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Jean Carnahan, Missouri’s first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, dies at 90

Former Missouri U.S. Senator and Missouri First Lady Jean Carnahan is sworn in to the Senate by Vice President Al Gore on January 3, 2001, in Washington, D.C. She served in the Senate from 2001-2002. Daughter Robin Carnahan is shown holding the bible.
Bill Greenblatt
United Press International
Jean Carnahan is sworn in as a U.S. senator by Vice President Al Gore as her daughter, Robin Carnahan, holds a Bible on Jan. 3, 2001, in Washington, D.C. Carnahan served in the Senate from 2001 to 2002.

Updated at 1:40 p.m. Jan. 31 with details of a public celebration of Carnahan's life

Former Missouri U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, who was the state’s first woman to serve in the Senate and the widow of Gov. Mel Carnahan, died Tuesday. She was 90.

"Mom passed peacefully after a long and rich life. She was a fearless trailblazer. She was brilliant, creative, compassionate and dedicated to her family and her fellow Missourians,” her family said in a statement.

Carnahan sought to be a conciliatory figure, lamenting in late 2000 the political divisiveness that already was rising around the country.

Before heading to Washington, she observed in an interview that “the whole idea of duking it out in the public arena and seeing who’s the last person standing – that atmosphere is what has brought us the problems we have now.”

Carnahan was the matriarch of one of Missouri’s best-known Democratic families. A son, Russ Carnahan, was a member of the U.S. House and currently heads the Missouri Democratic Party. Her daughter, Robin Carnahan, served eight years as Missouri secretary of state and is now administrator of the General Services Administration in Washington.

Jean and Mel Carnahan, pictured in an undated photograph, outside of the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
The Carnahan Family
Jean and Mel Carnahan in an undated photograph outside the Capitol in Jefferson City

Jean Carnahan resided largely in Clayton after being defeated in a 2002 bid to serve the final four years of her late husband’s Senate term. She wrote a number of books.

Carnahan was thrust into the national spotlight on Oct. 16, 2000, when then-Gov. Mel Carnahan was killed in a small plane crash in Jefferson County while campaigning for the Senate seat held by Republican John Ashcroft.

The plane’s pilot was the Carnahans’ eldest son, Randy. Also on board was the governor’s top aide, Chris Sifford. Both died in the crash.

Gov. Roger Wilson, who was the state's lieutenant governor until he was sworn in as governor after the crash, announced a few days later that he would appoint Jean Carnahan to her late husband’s Senate post should he win posthumously. By law, Mel Carnahan’s name remained on the ballot.

Some Missouri Republican officials loudly objected to Wilson’s plan. Mel Carnahan went on to defeat Ashcroft and remains the nation’s only Senate candidate to win a seat after his death.

On Tuesday, Wilson said: “Jean was my first and only choice for appointment to the Senate seat won by her husband, Mel, because she was Mel’s full partner and shared his values and high aspirations for helping all Missourians. As senator, as first lady, as wife and mother and grandmother, as a friend to Missouri, Jean put her high energy, brilliant mind and big heart into everything she did.”

Former Missouri U.S. Senator and Missouri First Lady Jean Carnahan, pictured October 2001, alongside Missouri U.S. Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond.
Bill Greenblatt
United Press International
U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan in October 2001 with U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo.

Tributes from colleagues

Former Missouri U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill said Carnahan survived tragedy with grit and grace” and “served others both in and out of the public eye.” 

Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said Carnahan was respected on both sides of the aisle.

“As the first woman to represent Missouri in the United States Senate, Jean served with remarkable distinction and thoughtfulness,” Daschle said.

Former U.S. House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-St. Louis, said: “Jean Carnahan was a friend, a wonderful public servant, a devoted wife and mom who cared deeply about her family, her fellow Missourians and our beautiful state and country.”

Former U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, said Carnahan worked hard for Missouri.

“She was a full partner with her husband, Mel. She was a dedicated advocate in her own right as first lady and as a United States senator,” Blunt said.

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, said Carnahan earned the respect of everyone around her.  

“She broke barriers as Missouri's first female senator and left a long legacy of accomplishment that will be remembered for generations to come," Wagner said.

Former Missouri U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, pictured in October 2001, passed away at the age of 90 years old.
Bill Greenblatt
United Press International
U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan in October 2001

Carnahan’s causes

Jean Carnahan’s Senate appointment was for two years. During that time, she focused on improving public education, supporting Social Security and adding prescription drug benefits to Medicare.

She also championed three of her husband’s causes: campaign finance reform, abortion rights and some gun restrictions, such as limiting minors’ access to automatic weapons.

Former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, said Carnahan was a strong champion for children, working on the issues of day care and pediatric health care. 

“The children of both Missouri and America could know Jean Carnahan was in their corner,” Mikulski said.

As a member of the Armed Services Committee, she focused on veterans issues and was part of the first congressional delegation to visit Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attack.

While in Washington, she carved her own bipartisan path while sharing her late husband’s political vision.

"Jean Carnahan was a friend, a wonderful public servant, a devoted wife and mom who cared deeply about her family, her fellow Missourians and our beautiful state and country."
Richard Gephardt, former U.S. House majority leader

On a weekend in early September 2001, she was at the family’s rural home in Rolla when a fire broke out. She managed to rescue her husband’s formal portrait before the flames destroyed much of the house.

In 2002, she narrowly lost to Republican Jim Talent, who completed her late husband’s term.

In a St. Louis Public Radio interview in 2004, she observed that Democrats “are often fragmented. There’s just so many different parts of us.”

Later, in her best-known book – “Don’t Let the Fire Go Out” – she reflected on her life, including the challenges and tragedies.

“For most of us, life is more conquest than victory,’’ she wrote. “Life is about squandering ourselves for a good and godly purpose. Mostly, it’s about stoking the fire.”

She was born in Washington, D.C., and met her future husband in high school; his family resided in Washington while his father was in Congress.

She graduated from George Washington University and married Mel Carnahan in 1954.

The couple moved to his home state of Missouri. He was a lawyer and was active in local and state politics for decades, with his wife often by his side. They had four children.

Carnahan is survived by her children Russ, Robin and Tom, all of St. Louis, and several grandchildren.

She died at BJC Hospice-Evelyn’s House in Creve Coeur.

A private family service will be held at Carson Hill Cemetery near Ellsinore, where Carnahan will be buried next to her husband and son.

A public celebration of Carnahan’s life is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 10 at the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.