Decade later, Carnahan plane crash still felt in Missouri politics

Friday, October 15, 2010 | 3:27 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — It's been 10 years since the campaign-trail plane crash that killed popular Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, his oldest son and a trusted aide. For Joe Bednar, the memories are still fresh.

Some are whimsical, like the time Jean Carnahan asked her husband's top legal adviser to dress up as the Easter bunny at the Governor's Mansion. Others are tinged with tragedy, like when Bednar had to put his own grief on hold after the Oct. 16, 2000 crash while poring through the state Constitution to determine a succession plan.

One constant remains: the image of Carnahan — a lawyer, Air Force veteran, congressman's son and child of the Ozarks — as a self-effacing lawmaker more interested in helping others than basking in the spotlight.

"He didn't have an ego most people think a governor would have," said Bednar, now a Jefferson City lawyer in private practice. "There was a sincerity and an integrity about him that was rare."

The 66-year-old Carnahan died when a plane piloted by his oldest son Roger crashed in Jefferson County outside St. Louis during a storm. The two-term governor was the Democratic nominee challenging Republican incumbent John Ashcroft for the U.S. Senate.

The crash killed 44-year-old Roger Carnahan, known as Randy, as well as Chris Sifford, a 37-year-old campaign aide and family friend. The three men were en route to a political event in the Missouri bootheel town of New Madrid.

Carnahan's sudden death rocked Missouri politics, and the nation. With the November election just weeks away, it was too late to change the ballots. Posthumously, Carnahan defeated Ashcroft by nearly 49,000 votes — the first time a dead man had been elected to the U.S. Senate.

Within days of the crash, Carnahan's widow agreed to take his place in Washington if necessary. The decision was not an easy one, said Tom Carnahan, the couple's youngest child.

"It was definitely not something she wanted to do," he said. "It was a tragedy, but there was something bigger out there."

Jean Carnahan would serve two years in Congress, losing a 2002 special election to Republican Jim Talent but remaining active as a writer, blogger and political activist. In her most recent book, Carnahan suggested she didn't have much of a choice when deciding to emerge from her lifelong role as political spouse.

"Had I refused, I would have regretted it all my life," she wrote.

Mel Carnahan's political career began in 1963 with four years in the Missouri House of Representatives. He spent another four as state treasurer and four more as lieutenant governor before becoming the state's 51st governor in 1992. His father served seven terms in Washington and was an ambassador to Sierra Leone.

Of the three surviving children, only Tom Carnahan — a wind farm developer — has avoided electoral politics. Russ Carnahan won election to the state House the year his father died and is now in his third term in Congress.

Robin Carnahan, the family's only daughter, largely avoided the glare of partisan politics as a young adult. But she was later elected Missouri's secretary of state in 2004 and 2008 and is now engaged in a high-profile U.S. Senate race against Republican Roy Blunt, the most accomplished torch bearer in the only other family in Missouri politics to rival the Carnahan clan.

"Her father's death, just like it did for each of the kids, caused her to examine how they made their contributions, their mark in the world," said political consultant Roy Temple, a former Missouri Democratic Party leader who also worked as chief of staff for both Mel and Jean Carnahan.

"After his death, she probably did some soul searching. It gave her a different level of focus," Temple said.

Losing her father and brother prematurely allows Robin Carnahan to approach her own political life with an uncommon degree of perspective, she said in a recent Kansas City Star interview.

"In my family, we've won campaigns and lost campaigns and lots more important things than political campaigns," she said.

Though it attracted fewer headlines, Sifford's death cast a large pall over Missouri's Democratic establishment. The former newspaper and radio reporter from Puxico had quickly advanced from Carnahan press secretary to communications director and gubernatorial chief of staff before leaving the Capitol to run the Senate campaign.

"Everybody who knew him thought he was their best friend," Bednar said. "He had a way of taking a personal interest in your life. My wife and kids still grieve horribly for him."

A charitable foundation created in Sifford's name has raised $125,000 toward college scholarships at the University of Missouri and Missouri State University for worthy students from nine counties. The family has scheduled a Saturday memorial service in his Stoddard County hometown.

A deadly plane crash involving a prominent Missouri politician wasn't unprecedented. In 1976, U.S. Senate candidate Jerry Litton, a Democratic congressman from Chillicothe, died with his wife and two children in a small plane crash the night of his primary victory.

Mel Carnahan and his wife were well aware of the potential dangers of small-plane travel, Temple said. During Carnahan's first term as governor, his South Dakotan counterpart, George Mickelson, died in a plane crash.

Temple also recalled a campaign fly-around involving the entire Carnahan clan — and Jean Carnahan's insistence that the family charter two planes in case of the unthinkable.

Such concerns haven't kept Robin Carnahan, a certified pilot, from steering her own plane across the state during her current campaign.

Those closest to the Carnahans avoid much speculation about what would have happened if Mel Carnahan, his son and Sifford had survived. On one hand, Ashcroft may have not been selected as George W. Bush's attorney general. And Sen. Claire McCaskill, who defeated Talent in 2006, might still be state auditor instead of a powerful Washington lawmaker.

As for Mel Carnahan, Bednar doesn't need to prognosticate. He's downright certain his former boss still would be making a difference.

"He'd be working for the everyday Missourian, I know that," Bednar said.

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