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Jean Carnahan is no stranger to politics

October 24, 2000
By: Kate Miller and Lauren Shepherd
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Although Missouri's first lady has never held government office, Jean Carnahan is no stranger to political leadership.

Friends say she has been a close political partner with Mel Carnahan during their 46 years of marrage.

And from her first days as Missouri's first lady, she envisioned a more active role in the governmental process.

In a 1993 speech to the Federation of Women's Democratic Clubs Luncheon, Jean Carnahan praised strong political women who have emerged with political identities of their own.

"I think that Hillary Clinton, Tipper Gore and others have set an example for women in politics generally," Jean Carnahan said. "When we feel strongly on an issue, we should not be silent or intimidated. We should not wait for someone else to right the wrongs in our society. We cannot count on that happening."

That idea of a more active role for a first lady was repeated seven years later in a book published earlier this year, Will You Say a Few Words, of her various speeches over the years. "In her unique position, a First Lady has a perfect platform from which to spotlight neglected issues," she wrote in the book's introduction.

"Indeed, like the goddess Artemis, she might even lead the charge."

Friends and Democratic legislators say she is a woman who knows how to get things done. They say she has earned a reputation as a hard worker and a champion of children's issues.

She was the prime architect and effectively the chief lobbyists for one of her husband's major legislative achievements -- the 1998 passage of legislation to fund daycare and pre-school services at local schools.

In policy role rarely seen in a first lady, Mrs. Carnahan testified and answered questions before legislative committees in favor of the $56 million Early Childhood Education Fund. The bill, which ultimately became law, granted a portion of state gambling revenue to public schools offering early childhood day care services.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Bill Boucher, D-Kansas City, called Jean Carnahan's testimony "impressive."

"She was more than just a first lady," said Boucher. "She knew the issues and the bills."

Boucher said Jean Carnahan had worked on the language of the bill with Carnahan and that "she was extremely knowledgeable about brain development in the early childhood years."

Besides education, Jean Carnahan has been active in promoting immunization practices in newborns, leading a campaign with the Missouri Partnership for Children. Along with her husband, Jean Carnahan developed a card to send to new parents reminding them to immunize their newborn children.

Jim Caccamo, former executive director for the organization, said Jean Carnahan's efforts led 39 other states to enact similar programs.

"She's been almost as tireless as the governor in informing people that what happens to young children is very important," Caccamo said, mentioning also her testimony for the legislature in 1998. "She not only played an active role in legislation, but she also played an active role in setting a vision for Missouri's children."

Friends say Jean Carnahan was active in her own four children's lives, acting as homeroom mother, cub scout den mother and girl scout troop leader. She was involved in her church and in many civic activities including campaigning for tax levies aimed at public schools and libraries.

"Whatever she puts her hand to she will do well," said Rolla friend Jamie G. Anderson.

Jean and Meel Carnahan have been partners since meeting at a Baptist youth group when she was 15 years old. The two courted through high school and attended George Washington University together, both earning bachelors' degrees in business admininistration and marrying in 1954.

But although the two were very close, Anderson said Jean Carnahan has her own opinons and makes her own decisions.

"Jean Carnahan is her own woman," Anderson said.