Democrat Karen McCarthy of Missouri dies at 63; congresswoman opposed Iraq war, was target of ethics probe

Karen McCarthy in 1997, three years after joining the House.
Karen McCarthy in 1997, three years after joining the House. (Brian K. Diggs)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 6:53 PM

Karen McCarthy, 63, a Missouri Democrat who served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was an early voice of dissent against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but whose career crumbled amid an ethics breach and a struggle with alcoholism, died Oct. 5 at an Alzheimer's care center in Overland Park, Kan.

In addition to Alzheimer's disease, she had bipolar disorder that had gone undiagnosed for more than a decade, her family announced last year.

Ms. McCarthy described herself as a political trailblazer for women. A onetime English teacher, she spent 18 years in the Missouri House of Representatives and rose to become chairwoman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

In the statehouse, she endured taunts from male colleagues. She recalled winning one debate, only to have a male legislator she had bested snap at her, "Don't stand there and bat your baby blue Orphan Annie eyes at me."

She was president of the National Conference of State Legislatures before winning election to Congress in 1994 to represent a district that included Kansas City. She was crowned one of the "lucky 13" Democrats who won a U.S. House seat in a year that otherwise was a GOP landslide and brought the Republicans to a majority under Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Ms. McCarthy served on the Energy and Commerce Committee - whose broad mandate included telecommunications, environmental, Medicare and welfare legislation - and the Committee on Homeland Security.

Besides her 2002 vote against the war in Iraq, her legislative record in the U.S. House was undistinguished. She had spent much of her career in the minority and admitted she had not sponsored a lot of bills.

Ms. McCarthy was regarded as a centrist Democrat who sought consensus with Republicans on such major issues as the 1996 welfare reform law and efforts to balance the budget.

She also supported more traditional liberal causes such as gun control and women's rights, particularly equal-pay legislation.

Ms. McCarthy was known for securing tens of millions of dollars for Missouri road projects and the restoration of historic buildings such as Union Station in Kansas City.

Ms. McCarthy's office was a hectic and unpredictable place to work, according to published reports that noted the congresswoman's demanding and sometimes verbally abusive behavior toward underlings.

The Kansas City Star reported: "The turnover is so great that an informal 'Karen McCarthy Staff Alumni Association' is formed. New inductees are taken out for drinks when they depart."

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