Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives


An English teacher turned politician, Karen McCarthy became an influential Missouri state legislator before winning election as a U.S. Representative. Espousing a moderate political ideology, Congresswoman McCarthy focused on energy issues and the environment during her decade of service in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Karen McCarthy was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, on March 18, 1947. As a teenager McCarthy moved to Kansas with her family. She graduated with a bachelor of science in English and biology from the University of Kansas in 1969. McCarthy became politically active in college after listening to Robert F. Kennedy make a speech on campus in 1968. “This was a man who spoke of peace and prosperity and empowerment for everyone,” she recalled years later. “And that spoke to my heart. So I knew from that day forward I would work for him, and thus would be a Democrat.”[FOOT1] In September 1969 she married civil rights attorney Arthur A. Benson II; they divorced in 1984. McCarthy taught English in public and private schools until 1976. She attended the University of Birmingham, England, in 1974 and received an M.A. in English from the University of Missouri, Kansas City, in 1976. In the fall of 1976, McCarthy won election to the Missouri house of representatives, a position she held until 1994. As a state representative, she chaired the ways and means committee for more than a decade. In 1984 McCarthy joined the Democratic platform committee and, in 1992, served as a delegate to the Democratic presidential convention. In 1994, she became the first woman president of the National Conference of State Legislators. During her tenure in the state house, she also worked as a financial analyst and consultant, earning an M.B.A. from the University of Kansas in 1986.

In 1994, when incumbent Democratic Congressman Alan Wheat ran for the U.S. Senate, McCarthy entered the race for an open Kansas City–area House seat. In an 11–candidate Democratic primary, she won 41 percent of the vote. McCarthy faced a formidable opponent in the general election: Ron Freeman, an African–American Christian minister and former professional football player who ran on a platform that criticized unresponsive big government. McCarthy countered her opponent, arguing that “government does have a responsibility to see that each individual has opportunity. And sometimes people need boots in order to pull themselves up by those bootstraps. I see government’s role as getting out of the way once that’s accomplished.”[FOOT2] While she supported a balanced budget amendment and a capital gains tax cut, McCarthy also advocated liberal social issues, favoring gun control and supporting abortion rights. In contrast to the GOP’s “Contract with America,” McCarthy offered her own “Contract with Jackson County Voters,” a key constituency in her district. Her platform aimed at protecting Social Security and Medicare by opposing Republican initiatives for a flat tax rate. McCarthy defeated Freeman with 57 percent of the vote, despite a nationwide GOP surge, which put the Republican Party in the majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. On her ability to overcome the rising GOP tide, McCarthy noted, “I think all politics is local and our message was … very clear about the value of my experience, my ability to get things done.”[FOOT3] In her next four successful re–election campaigns, she was never seriously challenged, winning each with nearly 70 percent.[FOOT4]

After taking her seat in the 104th Congress (1995–1997), McCarthy was assigned to three committees: Science, Small Business, and Transportation and Infrastructure. In the 105th Congress (1997–1999) she received a seat on the influential Commerce Committee (later renamed Energy and Commerce), which required her to give up her initial committee assignments. She served on Energy and Commerce for the remainder of her career. In the 108th Congress (2003–2005), she received an assignment to the newly created Select Committee on Homeland Security.

Throughout her House service, McCarthy identified herself as a “New Democrat,” a moderate who supported some fiscally conservative policies such as the balanced budget, while opposing so–called unfunded mandates, which forced states to pay for federal regulations from their own budgets. Yet, she was a regular vote for such Democratic issues as a hike in the minimum wage, a patients’ bill of rights, pro–choice initiatives, and gun control. “You can’t make progress—if you are serious about making the world a better place—unless you can work at compromise and consensus building,” McCarthy said. “You can’t be an extreme anything and be successful. You must find that comfort zone in the middle.”[FOOT5] One of her political role models was President Harry S. Truman, whose hometown, Independence, was in her district. She identified with the 33rd President because he “stood up for his beliefs and the idea that the buck stops here.” She further noted, “I am a problem solver and I enjoy helping people solve problems.”[FOOT6] True to her centrist ideology and pragmatic streak, McCarthy relished behind–the–scenes legislative work rather than appearing on the House Floor to join in sometimes sharp ideological debates.

McCarthy gained the legislative spotlight for her work on the environment, introduced from her Energy and Commerce Committee seat. Most notably, she attended the world summit on global warming in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. The Kyoto Protocol, drafted by summit delegates, required nations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to pre–1990 levels. McCarthy supported it, noting that the soy beans used to produce cleaner fuels were a major agricultural product in Missouri.[FOOT7] McCarthy promoted the use of these clean “biodiesel” fuels when she played an instrumental role in passing the Energy Conservation Reauthorization Act in 1998. She also played a major part in engineering a tax credit system in 1997 that was at the center of the “brown field” initiative, providing incentives for businesses which cleaned up polluted sites.

Kansas City’s culture and history remained a priority for McCarthy throughout her five terms in the U.S. House. In her first term, she successfully teamed with local Kansas City politicians to create a bi–state cultural district that crossed the Kansas–Missouri border. The district levied a modest retail sales tax to support cultural events and to restore and maintain local historical landmarks. She led a call to renew the compact in 2000, also seeking federal grants to add to the tax revenue. In 2001, when major league baseball threatened to cut teams from the league to assuage their financial woes, McCarthy offered a resolution to share revenues between money–making teams and those losing revenue in smaller cities as an effort to save the Kansas City Royals franchise which was, at the time, unprofitable.[FOOT8]

McCarthy declined to run for re–election to the House for a sixth term, making her announcement in December 2003 following the revelation of alleged ethics violations and health issues. “I want to focus on balance in my life,” she explained.[FOOT9] On October 5, 2010, Karen McCarthy passed away at the age of 63 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease in Overland Park, Kansas.

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

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External Research Collections

State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center—Kansas City
University of Missouri—Kansas City

Kansas City, MO
Papers: 1968-2005; 140 cubic feet, 1 oversize, 1 artifact. This collection consists of correspondence, campaign files, financial records, interviews, newspaper clippings, letters, magazines, brochures, programs, books, booklets, banners, campaign buttons, calendars, a model airplane, VHS tapes, and cassettes relating to Karen McCarthy’s tenure with the Missouri House of Representatives (1976-1994) and the United States House of Representatives (1995-2005).

University of Oklahoma
The Julian P. Kanter Political Commercial Archive, Department of Communication

Norman, OK
Videoreels: 1994, 5 commercials on 3 videoreels. The commercials were used during Karen McCarthy's 1994 campaign for U.S. Congress in District 5 of Missouri, Democratic Party.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Karen 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 - Commerce
  • House Committee - Energy and Commerce
  • House Committee - Science
  • House Committee - Select Committee on Homeland Security
  • House Committee - Small Business
  • House Committee - Transportation and Infrastructure
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