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Years in Congress ended on troubled note
Ms. McCarthy's career unraveled quickly. In late March 2003, she fell headfirst down an escalator in the Rayburn House Office Building after leaving a light-night House session. Soon afterward, she issued a statement announcing her decision to seek treatment for alcoholism.
"I deeply regret my behavior," she said at the time, "and, as difficult as it is, recognize that my drinking has hurt those who I love and work with. I have hit bottom and I realize I must take action to change."
She became the target of an ethics inquiry after disgruntled aides leaked documents that showed the congresswoman had used campaign money to travel in 2003 to the Grammy Awards in New York.
The House Ethics Committee found that Ms. McCarthy misused campaign funds but declined to take formal disciplinary action after she announced she would not seek reelection in 2004.
Karen McCarthy was born March 18, 1947, in Haverhill, Mass., and grew up on a farm before accompanying her family to the Kansas City suburbs at 14.
She majored in English at the University of Kansas but said she was drawn to politics after hearing Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy lecture at the school in 1968, the year he was assassinated.
After graduating from college in 1969, she taught high school English before winning election to the state house at 29.
Her marriage to Arthur Benson II, a lawyer, ended in divorce. A list of survivors could not be confirmed.
Ms. McCarthy received a master's degree in English education from the University of Missouri at Kansas City in 1976 and a master's degree in business administration from the University of Kansas in 1986. Before her election to Congress, she was a government affairs consultant to Marion Merrell Dow, a pharmaceutical company.
At the start of her congressional career, Ms. McCarthy described her approach to holding political office.
"You can't make progress - if you are serious about making the world a better place - unless you can work at compromise and consensus building," she told the Kansas City Star. "You can't be an extreme anything and be successful. You must find that comfort zone in the middle."