THURMAN, Karen L.

THURMAN, Karen L.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1951–

Biography

Karen L. Thurman, former teacher and Florida legislator, won election to Congress in 1992 and quickly came to focus on issues affecting seniors and military retirees in her northern Florida district. Reapportionment bookended her House career, providing her an opportunity to move into the national legislature but also making her vulnerable in an increasingly conservative district.

Karen Loveland was born on January 12, 1951, in Rapid City, South Dakota, daughter of Lee Searle Loveland and Donna Altfillisch Loveland. She received her A.A. degree from Santa Fe Community College in Stark, Florida, in 1970. In 1973, she earned a B.A. degree from the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. After graduation, she worked as a middle school math teacher. In 1973 Karen Loveland married John Patrick Thurman; the Thurmans raised two daughters, McLin and Liberty.

In the mid–1970s, Karen Thurman had her first experience with government and politics when she organized her students to protest the Dunnellon city council’s proposal to close a public beach on the Withlacoochee River. After successfully opposing the closure, Thurman’s students convinced her to run for the city council. She won her first election by five votes.1 From 1974 to 1982 Karen Thurman served on the city council and, from 1979 to 1981, as mayor of Dunnellon. “I loved it from the beginning,” she recalled. “It was wonderful getting to solve problems for people.”2 Her focus revolved around water usage and conservation. In 1982, Thurman was elected to the Florida state senate. Six years later, she became the first woman to chair the senate agriculture committee. She eventually chaired the committee on congressional reapportionment.

In 1992, following reapportionment of congressional seats, Thurman chose to run for Congress in a newly created U.S. House district that included the city of Gainesville and several counties on Florida’s northern west coast. Thurman drew from her state senate seat constituency, which overlapped with a large portion of the new congressional district. In the Democratic primary, she rolled up 76 percent of the vote against Mario F. Rivera. In the three–way general election, she faced Republican Tom Hogan, a local prosecutor, whom she had defeated just two years earlier in a re–election campaign to the Florida senate, and independent candidate Cindy Munkittrick. Hogan ran on a platform that supported term limits, school vouchers, health maintenance organizations (HMOs), and tort reform to limit litigation for malpractice claims. Thurman highlighted her experience as a legislator and identified her central interest as health care reform. She also supported shrinking welfare entitlement programs, encouraging employers to offer flextime and parental leave to attend to family responsibilities, and women’s reproductive rights. She energetically opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which she described as a threat to large agricultural areas of her district. “I think you stop promoting jobs going to other countries,” Thurman said, when asked how she would revive a flagging national economy. NAFTA is “a devastating issue to Florida.”3 Thurman prevailed with 49 percent of the vote against Hogan’s 43 percent; Munkittrick claimed seven percent of the vote.4

When she was sworn into the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), Representative Thurman had hoped to receive a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee but instead won assignments to the Agriculture Committee and the Government Operations Committee (later named Government Reform and Oversight). In the 105th Congress (1997–1999), Thurman received a Ways and Means seat, which required that she relinquish her other committee posts.

Congresswoman Thurman was one of the important swing votes on the 1993 William J. Clinton administration budget, among a few dozen Democratic freshmen, moderates and others who had been in tight races, who were undecided when Congress began debating the bill. At one point, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois sidled up to Thurman to ask how she would vote on the measure. “This is not about you. This is not about the President. This is about the 600,000 people I represent,” she replied. After requests and pleas from House leaders, fellow freshmen, and President Clinton, Thurman promised to support the plan. She explained to constituents that while it raised taxes, it also sought to reduce the deficit and encourage environmentally friendly energy sources and was better than a rival plan which would have hit seniors in her district with deep cuts in Medicare.5

Thurman also followed through on her promise to oppose NAFTA, organizing a Capitol Hill rally and working with fellow Democrats, including Majority Whip David Bonior of Michigan. She argued that the trade agreement would put local farmers, particularly the citrus and peanut growers who populated her district, at an extreme disadvantage against Mexican farmers. NAFTA passed the House in November 1993 by a margin of 234 to 200. “I don’t know how many issues are out there that would bring people together at this kind of level,” Thurman said. “It was an opportunity to … learn and to participate.”6 Thurman later voted against the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade accord.

Thurman’s middle–of–the–road vote reflected the composition of her district which, while majority Democratic, had conservative leanings. Thurman sided with the National Rifle Association in opposing two gun control bills put forward by the Clinton administration in her first term: the Brady Handgun Bill and the assault weapons ban (as well as the larger Clinton Crime Bill). She also voted against lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military. Thurman joined with Florida freshman Republican John Mica to block a bill that would have given the Environmental Protection Agency Cabinet–level status. Though she ran as a pro–choice candidate and cosponsored the Freedom of Choice Act, Thurman also voted against a 1993 measure to provide federal funds for abortions, noting that she didn’t “think government ought to get involved in the area of reproduction, and that includes financing.” That position angered women’s groups, though Thurman continued to walk a middle course on the issue, supporting a 1994 appeal from a group of lawmakers urging House leaders to include abortion and contraception coverage in a comprehensive health care bill.7

