Personal tragedy propelled Carolyn McCarthy into politics, after an act of gun violence took the life of her husband and seriously injured her son. McCarthy quickly became a well-known national advocate for gun control legislation. When she decided to run for her Long Island district’s seat in the 1996 election, McCarthy was initially dismissed as a political novice and a one-issue candidate. But she won election and went on to serve nine terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. As the first woman to represent Long Island in the House, she helped to pass legislation on a wide range of issues, including education reform, housing policy, and community health and safety.1
Carolyn Cook was born in Brooklyn, New York, on January 5, 1944, daughter of Thomas Cook, a boilermaker, and Irene Cook, a homemaker and part-time saleswoman in a five-and-dime. She graduated from Mineola High School on Long Island in 1962 and earned a nursing degree from the Glen Cove Nursing School in 1964. She married Dennis McCarthy in 1967 and they raised one son, Kevin.2 For 30 years, Carolyn McCarthy worked as a licensed nurse in the intensive care unit of the Glen Cove Hospital. On the evening of December 7, 1993, a gunman opened fire on a commuter train bound from New York City to the Long Island suburbs. Dennis McCarthy was one of six people killed in the attack. McCarthy’s son, Kevin, was shot in the head but survived, one of 19 other injured commuters.3
While McCarthy provided care for her son, she also became a passionate promoter of gun control legislation. She traveled to Washington to lobby lawmakers on behalf of President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which included a ban on assault weapons.4 When U.S. Representative Dan Frisa of New York’s 4th District voted to repeal the assault weapons ban in 1994, McCarthy decided to challenge him for the House seat. As a registered Republican, McCarthy initially tried to run in the GOP primary, but was discouraged from joining the race by the chairman of the powerful Nassau County Republican Party.5 The Democratic Party invited her to run on its ticket, and she accepted after a meeting with House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri.6
During the 1996 general election, Frisa claimed that McCarthy was solely focused on gun control and was not prepared to effectively represent the district. McCarthy’s compelling story brought national attention, and she made Frisa’s vote to eliminate the assault weapons ban a major part of her campaign. But she also campaigned on reforming the health care system, providing a basic guaranteed safety net for senior citizens, and protecting the environment. Despite being a political novice, McCarthy was awarded the honor of delivering a prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention. She embraced many of the planks of President Clinton’s campaign, favoring fiscal responsibility and a balanced budget while also supporting women’s right to reproductive choice.7
McCarthy won election to the 105th Congress (1997–1999), resoundingly defeating Frisa by 54 to 38 percent of the vote. She had tapped into a cross-over vote, composed of many Republican middle-class women, who propelled her into office.8 In 1998, McCarthy held off Republican Gregory R. Becker in a close election, capturing a plurality of 48 percent of the vote, just enough to hold off Becker’s 43 percent which drew from conservative and right-to-life groups. In a 2000 rematch against Becker, McCarthy enjoyed a much more comfortable winning margin, 54 to 35 percent.
Even though her suburban Long Island district was a Republican stronghold, she was easily returned to Congress in each of her re-election campaigns from 2002 to 2012. Five of those six re-election campaigns ended with large margins of victory, with several exceeding 20 percentage points. Only during the 2010 election, when Republicans were swept back into the majority in the House, did McCarthy face a formidable challenge from Francis X. Becker, Jr., winning 54 to 46 percent.9
When she claimed her seat in the 105th Congress, McCarthy was initially assigned to the Education and Workforce and the Small Business Committees. She largely voted with Democrats, supporting their environmental, health care, and women’s rights agenda. Even though she personally opposed abortion, she supported women’s right to choose.10 McCarthy’s voting record deviated from her party on government spending and foreign policy issues, such as her support for the use of force in Iraq in 2002.11
McCarthy was a leading proponent of gun control in the House. She was not opposed to gun ownership, however, and frequently stated her desire to safeguard a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment.12 In 1997, she tried to add an amendment to a juvenile crime bill that would have required childproofing gun triggers. “It is a simple safety lock,” McCarthy declared on the House Floor. “We have bills that make it impossible for children to get into an aspirin bottle. Do my colleagues not think we should do the same thing with a gun?”13 A majority of Republicans and Democrats refused to adopt her measure, but McCarthy attracted national attention for the issue. The Clinton administration later won concessions from the major gun manufacturers to add the safety equipment.14 Throughout her career, McCarthy pushed to strengthen gun control measures and tighten background checks for purchasers, particularly at gun shows, while promoting a diverse array of potential solutions to widespread gun violence in the United States. She unsuccessfully attempted to reauthorize the Assault Weapons Ban in 2004.15
