ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Kristen Cox says it is an encouraging sign of how far the nation has come that she and David Paterson, both legally blind, will be running for lieutenant governor in Maryland and New York this year.
"I don't think a few decades ago this would even have been entertained in a serious way," Cox said Friday, one day after Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich announced she would be his running mate.
Paterson is the choice of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer and has the support of top Democrats in New York, where, unlike Maryland, the candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately.
Advocates for people with disabilities are encouraged that two blind people will be leading candidates for lieutenant governor in the same year.
"This can only be positive," Mark Richert, director of public policy for the American Foundation for the Blind, said. "In particular, it's fun that we have two candidates, that there are two blind folks running for lieutenant governor."
"Clearly, just like anybody else who represents an ethnic minority, if we succeed, people will say, 'That's great. That's an example of blind people being able to do anything,"' Richert said.
Ehrlich's choice of Cox was good news to Elaine Sveen, president of the Maryland School for the Blind, who is not blind herself but raised a blind child.
"This really highlights the goals we have as educators, goals of independence and to be successfully employed and successful in life," she said.
"It creates interest and thus opens the doors of opportunity for all blind individuals," Sveen said. "She's quite a role model for others."
Cox said she would be honored to be seen as a role model.
"I am who I am today because of people who were role models for me, who mentored me and believed in me," she said. "I think, quite frankly, I have a responsibility from that perspective to help others."
Cox, 36, is married and the mother of two boys, ages 10 and one. She has worked on disability issues as a federal and state official and with the National Federation of the Blind.
Ehrlich pledged in his campaign four years ago that he would elevate the state disabilities agency to cabinet-level status. He brought in Cox to head the existing disabilities office and then appointed her as secretary in 2004 when the office became a Cabinet-level department
Paterson is the Democratic minority leader in the New York Senate and a prominent Democratic black official. He has been credited with helping Democrats gain seats in the state Senate.
Paterson did not immediately respond to a request for an interview with The Associated Press that was relayed to him by his campaign staff.
Ehrlich had to pick a new running mate because Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is running for the U.S. Senate. Maryland Republicans say it was Cox's talent and drive that earned her a place on the ticket, not the fact that she is blind.
"Her intellect is stunning, but it's nothing compared to her drive and energy," Ehrlich said. "When Kris zeros in on a target, she never misses."
Cox has no experience as an elected official, and Democrats will be waiting to see how she holds up to the rigors of what is expected to be an expensive and divisive election battle between Ehrlich and Baltimore's Democratic mayor, Martin O'Malley.
But she has gotten good early notices, including from Tom Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who is active in Democratic politics and called her selection by the governor a smart choice.
"Ehrlich obviously needs to improve his support among women. She has a truly impressive, feel-good story and seems to be a very able public official," Schaller said.
"There's really no down side to this unless she proves to be somebody who's not good on the campaign trail," he said.
Cox said she knows her blindness will be an issue in the minds of voters.
"They are curious about it. They have questions about it, and that's fair," she said. "I hope ultimately in the election that blindness becomes a non-issue."