The most dangerous woman in Georgia politics sets off a mild stir when she walks into the modest banquet room in Macon, just enough of a low rumble in the crowd of 100 or so to make people look up from their sweet tea.
She's trim, blond, with a warm, slightly asymmetric smile; when she speaks, a distinct twang betrays her South Georgia upbringing. After greeting well-wishers and shaking a few hands, she takes her place in the buffet line and finally settles down to lunch before being introduced to deliver her stump speech at the Bibb County Democratic Party's monthly gathering.
Seen up close, Cathy Cox hardly seems a threatening presence, or even an obvious attention-grabber. She's soft-spoken and friendly, yet clear about what she wants to say. She comes across as smart and savvy, but doesn't browbeat folks with her intellect. At every opportunity, she describes herself as unlike most politicians: inclusive and willing to listen to all sides, with little appetite for partisan wrangling.
In fact, that might be exactly why the Georgia secretary of state has so rattled Republicans -- and a few old-school Democrats, too.
Cox, 47, is not a battle-scarred politico haunted by a record of gotcha soundbites and a long list of enemies. Her closets seem almost improbably skeleton-free. Many observers, therefore, have tagged her as the Democrats' brightest hope for beating Sonny Perdue in the 2006 governor's race, little more than 11 months away.
Of course, in politics a year is an eternity. In that time, Cox, a largely untested candidate, must face veteran brawler Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor in the Democratic primary. It remains to be seen how she will hold up under the withering barrage of a heated race, or whether her aggressive push for electronic voting might prove an Achilles' heel.
Still, Cox already has shaken up Peach State politics by roaring out of the gate with a fully tooled campaign. Prohibited by law from collecting political contributions during the General Assembly this spring, the secretary of state quickly made up for lost time, blindsiding Taylor by out-fundraising him by $1.5 million to $2 million in the year's first reporting period.
Cox shocked Taylor again in August, when 54 state House Democrats signed a petition formally endorsing her as the gubernatorial nominee. Even some who didn't sign, such as House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, make no secret of their support for Cox.
By most accounts, Cox has gained the early momentum in the primary race. The most recent statewide poll, conducted in late October by Strategic Vision, an Atlanta-based consulting firm, shows Cox leading Taylor by a full 10 points among Democratic voters. (The same poll, however, shows both of them lagging well behind Perdue among all voters.)
For the past few months, conversations at Democratic gatherings have been thick with rumors of highly placed party honchos quietly asking Taylor -- aka the "Big Guy" -- to step aside and spare Georgia Democrats from a scorched-earth primary that is certain to leave the winner, in the words of one Democratic operative, "bruised, battered and broke."
Short of Taylor's unlikely withdrawal, the Cox campaign is banking on her perceived niceness -- a combination of a Southern upbringing and well-honed professionalism -- to set her apart from Taylor, who, like his mentor, Zell Miller, has a hot temper. But while Cox colleagues and longtime observers affirm that she is as likeable in private as she seems in public, they say it's Cox's lesser-known side -- as a shrewd, no-nonsense administrator -- that will be essential to her political aspirations.
Tom Bordeaux, a Savannah Democrat who served with Cox when she was in the state House, observes: "Cathy Cox is exactly as she appears to be -- straightforward and low-key -- but she's also hard-nosed and businesslike. Anybody who knows her knows she's not soft."
Former Public Service Commissioner Bobby Rowan describes Cox as "very tough, well-organized. As Gov. [George] Busbee's slogan went, 'She's a workhorse, not a showhorse.' But she has more personality than Busbee ever had."
"Cathy is not the typical politician," says a former department head in the secretary of state's office under Cox. "She's all business. She's not a glad-hander or good ol' boy. You really can't get much past her."
Cox herself simply says, "I'm not a shouter." She recounts her ability, as a trial attorney, to remain civil and composed while hammering home her point.
It's a skill that will be sorely tested over the next year.
Cathy Cox has followed in her father's footsteps, even though, strictly speaking, he might not have approved.
"My dad didn't want his daughters in politics," recalls Cox, the oldest of four sisters. "Of course, he also hated lawyers."
The late Walter Cox was a pillar of the community in their hometown of Bainbridge, tucked deep into the southwest corner of the state. Her father became councilman, then mayor, then the county's state representative for 16 years. Her mother, Mary, still living, is an artist known for her drawings of local landmarks.
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