Karen McCarthy, who for a decade represented Kansas City and the Missouri Fifth congressional district in the House of Representatives, passed away yesterday at the age of 63 of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease.
I didn’t know her well. I only met her once or twice. She had for the most part withdrawn from public life by the time I was getting active in KC Democratic politics and making something of a name for myself in the blogosphere. She left Congress after five terms in 2005 because she was starting to show symptoms of the disease, and in her case the disease was particularly swift, aggressive and cruel.
But instead of dwelling on that, I want to talk about her life and her accomplishments.
Karen McCarthy started her career as an English teacher in the public school system, and quickly saw that there was much more to be done than she could accomplish in the classroom, so she ran for the state legislature in 1976 and won. She served 18 years in the Missouri House, where she earned the respect of her fellow legislators, including Missouri’s Governor Jay Nixon, who described her as “a pioneer for women in public service in Missouri, first on the state and then on the federal level.”
She left the state house to run for Congress in the Missouri Fifth after Rep. Alan Wheat announced that he would not run for reelection, but would instead run for the Senate in 1994. McCarthy was one of the “Lucky 13” – the Democrats who won their first terms in that worst of all Democratic years, while Wheat lost his Senate bid to John Ashcroft.
There was turmoil in her personal life – she battled alcoholism, and after being diagnosed as bi-polar in rehab in 2003, the speculation back home was that she had been self-medicating – and her troubles were fodder for the papers. But her dedication to her constituents and her district was never questioned, other than on the op-ed pages of the Star, where columnist Yael Abouhalkah routinely took her to task for not bringing in enough earmark dollars for local projects. In hindsight, she was simply ahead of her time in that regard.
She was a dedicated public servant and she spent her entire adult life serving us, first as a teacher, then in electoral politics, and she leaves behind a glorious monument to her legacy.
In the early 90s our train station was in a sorry state of disrepair. It was an eyesore and on the inside it was trashed. Amtrack abandoned it for a small glass hut that was somewhat-adjacent to the station and the building was, for all intents and purposes, abandoned. There was talk of just tearing it down and doing something else with the land in that prime location. But a local activist, Clay Chastain, was hearing none of that, and he started pushing for a dedicated bi-state sales tax to restore the historic building. The voters approved the ballot initiative and Karen McCarthy got the republican, anti-tax Congress to approve it.
The result is a restored Union Station that has multiple attractions that benefit the community, including restaurants, gift shops, a theater and an interactive museum called Science City that draws school groups from all over the area for class trips.
She never married, nor did she have any children, but she is mourned by thousands – the people she represented so ably for so long.