About Utah: New budget hawk knows where to look

Published: Monday, Sept. 10 2012 6:23 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — The recent announcement out of the governor's office was written in typical bureau-speak. The Governor's Office of Planning and Budget (GOPB) was going to become the new Governor's Office of Management and Budget (GOMB), to be headed by Kristen Cox, who was moving from her position as executive director of the Department of Workforce Services (DWS).

Nothing at all in there about Kristen being blind.

To the contrary, in fact. Praising his new aide, Gov. Herbert said, "She has demonstrated impressive leadership and vision at one of Utah's largest agencies."

And so life rolls for a woman who is climbing the ladder so fast she's forgotten she can't see the rungs.

She's barely into her 40s and has already gone on an LDS mission, graduated from college, gotten married, had two children, worked for the National Federation of the Blind, served under President George W. Bush as a special assistant in the Department of Education, run for lieutenant governor of Maryland, and, for the past five years, directed Workforce Services back home in Utah during the biggest recession in 75 years.

Through it all, it seems that Cox's greatest claim to fame isn't how she does all of the above without the use of her eyes, but how quickly she makes people forget that she doesn't have the use of her eyes.

No less an expert observer than her mother, Connie Merrill, says, "I watch people be wary of her at first, then within two minutes they're past that."

That's because so is Kristen. "Sight is good," she said as she packed up her office at DWS for the move to the Capitol, "but it's just a tool."

And there are plenty more.

She started to notice the symptoms of Stargardt's disease when she was just 11. Up till then, she saw the world like the rest of us. Stargardt's is a rare disease of juvenile onset macular degeneration that slowly but surely, like a sort of reverse Santa Claus, takes away the gift of vision. Kristen didn't let go easily. She played competitive soccer well past the point where she could see the other end of the field; as the ball approached, her teammates would yell, "here it comes!"

It wasn't until she was in her mid-20s, with only a slight bit of visibility remaining in her left eye, that she finally surrendered and used a cane regularly. And that was because she fell in a manhole.

"It was in Maryland, in the middle of the winter, I was crossing the street and I fell into icy water up to my neck," recalls Kristen. "Luckily I wasn't hurt; it was full of water! I was just wet and very cold. That was a wakeup call."

But only one of many. Her life has been full of figuring out how to find another way; how to compensate. Take her memory, for example. Because she can't easily review documents and reports with her eyes, she memorizes anything and everything. "She'll go in front of those legislators and she'll spiel off data and numbers, looking right at them," says her mother. "That's better than if she were reading it. They really pay attention. It's amazing to watch."

In 2006, after she and her running mate, Gov. Robert Ehrlich, lost the election in Maryland, she came home to Utah — to go skiing! — and while she was here, then-Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. called. She interviewed for the position at Workforce Services and he hired her on the spot.

During her five years at DWS, caseloads went up by 50 percent and she reduced the budget by 30 percent. With those kinds of numbers, and her personal mottos of "Those who can work do work" and "Live within your means," and the one she tells her kids: "Suck it up, hunker down and make it happen," no one called her Mother Teresa.

But if that didn't impress everyone, it obviously impressed Gary Herbert, the man who replaced Huntsman and who has now elevated her from being an agency head to the budget watchdog over a bunch of agency heads.

"With very few exceptions, there is hidden capacity in organizations," Cox says. "I firmly believe that."

You just have to know where to look.

That's where she comes in.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.

email: lbenson@desnews.com

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