CARNAHAN, Jean

1933–

Biography

Jean Carnahan, the former first lady of Missouri, was appointed to the United States Senate to fill the vacant seat from Missouri caused by the death of her husband of 46 years, Governor Mel E. Carnahan. Elected to Congress three weeks after his death in a plane crash, Mel Carnahan became the first U.S. Senator elected posthumously. Despite having never held public office, Jean Carnahan earned the distinction of being the first woman Senator from Missouri.

Jean Carpenter was born on December 20, 1933, in Washington D.C. The daughter of Reginald Carpenter, a plumber, and Alvina Carpenter, a hairdresser, Jean was just 15 when she met her future husband, Mel Carnahan, the son of Missouri Congressman Albert Carnahan. Both Mel and Jean attended Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C., where they sat next to each other in class.1 In 1951, Jean became the first in her family to graduate from high school. Two years later, Mel and Jean married upon Mel’s graduation from college. Jean soon followed suit, earning a B.A. in business and public administration from George Washington University in 1955. The couple went on to have four children: Roger, Russ, Robin, and Tom. In addition to her responsibilities as a homemaker and mother, Jean Carnahan was a public speaker and an author. She also played an active role in her husband’s numerous political campaigns for state office, writing speeches and creating an extensive card–catalogued database of potential supporters and donors.2 When Mel Carnahan became governor of Missouri in 1993, his wife flourished in her role as first lady. Interested in addressing the needs of children, Jean Carnahan helped to implement mandatory child immunization, organized projects to promote children’s increased exposure to culture and art, and cofounded Children in the Workplace to create childcare for working parents at their place of employment.3

During his second term as Missouri governor, Mel Carnahan decided to challenge Republican incumbent John Ashcroft for his seat in the U.S. Senate. On October 16, 2000, Carnahan, his son Roger, and a legislative aide perished when their private plane crashed en route to a campaign rally in New Madrid, a town about 150 miles south of St. Louis.4 Despite the governor’s death, his name remained on the ballot due to Missouri state law that prohibited any changes within a month of the election date.5 Out of respect for his former opponent and his family, Ashcroft ceased his campaign efforts for 10 days after the tragedy. Political observers assumed Ashcroft would win by default; however, momentum shifted to the Democratic candidate in the days preceding the general election. “Don’t let the fire go out,” became the rallying cry for Missouri voters, who grew even more enthused about Carnahan’s candidacy once his widow Jean made it known that she would accept an appointment to take his place in the Senate.6 Still reeling from the death of her husband and son, Jean Carnahan recalled her reaction when Missouri’s new governor, Roger Wilson, approached her with the prospect of serving in Congress. “I almost felt as if my world had come to an end,” she said. “But I didn’t want all the things that Mel stood for, that we had worked together for, I didn’t want those things to die. I didn’t want to feel like I was letting myself down or him down. And the people of Missouri wanted something to survive the plane crash, as well.”7

In the November election Mel Carnahan posthumously defeated incumbent Senator John Ashcroft by 48,960 votes out of a total of about 2.4 million cast. Elated with the victory, Jean Carnahan vowed that “we will never let the fire go out”—a tribute to her late husband’s political legacy.8 Appointed for two years to the U.S. Senate to fill the vacancy, Jean Carnahan was sworn in on January 3, 2001, taking the Senate seat once held by Harry S. Truman.

In the Senate, Carnahan served on several committees: Armed Services; Small Business and Entrepreneurship; Governmental Affairs; Commerce, Science, and Transportation; and the Special Committee on Aging. Admitting that her jump to the Senate was overwhelming at times, Carnahan observed, “I’ve learned a lot. I’m not so lost anymore. But there’s a lot I’ve still got to learn. Some issues I can’t talk to you about yet because I don’t know them yet. But I’m learning. I’m learning. And I’m enjoying myself.”9 During her first few months in Congress, Carnahan, viewed as a courageous widow, attracted attention from strangers and colleagues alike. She recollected that on one occasion, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts gave her a copy of John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage with the inscription, “To Jean Carnahan, who has written some profiles in courage herself.”10

Building on her experience as first lady of Missouri, Carnahan sought to continue the legislative interests she shared with her late husband, most especially with respect to furthering opportunities for children. The first legislation she introduced in the Senate was a measure to increase funding in public schools to help reduce class sizes, hire additional teachers, and build or renovate classrooms. In a speech on the Senate Floor, Carnahan called the education of children, “an issue that is close to my heart and one that is essential to our nation’s future.” She also explained that her desire to improve American schools derived in part from her husband’s dedication to the issue and their shared belief that local schools should be given more flexibility on how to spend federal money to improve education.11 In May 2001, Carnahan achieved an early legislative victory when her bill passed the Senate as an amendment to an education reform measure.12 During her short tenure in the Senate, Carnahan also worked to provide federal workers with greater access to child care services, another carryover from her time as Missouri’s first lady.

