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

Jean Anne Carnahan was the First Lady of MIssouri from 1993 to 2000, and served as the state's junior United States senator from 2001 to 2002 as a Democrat.
United States Senate
Jean Anne Carnahan was the First Lady of MIssouri from 1993 to 2000, and served as the state's junior United States senator from 2001 to 2002 as a Democrat.

Carnahan was named to the U.S. Senate in 2000 after her husband, former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, was killed in a small plane crash and was elected posthumously. Carnahan served for two years before losing the election for the full term.

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

She 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 is the matriarch of one of Missouri’s most well-known Democratic families. A son, Russ Carnahan, is a former 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 Carnahan resided largely in Clayton since she left office after she was defeated in a 2002 bid to fill the final four years of her late husband’s Senate term. She has written a number of books.

Carnahan was thrust into the national spotlight on Oct. 16, 2000, after 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.

Then-Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson, who was sworn in as the state’s new governor within hours 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, but Mel Carnahan went on to defeat Ashcroft. He remains the nation’s only Senate candidate to win a seat after his death.

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.

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

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 served the remaining four years of 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's survivors include: daughter Robin, sons Russ and Tom, and several grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.
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