Mel Carnahan crash changed politics as well as lives

Monday, October 15, 2001

WASHINGTON -- In her first exchange with reporters after the election of her late husband, Jean Carnahan flared at the idea she lacked the experience or qualifications to assume his place in the U.S. Senate.

"I think a lot of people spent their lives underestimating my husband," she said. "And I suggest that they not start doing that with me."

One day earlier, Republican John Ashcroft fought back tears as he conceded the race to a challenger who had died and the widow who would serve. "I look forward to spending time with my wife, Janet," Ashcroft said, his voice breaking as his wife laid her head on his shoulder and squeezed him.

Today, Mrs. Carnahan says she has surprised even herself by embracing the job of senator; her most pressing task right now is shepherding a relief package for aviation workers laid off after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

And Ashcroft, now the nation's top law enforcement officer, is leading the massive investigation into the attacks and seeking new anti-terrorism laws from Congress.

Their paths veered abruptly on the night of Oct. 16, 2000, when a Cessna 335 plummeted through the rain into wooded hills near St. Louis, killing Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan, his eldest son, Randy, and close aide, Chris Sifford.

The crash changed not only their lives, but Missouri politics, too.

'National implications'

The race was hotly contested, but what if Ashcroft had won and his re-election had helped Republicans hold their razor-thin majority? Wouldn't that have weighed against President Bush's decision to place Ashcroft in his Cabinet?

"In some ways, the impact of that tragedy transcends the borders of Missouri," says John Hancock, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party. "I think it had national implications."

Next year, the Senate race will top the ballot in Missouri, and Mrs. Carnahan must run if she wants to finish the six-year term. Former GOP congressman Jim Talent, who narrowly lost the governor's race last November, has entered the race.

She hasn't made her candidacy official but has raised more than $2.3 million toward a campaign. She has always said she would run if she felt she was accomplishing something, and clearly, she feels she is.

Mrs. Carnahan joined a handful of colleagues who helped pass President Bush's $1.35 trillion tax relief package. She also has seen several education and military health care proposals adopted into spending bills still pending in Congress.

It's taken time, but Mrs. Carnahan and her children say she has adjusted to the job's rapidly changing schedule and demanding hours. And with the airline worker legislation, Mrs. Carnahan seems to have hit her stride.

She relates how, during a visit to Kansas City, Mo., a Vanguard Airlines worker told her about buying a new house and car, only to find himself furloughed after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"And to think there's 140,000 others out there like that; some of these people are just a paycheck away from being on the streets, nearly," she says. "I'm hoping that we'll be able to get some confidence to them in the months ahead."

Have crossed paths

Meantime, as Mrs. Carnahan settled into the Senate, Ashcroft assumed the Justice Department helm, handling controversies including FBI fumbles on the Russian spy case and the Oklahoma City bombing before the terror attacks demanded his attention.

But he crossed paths with Missouri's new senator much earlier, during an ugly partisan battle over his confirmation. Thus far, Mrs. Carnahan's vote against Ashcroft is the strongest ammunition Republicans say they have against her.

"I don't think she's been particularly effective for Missouri; she certainly didn't help Missouri place the highest-ranking member of the federal government since Harry Truman," said Hancock, the GOP chief. "I think the job John Ashcroft has done is further evidence that her opposition to him was wrong."

Mrs. Carnahan says her vote did not prevent Ashcroft from getting the job, reiterating that it was a matter of conscience.

"I don't feel like I harmed him in any way," she says. "In fact, recently I wrote him a note and told him how much I appreciated what he was doing, and that my prayers were with him during this time that he was working on behalf of Americans.

"At this time, you want everybody to succeed," she adds. "It's for the benefit of all of us that Ashcroft succeed, and that the president succeed."

That she feels productive in her new role has helped Mrs. Carnahan through her family's loss, says her youngest son, Tom, who has a Capitol Hill apartment for frequent visits with his mother.

"She seems to be in very good spirits," he says. "We know how to laugh. I think she really feels good about the job she's doing, and that eases her mind."

Much of the sadness has been replaced with warm memories, Mrs. Carnahan says.

"The family can recall things that Randy and Mel both said or did that we can chuckle about now, and reminisce about with fondness and good memories," she says. "That was a lot harder to do much earlier."

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