Years in Congress ended on troubled note

By Adam Bernstein
Thursday, October 7, 2010; B6

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.

Along the way, 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."

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."

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