Jean Carnahan grew up in a working class neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where her father was a plumber and her mother a hairdresser. Determined to get a college education, Jean worked summers and during the school year while attending George Washington University.
Dreams Come True
In 1955, her dreams came true, when she earned a degree in Business and Public Administration, making her the first in her family to graduate from high school and college. In 1954, she married her high school sweetheart, Mel Carnahan, who would later become a country lawyer practicing in Rolla, Missouri, a small Ozark community. The couple raised four children on a farm near Rolla where she worked in political, civic, church, and scouting activities.
A Political Team
Jean and Mel worked side by side during his forty years of public service, winning seventeen successful political campaigns. When he became Governor of Missouri in 1992, having previously served as a legislator, State Treasurer and Lt. Governor, Jean took on the role of Missouri's First Lady. From 1993 to 2000, as her husband led the state, she worked to improve the lives of Missouri's children and to bring a new warmth and hospitality to the Governor's Mansion. She was an advocate for on-site day care centers for working families, for childhood immunization, and for abuse centers, the arts, and Habitat for Humanity.
Writer and Speaker
She is the author of six books. One written when she was First Lady of Missouri is entitled If Walls Could Talk -- a 440-page history of the state's first families. Her autobiography entitled Don't Let the Fire Go Out, highlights her service in the U.S. Senate. A speech on "Women of Achievement" was selected for national publication in Vital Speeches of the Day. Her most recent book, a collection of inspirational essays entitled The Tide Always Comes Back, was released in November 2009. Her first humorous publication, A Little Help from My Friends was released in March, 2012.
In the US Senate
In 2000, her husband, Gov. Mel Carnahan, was campaigning for the U.S. Senate when he, their son Randy, and campaign adviser were killed in an airplane crash just three weeks before the election. On Election Day, Missouri voters elected Governor Carnahan posthumously by a 48,000-vote margin over Sen. John Ashcroft. When Jean agreed to take her husband's place in Washington, the appointment made her the first woman in Missouri history to serve in the U.S. Senate.
During her two years in Washington, she was a leading advocate for working families. The Senate voted to include her first bill the, "Quality Classrooms Act," in the "Leave No Child Behind" law. Following the Enron scandal, she introduced the "Informed Investors Act," which passed into law, requiring corporations to make swift, electronic reporting of insider trading. She also secured an extension of health care benefits for returning reservists and National Guard personnel.
She served on the Commerce Committee, the Governmental Affairs Committee, the Special Committee on Aging, and the Small Business Committee. She was the fifth woman to ever serve on the Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Carnahan was a member of the first Congressional delegation to Afghanistan after 9-11 and conferred with heads of state in Turkey, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Oman.
In 2004, she was the National Democratic Institute's representative at the national women's political conference in Pristina, Kosovo, where she delivered the keynote address. She is the co-founder of the political blog, firedupmissouri.com.
Watching the next generation of Carnahans run for public office, Jean jokes that the family's political nature may come from "a genetic defect." In 2004, her son, Russ, was elected to the Third U.S. Congressional District seat vacated by Richard Gephardt and her daughter, Robin, was elected Missouri Secretary of State that same year and both were reelected in 2008. Robin was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Like her other children, Tom, is an attorney. He is the 2012 president of the American Wind Energy Association.
Since leaving the Senate, Jean resides in St. Louis, where she is a writer, speaker, political activist...and indulgent grandmother of six.
(Revised March 2012)