Nevertheless, in 1994, Thurman was one of 16 House freshmen targeted by the GOP in blistering radio advertisements for her vote in support of the 1993 Clinton budget. She faced Republican candidate “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, a former drag racer and a legend within the racing community but a campaigner who stumbled from one gaffe to the next. Garlits advocated “more medieval–style” prisons, declared the American Civil Liberties Union to be a “traitorous organization,” suggested sending foreign refugees to Ellis Island to await transfer to Montana pending job openings, and advocated unfettered access to automatic weapons.8 In a year when many Democrats succumbed to the GOP “Contract with America”—including many freshmen women Members —Thurman prevailed with 57 percent of the vote to Garlits’s 43 percent. In her subsequent three re–election bids, she was not seriously challenged, winning more than 60 percent of the vote in each.9

Once re–elected to office, Thurman focused her efforts on meeting the needs of her district’s large population of retirees and senior citizens: ensuring Social Security solvency and developing a comprehensive prescription drug program. Thurman voted to support reimportation of drugs from foreign countries to make them more affordable. She also supported legislation in the 106th Congress (1999–2001) that required pharmaceutical companies to provide seniors the same discount they awarded to sell their products to HMOs and other large customers, a measure which could have saved 40 percent of the cost.10 Veterans’ issues received her attention, and she helped steer more than $350 million in funds into her state in the late 1990s, much of which benefited veterans by creating primary care clinics in areas where no Veterans’ Administration hospital existed.11 Her mission, she repeatedly told voters, was to curb deficit spending while protecting senior benefits. “I took that to heart,” Thurman said. “I took some tough votes … and I am proud to have done it.”12 Thurman also supported most of the Clinton administration’s lead on educational issues, backing nationalized testing standards and opposing private school vouchers. The House also passed a version of her bill to provide water–strapped Florida communities with $75 million to develop alternative water sources, including desalinized seawater.13

Over time, Thurman’s district became increasingly conservative. In 2002, she faced a major redistricting challenge that carved out a heavily Democratic section of her district that included the University of Florida, and added more conservative areas with large retiree populations. Thurman also had to contend with a challenger who had name recognition: president pro tempore of the Florida senate Virginia “Ginny” Brown–Waite. With control of the House at a narrow six–seat GOP lead, the race was one of the more closely watched in the country. National GOP leaders made multiple campaign appearances with Brown–Waite; Thurman raised more than three times the money she had ever before poured into a race—$1.5 million to Brown–Waite’s $800,000.14 The heated campaign focused on federal aid and programs for seniors: Social Security, prescription drugs and Medicare, taxes, and veterans’ services. Thurman touted her record on pushing issues important to seniors as a member of the influential Ways and Means Committee.15 Brown–Waite prevailed, however, with a slim 3,500–vote margin, 48 percent to Thurman’s 46 percent, with two other independent candidates splitting five percent of the vote. When Thurman’s term expired in January 2003, she returned to Dunnellon.16 Thurman later was elected chair of the Florida Democratic Party.

Footnotes

1Carrie Johnson, “Political Farewell Is Bittersweet,” 29 December 2002, St. Petersburg Times: 1.

2Johnson, “Political Farewell Is Bittersweet.”

3Collins Conner, “Three Candidates Offer a Choice of Solutions,” 20 October 1992, St. Petersburg Times: 1; “The Race for U.S. House, District 5,” 29 October 1992, St. Petersburg Times: 4X.

4“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

5David Dahl, “What Swayed Karen Thurman?” 28 May 1993, St. Petersburg Times: 3A.

6Paul Kirby, “Congresswoman Thurman Pronounces First Year a Success,” 17 December 1993, States News Service.

7Politics in America, 1996 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1995): 287–288. See also, Johnson, “Political Farewell Is Bittersweet”: 1.

8William Booth, “High on Fuel, Low on Bull: Drag Racing Legend ‘Big Daddy’ Garlits Runs Full Bore for House Seat in Florida,” 22 October 1994, Washington Post: A1.

9“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

10Politics in America, 2002 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2001): 218–219.

11“Karen L. Thurman,” Associated Press Candidate Biographies, 2000.

12Jeffrey S. Solochek, “In Tight Race, Negativity Is Center Stage,” 3 November 2002, St. Petersburg Times: 1.

13Politics in America, 2002: 218–219.

14Mitch Stacy, “Incumbent Thurman Vulnerable in Redrawn District,” 22 October 2002, Associated Press.

15Spring Hill, “Candidate’s Husband Steals Signs,” 12 October 2002, Miami Herald: B3; Jeffrey S. Solochek, “Brown–Waite Prevails,” 6 November 2002, St. Petersburg Times: 1B.

16Mike Wright, “Former U.S. Representative Shows Up in Candidate’s Corner,” 23 October 2004, Citrus County Chronicle, http://www.chronicleonline.com/articles/2004/10/24/news/news04.txt (accessed 24 October 2004).

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

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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Karen L. Thurman" 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 - Agriculture
  • House Committee - Government Operations
  • House Committee - Government Reform and Oversight
  • House Committee - Ways and Means
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