MCCARTHY, Carolyn

McCARTHY, Carolyn
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1944–

Biography

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. In 1996 when she ran for a Long Island district seat in the House, McCarthy was initially dismissed as a political novice and a one-issue candidate. But she won and went on to serve nine terms in Congress. As the first woman to represent Long Island in the House, she helped pass legislation on a wide range of issues, including education reform, housing policy, and community health and safety.1

Carolyn McCarthy was born Carolyn Cook 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 Glen Cove Hospital. On the evening of December 7, 1993, a gunman opened fire on a commuter train traveling 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 cared for her son, she also became a passionate advocate of gun control. She traveled to Washington to lobby Congress to support President William J. (Bill) Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which included a ban on assault weapons.4 When Representative Dan Frisa of New York opposed the assault weapons ban, McCarthy decided to challenge him for his seat in the House. 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 McCarthy to run on its ticket, and she accepted after a meeting with House Minority Leader Richard Andrew 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 personal story garnered national attention, and she made Frisa’s vote to eliminate the assault weapons ban a major part of her campaign. She also campaigned on reforming the health care system, providing a basic guaranteed safety net for senior citizens, and protecting the environment. Despite having never held office, McCarthy was awarded the honor of delivering a prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention. She embraced many of the planks in President Clinton’s campaign, including a balanced budget and support for women’s right to reproductive choice.7

On Election Day, McCarthy defeated Frisa easily with 54 percent of the vote. She had tapped into a crossover vote, composed of many middle-class Republican 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. In a 2000 rematch against Becker, McCarthy enjoyed a much more comfortable winning margin, 54 to 35 percent.9

Even though McCarthy’s suburban Long Island district had been a Republican stronghold, she was easily returned to Congress in each of her re-elections from 2002 to 2012. Five of McCarthy’s six victories resulted in large margins, 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.10

When McCarthy claimed her seat in the 105th Congress (1997–1999), she was initially assigned to the Education and Workforce and the Small Business Committees. She largely voted with her party and supported environmental, health care, and women’s rights legislation. Even though she personally opposed abortion, she supported a woman’s right to choose.11 McCarthy’s voting record deviated from her party on government spending and foreign policy issues; she also supported the use of force in Iraq in 2002.12

While McCarthy was a leading proponent of gun control in the House, she did not oppose gun ownership in principle and frequently stated her desire to safeguard a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment.13 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?”14 Although the House refused to adopt her measure, McCarthy attracted national attention to the issue. The Clinton administration later won concessions from the major gun manufacturers to add the safety equipment.15 Throughout her career, McCarthy promoted a diverse array of potential solutions to widespread gun violence in the United States, pushing to strengthen gun control laws and tighten background checks for gun purchasers, particularly at gun shows. She unsuccessfully attempted to reauthorize the assault weapons ban in 2004.16

McCarthy’s most significant legislative achievement on gun control was the National Instant Criminal Background Check System Improvement Amendments Act of 2007. After the mass shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech University—at the time, the deadliest shooting in United States history—McCarthy worked with Republicans and the National Rifle Association 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 conditions and criminal records.17

“Like cars, food, medicine and many other consumer products, gun ownership should be subject to safety regulations designed to protect innocent Americans,” McCarthy said.18 She promoted community solutions to the problem of gun violence, calling for a “holistic approach” that included funding for firearm safety training, counseling, after school programs, and more support for 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 United States education system. McCarthy sought to direct more resources to healthy school lunch programs, more funding for programs to help students with special needs, and more investment 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; she equated vote counting with recording the temperature of a patient. During the 113th Congress (2013–2015), she served as vice chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Force.23

McCarthy rejected criticism that she was focused on gun control at the expense of other pressing matters in 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.25

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 (TARP) because many of her constituents worked in New York’s finance industry.26 In 2009 she cosponsored the Bailout Bonus Tax Bracket Act in response to reports that large bonus payments were distributed by businesses receiving federal assistance through TARP.27 Although she initially called for a 100-percent tax on bonuses, a 90-percent tax was imposed by Congress in 2010.28 McCarthy also supported the 2010 Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. She praised the financial regulatory plan designed to provide government protections for consumers.29

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.30 After Hurricane Sandy damaged her district in 2012, she cosponsored legislation that reduced the rate of increase for flood insurance premiums in disaster areas.31

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.32 She sponsored the Serve America Act of 2009, which provided grants for nonprofits, expanded the definition of public service, and increased the value of educational stipends provided to volunteers.33 She was also the lead sponsor of 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 civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.34

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. By 2018 McCarthy had been free of cancer for five years and had moved to Florida.35

Footnotes

1Dan Barry, “L.I. Widow’s Story: Next Stop, Washington,” 7 November 1996, New York Times: A1.

2“Carolyn McCarthy,” in Newsmakers: The People Behind Today’s Headlines, ed. Terrie M. Rooney (Detroit: Gale, 1998): 349.