McCarthy’s most significant legislative achievement on gun control was the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Improvement Amendments Act of 2007. After the mass shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech University—at the time, the deadliest in U.S. history—McCarthy worked with Republicans and the National Rifle Association (NRA) to bolster background checks on gun buyers. The act provided increased funding for a system designed to make more personal data available at the point of sale, especially information related to disqualifying factors for gun purchases such as mental health issues and criminal records.16
This was McCarthy’s only major legislative victory in her struggle for gun control regulations. Despite the visibility of this issue, McCarthy was unable to mobilize enough votes to achieve her goal of imposing lasting limitations on access to assault weapons. She unfailingly proposed legislation in the wake of school shooting massacres and the attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona in 2011. After the December 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school shooting which resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six adults, she was unable to muster support for expanding background checks on gun buyers or a new Assault Weapons Ban in 2014.17
McCarthy considered her gun control advocacy only one component of her commitment to community safety. “Like cars, food, medicine and many other consumer products, gun ownership should be subject to safety regulations designed to protect innocent Americans,” she said.18 She promoted community solutions to the problem of gun violence, calling for a “holistic approach” including funding firearm safety and regulation as well as counseling, after school programs, and the mental health and juvenile justice systems.19
McCarthy remained on the Education and Workforce Committee for her entire career, where she worked to improve the U.S. education system. She encouraged healthy school lunch programs, increased funding for educating learning-disabled students, and proposed investing in the construction and renovation of school buildings. She also helped draft the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, but later objected to the emphasis on standardized testing.20 On the Healthy Families and Communities Subcommittee of the Education and the Workforce Committee, McCarthy promoted reforms designed to strengthen the support system for young people in communities affected by poverty, drug abuse, and violence. From 2007 to 2011, she used her position as chair of the subcommittee to investigate juvenile justice issues and violence prevention programs.21
In 2003, McCarthy joined the Democratic Steering Committee and was named an assistant whip.22 She likened the whip position to her previous career as a nurse, equating vote counting with recording the temperature of a patient.23 During the 113th Congress (2013–2015), she served as Vice-Chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Force.
McCarthy rejected criticism that she was focused on gun control at the expense of other pressing matters for her district. “There’s no such thing as a woman having just one issue,” she said. “And I think I proved that.”24 After trading in her assignment on the Small Business Committee for one term on the powerful Budget Committee during the 107th Congress (2001–2003), McCarthy left that post to take a position on the Financial Services Committee in the 108th Congress (2003–2005), where she remained for the rest of her career.
McCarthy used her seat on the Financial Services Committee to play a significant part in the national response to the Great Recession. During the 110th Congress (2007–2009), McCarthy was critical of the federal assistance provided to banks deemed “too big to fail”; however, she reluctantly backed the fall 2008 law that created the Troubled Asset Relief Program because many of her constituents worked in finance in the New York City area.25 In 2009, she co-sponsored the Bailout Bonus Tax Bracket Act in response to reports that large bonus payments were distributed by businesses receiving federal assistance through TARP.26 Although she initially called for a 100-percent tax on bonuses, a 90-percent tax was imposed by Congress in 2010.27 McCarthy also supported the 2010 Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, named after Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. She praised the financial regulatory plan designed to provide government protections for consumers.28
McCarthy also used her appointments to the Financial Services Committee’s many subcommittees to focus on issues concerning personal finance, housing, and trade. For those facing the worst effects of the housing crisis, she included a provision in a 2008 housing law that funded counseling programs to help homeowners avoid bankruptcy or foreclosure.29 After Hurricane Sandy damaged her district in 2012, she co-sponsored legislation that reduced the rate of increase for flood insurance premiums in disaster areas.30
In addition to her work on the Financial Services Committee, McCarthy was also committed to forging legislation intended to promote public service in local communities. In a 2007 law designed to reduce college costs, she included language that established a loan forgiveness program for those pursuing careers in public service, including teachers and nurses.31 She sponsored the Serve America Act of 2009, which provided grants for nonprofits, expanded the definition of public service, and incentivized participation by increasing the value of educational stipends provided to volunteers.32 One of her final legislative achievements was the Civil Rights History Project Act of 2009, which required the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution to create an oral history project on the postwar civil rights movement.33
After being diagnosed with lung cancer and receiving treatment in 2013, McCarthy announced that she would not stand for re-election at the end of the 113th Congress.34 She retired in early 2015 at the conclusion of that term.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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