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A Legacy of Public Service

Today on Berger's Beat

August 9, 2012 9:46 am | Author: 

A long family run of public service in influential Missouri offices will end next January when Secretary of State Robin Carnahan and her brother, St. Louis Congressman Russ Carnahan, step down from their offices. Like the Clays, the Carnahans have pedigrees as pillars of the Missouri Democratic Party. It all started with A.S.J. Carnahan, a rural teacher and school superintendent first elected to Congress in 1944. He lost the seat in 1946 but won it back in 1948, the same year his fellow Missouri Democrat Harry Truman savored his own underdog victory. A.S.J.’s teen son Mel was watching nearby at St. Louis Union Station as Harry grinned and held aloft the immortally erroneous Chicago Tribune proclaiming “Dewey Defeats Truman.” In a scenario now freshly familiar to grandson Russ, A.S.J. lost renomination from his fellow Democrats in the 1960 Democratic primary. But the new Democratic president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, appointed A.S.J. to serve as the first U.S. ambassador to the African nation of Sierra Leone. With the enduring racial divides of St. Louis politics, it is notable that, thanks to A.S.J. Carnahan, a notable act of racial tolerance for the times unfolded in the family’s hometown of Rolla. Mel Carnahan once recalled to a reporter that his father hosted diplomats from Sierra Leone and arranged for the African visitors to stay at the community’s finest and most modern hotel, Zeno’s along old Route 66. It may be hard for younger generations to appreciate the tension such a situation could have created in the early 1960s, but the country teacher who became a diplomat managed it smoothly for all involved. A.S.J. died in 1968. He had lived to see young Mel become an attorney and win a seat in the Missouri House. When the House Democratic leader died suddenly in midterm, Mel, still in his 20s, was elected to lead his fellow House members as majority leader. Then he lost a state Senate race and went home to practice law and serve on the Rolla school board. Mel was elected state treasurer, made an unsuccessful bid for governor, bounced back to win the lieutenant governor’s office in 1988 and was the unlikely winner of the governor’s office in 1992. He served two terms, reforming public education while finally providing it with proper funding and charting a moderate-progressive course while holding off the right wing’s worst impulses. Mel was running for Senate when he died in a plane crash three weeks before the 2000 election. Still grieving the loss of Mel, their eldest son Randy Carnahan and campaign aide Chris Sifford in the plane crash, Mel’s widow Jean Carnahan was appointed to the Senate seat Mel won posthumously over Republican John Ashcroft, in one of the strangest episodes on American politics: a dead man unseated a sitting senator. Jean, a fine first lady who had never run for office, lost the 2002 special election to Republican Jim Talent, but Claire McCaskill reclaimed Harry Truman’s old Senate seat for the Democrats in 2006. Meanwhile, son Russ was settling into Dick Gephardt’s former St. Louis congressional seat and daughter Robin took the secretary of state’s job in Jefferson City. So the Carnahans have known wins and losses for three generations, along with providing examples of heroism amid heartbreak. Now that Robin is retiring and Russ was retired by voters in Tuesday’s primary against fellow Congressman Lacy Clay, Democrats say there will be a round of public tributes for the Carnahan family’s three-generation legacy of public service to Missouri.



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