Political Widows Carve Out Own Agendas

Political newcomer Julie Currier is carrying the mantle for her late husband, who posthumously won the April 9 race for the Democratic precinct committeeship.

"We were a team. We always worked as a team," said Currier, who had been promised her Democratic husband Cosmo Currier's Merrillville, Ind., seat should he win. "Now he can finally rest in peace."

Currier is the latest woman to fit the archetypal model — women who have continued the political work of their husbands after their deaths, in many cases taking over their vacant offices.

In fact, for decades the only women in Congress were widows of lawmakers who died while in office. Today, that is no longer the norm, but there are a handful of women who have taken on the challenge of succeeding their husbands while cutting their own figures on the political landscape.

"As time goes on, I believe that congresswomen who were elected to fill their husbands' seats tend to act like other members," said Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., who added that her constituents were eager to hear her own views after she won a special election following her husband Rep. Walter Capps' unexpected death in 1997.

"When I decided to run in the special election following the untimely death of my husband, my initial goal was to fulfill Walter's legacy and advance the issues he cared about," said Capps, a nurse who had been very active in the public health arena throughout her Santa Barbara district before her husband's death of a heart attack at 63.

"But I soon realized that voters also wanted to hear more specifically about what I would offer and what my agenda would be," she said. That turned out to be the nation-wide nursing shortage, healthcare and reforming Medicare.

Capps joins Reps. Jo Anne Emerson, R-Mo., and Mary Bono, R-Calif., who both ran and won their husbands' House seats after their deaths in 1996 and 1998 respectively.

"It was not on my top ten list of things to do," recalled Emerson, wife of the late Rep. Bill Emerson. She successfully ran as an independent for her husband's seat after he died of lung cancer in 1996. A former Washington lobbyist, Emerson knew the issues but wasn't sure she could replace her spouse's ease before crowds and on the campaign trail.

"I had a great career and job and totally had to change my focus. When I first began campaigning, I was in a fog and I had to find my way," remembered Emerson. "I realized I wasn't my husband, that I could walk in his shoes, but I couldn't fill my shoes."

She freely admits she won that first election in 1996 on "sympathy," but the 1998 and 2000 campaigns were different, and were won due to determination and reaching out to the voters in her own voice, she said. Emerson now serves on the House appropriations and transportation committees.

"It took me a little while to get comfortable in my own shoes if you will," she said. "For me, it was important to see that I had the ability to do the job myself."

Emerson follows a short, but influential line of women who became political forces of their own after taking over their husband's office. Eight women in Senate history have succeeded their husbands in office, the first of whom was Sen. Hattie Caraway, elected to the U.S. Senate in 1932 after her appointment a year earlier to fill her late husband's seat.

She was followed by firebrands like Margaret Chase Smith, who succeeded her representative husband in 1940 and was elected to the Senate in 1948 — becoming the first woman to serve both houses of the Congress. She served 32 years in Congress before being defeated in 1972.

Maurine Neuberger was elected to the Senate after her husband, Richard Neuberger, was stuck down by a cerebral hemorrhage in 1960. She became the third woman ever to serve in the Senate, though she only served one term before retiring.

Sen. Jean Carnahan, D-Mo., who agreed to be appointed to her husband Gov. Mel Carnahan's place should he win the 2000 Senate, is currently running for re-election as required by state law. Gov. Carnahan was killed in a plane crash two weeks ahead of election day, but still defeated then-Sen. John Ashcroft.

Like the other women, Sen. Carnahan was forced to grieve for her husband while her husband's supporters and the Democratic Party awaited her decision to run. Now, she is in a tight race to keep the seat and create her own name.

Allan Lichtman, history department chair at American University, said that while some women have gone on to be an "independent force in Congress" after taking their husband's mantles, not all succeed.

"Some never did escape their husbands' shadows, particularly in the early period," Lichtman said.

Indeed, while Currier's position is a minor position in local politics, she — and other women — have faced criticism for seemingly capitalizing on their husbands' passings.

"The man has passed away and the voters should know that," said Merrillville Clerk-Treasurer John Petalas, who supported Currier's opponent. "We should not have someone appointed by choosing a dead man. People should have a choice, not a party chairman."

But Capps and Emerson say they have created a name for themselves by carrying on the spirit of their husband's commitment throughout the issues and platforms they have created for their own.

"We manage our offices our own way and carve our unique legislative agendas," said Capps. "Our constituents wouldn't have it any other way."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.