile macular degeneration — who 10 years ago was a stay-at-home mom with her first child, Tanner.

After Ehrlich introduced Cox as his running mate on June 29, most of the next day's news stories focused on her blindness, highlighting the pink suit she wore and white cane she carried during the announcement.

"Blindness is a novelty," Cox said in an interview with the Deseret Morning News. "I think people are curious about it and have questions, which is fair and legitimate."

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She said she hopes the questions and curiosity go beyond her blindness as the campaign continues.

Her mother, Connie Merrill, couldn't imagine it when she first heard the diagnosis.

"It was terrible," Merrill told the News at her Sandy home. "I was devastated," especially after visiting a home for the blind and thinking, "there has to be more for her than this."

Merrill was a teacher in the Jordan School District and had seen disabled children withdraw, but "Kris didn't withdraw."

Instead, she barged forward, continuing to play soccer until her eyesight worsened when she reached the Brighton High junior varsity team. She also ran track. At school, she pushed down the halls a cart with large-print books and a reading machine.

The only time the family ever saw her cry was when she learned she'd never drive a car. Instead, her parents bought her a red scooter.

"It was insanity," her mother said. "She went up and down our street 16 million times. It was her freedom. Neighbors always talked about the blond girl bombing up and down the street."

She quit riding the scooter when she recognized her eyesight was worsening. Cox is legally blind, though she has a little peripheral vision in her left eye.

She graduated from Brighton a year early and attended what was then known as Southern Utah State College in Cedar City for two years.

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