A successful businesswoman and Utah state legislator, Karen Shepherd won election to the U.S. House in 1992, the “Year of the Woman.” Representing a competitive district with conservative leanings, Congresswoman Shepherd in her brief congressional career highlighted the promises and pitfalls of a period when power in the House was shifting from one political party to another.
Karen Shepherd was born in Silver City, New Mexico, on July 5, 1940. She grew up in several small towns in Utah before her family settled in Provo, where she attended high school. She graduated from the University of Utah with a B.A. in English in 1962 and, a year later, earned an M.A. in British literature from Brigham Young University (BYU). She also served as a staff assistant to Senator Frank E. Moss of Utah. From 1963 to 1975 she taught high school and collegiate English. She married Vincent Shepherd, and the couple lived in Cairo, Egypt, where she taught English and he wrote textbooks. After resettling in Utah, the couple raised two children, Heather and Dylan. Shepherd also managed a family–owned oil business. She served as the Salt Lake County director of social services and, in 1978, founded Network Magazine, which addressed women’s issues. In 1988, she sold the magazine business and became director of development and community relations for the University of Utah’s business school.
Karen Shepherd first ran for elective office in the fall of 1990, when she won a seat in the Utah state senate, where she served two years. When U.S. Representative Wayne Owens, a Democrat, announced he would not seek re–election to his Salt Lake City district, Shepherd won the party nomination to succeed the four–term incumbent. Her platform supported abortion rights and a balanced budget amendment. She also envisioned an expanded role for the federal government in the areas of health care, education, and the environment. Shepherd developed a 10–point plan for improving children’s lives that included measures to track down delinquent child support payers and to provide for full funding for Head Start programs.1 In the general election, Shepherd faced Republican Enid Greene, an aide to Utah Governor Norman Bangerter. Greene was a fiscal and social conservative who opposed all of Shepherd’s policy initiatives. The general election marked the first time in Utah history that the major parties pitted women candidates against one another. Shepherd narrowly edged out Greene with 50 percent of the vote to 47 percent, becoming only the second woman to represent the state in Congress.2 It was a noteworthy win in a district that gave less than one–third of its vote to Democratic presidential candidate William J. Clinton (he received 25 percent statewide). From the outset, Shepherd’s seat was politically vulnerable.
When Shepherd was sworn into Congress in January 1995, she received seats on the Natural Resources and the Public Works and Transportation committees. She voted for President Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill, the Brady Handgun Bill, requiring background checks and waiting periods for gun buyers, and the Clinton administration’s 1993 budget package, which cut the budget and raised taxes. “It seems to me it’s not perfect,” Shepherd said of the proposed budget. “But the worst of all of the alternatives is not to pass it, and not move forward to health care, free trade and all of these other things we need to do.”3 The budget measure was especially unpopular in her district. With only a narrow margin of passage on the budget bill, Shepherd’s vote was especially important to Democratic House leaders, who chose her to help round up votes for the administration’s anticipated health care plan. But she was barraged by phone calls and letters from unhappy constituents who opposed the 1.2 percent federal income tax increase and a hike in the federal gas tax contained in the budget. “Members feel isolated,” she said at the time, summing up her situation and those of about a dozen other Democratic freshmen who were elected by slim majorities. “You have this sense when we go back to the districts of going to get beat up.”4
Though a solid liberal vote, Shepherd also established herself as independent from the party leadership, becoming the first House Democrat to suggest that the President’s and First Lady’s Whitewater land deal be investigated by an independent prosecutor. “The public’s concern with the President’s business dealings has damaged his credibility and hampered his effectiveness,” she wrote the U.S. Attorney General. She opposed congressional hearings, however.5 Shepherd also co–chaired a panel of House freshmen for reform which suggested that gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers be banned and that Members be barred from chairing more than one committee. The House did not implement the majority of the recommendations, though her work as a reformer was hailed by one prominent political commentator as being in the tradition of progressive western politicians.6
In the 1994 general election, Shepherd again faced Enid Greene, who since had married and changed her surname to Waldholtz. In a campaign that centered on the federal tax increase and gun control, Shepherd promised to continue pushing for health care and welfare reform, as well as congressional reform. In one debate, she explained her support for gun control measures by noting, “We’re awash in guns. I’ve talked to hundreds and hundreds of people and the people believe that if there are more and more guns out there, there is a better chance that someone out there holding a gun will shoot them.”7 But from the start—and based largely on her support for the 1993 Clinton budget and the 1994 assault weapons ban—Shepherd was on the defensive. Running on the Republican “Contract With America,” Waldholtz won handily in a three–way race with 46 percent of the vote to Shepherd’s 36 percent; independent candidate Merrill Cook won 18 percent.8
After Congress, Shepherd was a Fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. In 1996, she was named executive director of the European Bank for Reconstruction Development, which steered loans to newly emergent democratic governments in Eastern Europe. Two years later, she chaired the East West Trade and Investment Forum of the American Chamber of Commerce. In 2000, Shepherd helped to found the Utah Women’s Political Caucus, and she served as a member of the international delegation to monitor elections in the West Bank and Gaza.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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