3Larry Neumeister, “Woman Elected Who Lost Spouse in Rail Killings,” 6 November 1996, Philadelphia Inquirer: A17.

4Peter Marks, “From One Woman’s Tragedy, the Making of an Advocate,” 18 August 1994, New York Times: A1.

5McCarthy did not register as a Democrat until 2003. See, “Newsday Rates Long Island’s Representatives,” 6 June 2004, Newsday: A60.

6Newsday Rates Long Island’s Representatives.”

7Newsday Rates Long Island’s Representatives.”

8Barry, “L.I. Widow’s Story.”

9Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

10"Election Statistics, 1920 to Present."

11Dan Barry, “An Icon Goes to Washington,” 22 June 1997, New York Times Magazine: 20.

12Almanac of American Politics, 2010 (Washington, DC: National Journal Group, 2009): 1042.

13Congressional Record, House, 110th Cong., 1st sess. (13 June 2007): 15677.

14Barry, “An Icon Goes to Washington.”

15Jim Vandehei, “Companies: Republican Lawmakers Fire a Shot at Clinton’s Pact With Gun Maker,” 18 May 2000, Wall Street Journal: 4.

16Colin Campbell, “Carolyn McCarthy Makes Impassioned Plea for New Assault Weapon Ban,” 24 January 2013, Observer (NY), https://observer. com/2013/01/carolyn-mccarthy-makes-impassioned-plea-for-gun-control-it-has-to-stop/.

17Jacqueline Palank and Ian Urbina, “House Votes to Bolster Database on Gun Buyers,” 14 June 2007, New York Times: A20; Elizabeth Williamson and Brigid Schulte, “Congress Passes Bill to Stop Mentally Ill from Getting Guns,” 20 December 2007, Washington Post: A12.

18“Rep. McCarthy on NRA Response to Elementary School Shooting: Saddened but Committed,” official website of Representative Carolyn McCarthy, press release, 22 January 2013, https://web.archive.org/ web/20130222185724/http://carolynmccarthy.house.gov/recent-news/rep-mccarthy-on-nra-response-to-elementary-school-shooting/.

19“Rep. McCarthy on NRA Response to Elementary School Shooting,” official website of Representative Carolyn McCarthy.

20Politics in America, 2006 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2005): 703; Politics in America, 2008 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2007): 690; Politics in America, 2014 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 2013): 674.

21Hearing before the House Committee on Education and Labor, Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities, The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, 110th Cong., 1st sess. (2007).

22Elaine S. Povich, “NY Democrats Rise in House,” 10 January 2003, Newsday: A46.

23Povich, “NY Democrats Rise in House.”

24O’Keefe, “Carolyn McCarthy, Public Face of the Gun Control Movement, is Leaving Congress.”

25Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women Members’ Committee Assignments (Standing, Joint, Select) in the U.S. House, 1917–Present."

26Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, PL 110-343, 122 Stat. 3765 (2008); Politics in America, 2010 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2009): 692.

27Bailout Bonus Tax Bracket Act of 2009, H.R. 1518, 111th Cong. (2009).

28FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act, PL 111-226, 124 Stat. 2389 (2010).

29Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, PL 111-203, 124 Stat. 1376 (2010); Elizabeth Moore and Sophia Chang, “Tough Talk and a Call for Support,” 23 April 2010, Newsday: A6.

30Politics in America, 2010: 692; Kenneth R. Bazinet, “House Extends $29B Homeowner Lifeline,” 24 July 2008, New York Daily News: 14.

31Politics in America, 2014: 674.

32Politics in America, 2010: 692.

33Serve America Act, PL 111-13, 123 Stat. 1460 (2009); David M. Herszenhorn, “House Passes Expansion of Programs for Service,” 19 March 2009, New York Times: A14.

34Civil Rights History Project Act of 2009, PL 111-19, 123 Stat. 1612 (2009).

35Sarah Wheaton, “Two House Democrats Announce Retirement,” 8 January 2014, New York Times: A13; Michael Gormley, “Carolyn McCarthy Reflects on 1993 LIRR Shooting, Gun Violence, Activism,” 3 December 2018, Newsday, https://www.Newsday.com/long-island/carolyn-mccarthy-lirr-shooting-1.24081714.

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

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External Research Collections

Adelphi University
University Archives and Special Collections

Garden City, NY
Papers: 1982-2015, 104 linear feet. The Carolyn McCarthy papers represent the life and work of Carolyn McCarthy throughout her 18 years in congress. The papers include but are not limited to photographs, congressional correspondences, press clippings, office files, press releases, campaign material, research booklets, video recordings, plaques, 2 trophies, and books. These materials span the Congresswomen’s entire career. Particularly noteworthy items include 150 awards given to McCarthy and 200 video recordings that feature her. A finding aid is available in the repository and online.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Carolyn McCarthy" 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: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Budget
  • House Committee - Education and Labor
    • Healthy Families and Communities - Chair
  • House Committee - Education and the Workforce
  • House Committee - Financial Services
  • House Committee - Small Business
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