As a Senator, Carnahan emphasized her moderate stance on the issues and desire to work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. In 2001, she was one of 12 Democratic Senators to back President George W. Bush’s tax cut. Although she voted in favor of the program, she later commented, “The bill passed by the Senate is far from ideal, however. In particular, I would have liked to have seen a greater portion of its benefits go to middle–income working class families.”13 Carnahan also worked to find common ground with fellow Missouri Senator Republican Christopher (Kit) Bond. Both supported a bill to provide assistance for farmers, and the two Senators worked to protect the jobs of more than 10,000 Trans World Airlines (TWA) employees in Missouri when the airline merged with American Airlines; on the latter issue, however, Carnahan received criticism from Republicans and some TWA officials for taking too much credit.14

A year after her appointment to the Senate, Carnahan announced her decision to run in the November 2002 special election to complete the six–year term. During her first year on the Hill, GOP leaders from Missouri avoided overt criticism of Carnahan, even when angered by actions such as her vote against John Ashcroft’s appointment for U.S. Attorney General, a decision Carnahan classified “a vote of conscience.”15Still wary of a potential backlash resulting from the perception of attacking a grieving widow, Republicans focused on Carnahan’s lack of experience when she entered the senatorial election. The closely contested race between Carnahan and her Republican opponent, former U.S. Representative Jim Talent, attracted national attention from both parties. During the campaign, Carnahan attempted to distance herself from her husband’s accident and instead highlighted her accomplishments in the Senate.16 Ultimately defeated in a close race in which she earned 48 percent of the vote, Carnahan told her supporters after conceding to Talent, “Ours is a cause that has not been lessened by defeat. Others will come to pick up the fallen torch.”17

Since leaving Congress, Carnahan has remained active in Democratic politics, in particular promoting the candidacy of women. She also has devoted herself to her children’s political futures. In 2004 her son Russ won election to the U.S. House of Representatives from a Missouri district.

Footnotes

1Jean Carnahan, Don’t Let the Fire Go Out! (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004): 85, 88.

2Lois Romano, “Late Governor’s Name Holds Sway in Mo. Election; Senator Carnahan, Challenger Seek To Run on Own Records,” 22 July 2002, Washington Post: A01.

3“Official Biography of Senator Carnahan,” http://carnahan.senate.gov/ Bio.html (accessed 21 November 2001).

4“Missouri Governor, 2 Others Reported Dead in Plane Crash,” 17 October 2000, New York Times: A1.

5James Dao, “Senate Candidate’s Death Hurts Democrats’ Chances,” 18 October 2000, New York Times: A21.

6Neil A. Lewis, “In Missouri, Campaign Flourishes After the Death of the Candidate,” 31 October 2000, New York Times: A1.

7Lizette Alvarez, “Senator–Elect Copes With Grief by Continuing a Legacy,” 18 December 2000, New York Times: A12.

8William M. Welch, “Widow Carries on Legacy, Dream,” 9 November 2000, USA Today: 8A; “Governor’s Widow Goes to the Senate,” 6 December 2000, New York Times: A30.

9Drummond Ayers, Jr., “Appointed to the Senate, Carnahan Rides High,” 26 June 2001, New York Times: A17.

10Carnahan, Don’t Let the Fire Go Out!: 41; Alvarez, “Senator–Elect Copes With Grief by Continuing a Legacy.”

11Kevin Murphy, “Offering Her First Bill, Carnahan Proposes Money for Schools,” 16 February 2001, Kansas City Star: A10; Congressional Record, Senate, 107th Cong., 1st sess. (15 February 2001): 1469.

12“Carnahan School Amendment Approved,” 17 May 2001, Kansas City Star: A6.

13Kevin Murphy, “Carnahan Among Senators Backing Bush’s Tax Proposal,” 24 May 2001, Kansas City Star: A8.

14Libby Quaid, “Missouri Senators Back New Farm Bill,” 8 May 2002, Associated Press; Libby Quaid, “Spot Touts Carnahan’s Support of Airline Merger,” 12 July 2002, Associated Press.

15Libby Quaid, “Carnahan Loses Seat of Late Husband in Missouri Senate Battle,” 6 November 2002, Associated Press.

16Romano, “Late Governor’s Name Holds Sway in Mo. Election.”

17Kevin Murphy and David Goldstein, “Talent Wins Tight Race; Kansans Chose Sebelius, Missouri Contest Watched Closely,” 6 November 2002, Kansas City Star: A1.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

University of Missouri
Western Historical Manuscript Collections

Columbia, MO
Papers: Senatorial papers.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

Carnahan, Jean. Don't Let the Fire Go Out! Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.

___. If Walls Could Talk: The Story of Missouri's First Families. Jefferson City, Mo.: MMPI, 1998

___. Christmas at the Mansion: Its Memories and Menus. Jefferson City, Mo.: MMPI, 1999.

"Jean Carnahan," in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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