Former US Sen. Jean Carnahan dies at 90

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Sen. Jean Carnahan speaks at a press conference for newly arrived Democratic senators on Dec. 6, 2000. | Stephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty Images

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, who became the first female senator to represent Missouri after she was appointed to replace her husband following his death, died Tuesday. She was 90.

Carnahan, a Democrat, was appointed to the Senate in 2000 after the posthumous election of her husband, Gov. Mel Carnahan, and she served until November 2002, having lost a special election that month to Republican Jim Talent.

“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.

Her family did not specify the cause of death but said Carnahan died after a brief illness.

Carnahan was born Dec. 20, 1933, in Washington, D.C., and grew up in the nation’s capital. Her father worked as a plumber and her mother as a hairdresser.

She met Mel Carnahan, the son of a Missouri congressman, at a church event, and they became better acquainted after sitting next to each other at a class in high school, according to information provided by the family. They were married June 12, 1954.

Jean Carnahan graduated a year later from George Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in business and public administration, and they later raised four children on a farm near Rolla, Missouri.

She served as first lady of Missouri after her husband’s election as governor in 1992 and through his two terms.

On Oct. 16, 2000, the governor; the couple’s son, Roger (also known as Randy); and an aide, Chris Sifford; died in a plane crash on the way to a campaign event. The governor’s son was flying the twin-engine plane, and a subsequent federal probe found that he
became disoriented while trying to fly through rain, darkness and fog.

After Mel Carnahan was elected posthumously three weeks later over incumbent Republican Sen. John Ashcroft, acting Gov. Roger B. Wilson appointed Jean Carnahan to fill the seat left vacant by her husband’s death.

“They were a team,” Wilson said
in announcing his intention to appoint her. “There is really no other person that has been near all of the critical issues as much as she has.”

She served from Jan. 3, 2001, to Nov. 25, 2002. In 2002, Carnahan drew 48.7 percent of the vote in the special election to officially fill out the term to Talent’s 49.8.

”Most people get to Washington by winning something,’’
she was quoted in the New York Times in 2001 about serving in the Senate. ”I, of course, ended up there because I lost something. But I can tell you I’m getting along just fine. People come up to me, strangers even, and give me a big hug and tell me, ‘You can do it.’ And I’ve found I can. And I enjoy it and I’m proud and honored to serve.’’

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