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Republicans admonish Wilson's announcement

October 24, 2000
By: Clayton Bellamy, Paul Monies and Lauren Shepherd
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Republicans charged Gov. Roger Wilson was unfair and possibly illegal when he announced Tuesday that he would appoint Jean Carnahan to the U.S. Senate if her late husband wins the election.

Some Republicans said Democrats should seek a write-in candidacy. Others charged Wilson with putting political concerns ahead of Jean Carnahan's need for time to mourn.

Wilson "is asking people to vote for candidate X on the assumption that Y will appoint Z," said John Hancock, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party. "It's in the best interest of the political system that if people want to vote for Mrs. Carnahan, then she should be a write-in candidate."

Hancock also said that Wilson may be violating a federal law that prohibits someone from promising a federal job as part of a political campaign.

Wilson Tuesday announced he would appoint Jean Carnahan to the U.S. Senate if Mel Carnahan gains more votes than his opponent.

Wilson said Jean Caranahan has not decided if she would accept the appointment. "I spoke with Jean Carnahan this morning and she said that's a decision she's not ready to make."

A spokesman at the governor's mansion said the first lady was not available for comment.

Mel Carnahan died when his plane crashed on its way to a campaign stop for his U.S. Senate race against incumbent John Ashcroft. If the late governor, whose name remains on the ballot, garners more votes on Nov. 7, Wilson would then appoint a replacement to serve until 2002.

Wilson said the first lady had no deadline date to commit. Nor did he guarantee that voters would know whom he would appoint in the event Jean Carnahan decides not to enter the race.

State Rep. Fred Pouche, R-Kansas City, and Sen. Roseann Bentley, R-Springfield, called the announcement's timing insensitive.

"This announcement by Wilson unduly applies pressure on Mrs. Carnahan and does not respect her right in a time of mourning," Pouche said in a statement.

Wilson addressed that concern when he made the announcement.

"It's important that we do this today because there is a responsibility to let the voters know what their choices are," Wilson said. "I do feel guilty about asking her this early but if anyone in the state understands the responsibility to 4.5 million Missourians, it's Jean Carnahan."

Analysts and pundits have been speculating about Jean Carnahan standing in for her husband since early last week. Even Wilson said it was one of his first thoughts.

"Widows are the most logical choice because they represent to the voters an extension of the husband," said Saint Louis University political science professor Ken Warren. "Therefore, at least in the party's mind, they don't present too many complications to the voter because the wife generally carries on the same policies and approach to the job."

History is littered with examples of widows replacing husbands who died in office, but never before has a dead man's name remained on the ballot for U.S. Senate. Despite a widow's historical power, Warren and University of Virginia professor Larry J. Sabato agree Ashcroft is the front runner.

"Sen. Ashcroft would be the nominal favorite but who can say -- without any precedent -- what people might do in the privacy of the voting booth?" Sabato said.

Warren called Mel Carnahan's chance of getting more votes than Ashcroft "improbable," saying practically-minded independents would choose the more experienced Ashcroft over the first lady. Those independent tallies, he said, would outweigh any emotional votes for Jean Carnahan.

Emotion "will play some role but I hope that when people decide how they will vote it'll be based on what's best for Missouri," Wilson said.

Missouri Democratic Party executive director, Roy Temple, said he wasn't sure how the party would promote Jean Carnahan if she decides to be Mel Carnahan's surrogate.

"The first thing is to determine if Jean will accept, then we ask what the right thing is to do," Temple said. "We're in uncharted waters. We may rely entirely on grassroots efforts. But, frankly, a lot will depend on how John Ashcroft responds."

Ashcroft toured the state's soup kitchens Tuesday. At a mission in Jefferson City, he unpacked boxes of food for 13 minutes in front of rolling TV cameras. Before abruptly leaving, he took three reporter questions.

"I recognize that everyone is struggling with a way to accommodate this tragedy and my way of doing it is being involved in reaching out to needy individuals around the state," he said. "I understand (the Democrat's) effort to do that."

The volunteer executive director of the Good Samaritan, Jefferson City's mission, said she was surprised how quickly Ashcroft was in and out.

"He's a busy man, I guess," said Marylyn DeFeo, the director.

Democrats farther down the ballot had counted on the controversial match-up between Mel Carnahan and Ashcroft to get their voters to the booth. Candidate for lieutenant governor, Joe Maxwell, said Wilson's announcement restored that effect.

"We were expecting a trickle-down, now we won't lose that," he said.

He said last week's wreck had left those hopes in jeopardy.

"Clearly, a day or two after the governor's death, it became evident in our campaign that a lot of air had been let out of our sails," he said. "We had lost a lot of our momentum in a crucial time, three weeks before the election."