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Plane apparently carrying Carnahan goes down; Wilson ascends to acting governor

October 17, 2000
By: Clayton Bellamy
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson was appointed acting governor early Tuesday morning after a plane believed to be carrying Gov. Mel Carnahan crashed just south of St. Louis.

"It is with great sadness that we report that earlier (Monday) evening a plane believed to be carrying Governor Mel Carnahan, his son Roger, and senior campaign adviser, Chris Sifford, went down in Jefferson County," said Carnahan's spokesman Jerry Nachtigal through tears at a 2:30 a.m. news conference. "There were no survivors."

Nachtigal was joined in the somber announcement by House Speaker Steve Gaw, Wilson, Senate President Pro Tem Ed Quick, State Auditor Claire McCaskill, Attorney General Jay Nixon and red-eyed members of the governor's staff.

Nachtigal said the identities of the plane's passengers had not been confirmed, but said Carnahan's staff extended condolences to the governor's and Sifford's family.

Carnahan, who is the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, was expected to arrive in New Madrid County Monday evening for campaign stops but never arrived. Polls show Carnahan in a virtual tie with GOP opponent Sen. John Ashcroft.

Wilson took over as acting governor at 2:13 a.m. after a vote by the disability board, a panel of the state's leading office holders who convene when the governor cannot fulfill his duties.

"The disability board has met because of the inability of Gov. Carnahan to communicate," Wilson said. "I am acting governor at this time. I would like to ask permission to lean on five million Missourian's shoulders."

Wilson will remain acting governor until it is confirmed that Carnahan died in the crash. Afterward, he will become governor.

State Treasurer Bob Holden, also the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, was the only statewide official not to sign the papers transferring power to Wilson. He was in New Madrid County waiting to campaign with Carnahan.

Wilson said he called first lady Jean Carnahan who was in the governor's mansion overnight.

Ashcroft's campaign issued a statement suspending all of its campaign activities indefinitely and cancelled its commercials.

Carnahan's name will still appear on the November ballot. Jim Grebing, a spokesman for Secretary of State Bekki Cook, said the deadline to change the ballot was Oct. 10.

If Carnahan wins, Grebing said the method of choosing who would serve in the Senate in hid place is unclear. If a senator dies while in office, the governor appoints his replacement, but new senators are not sworn in until January.

Democrats could offer someone as a write-in, but Grebing said that was not a "practical option" because of bureacratic requirements and because any write-in candidate would lack the name recognition to win the race.

Carnahan, 66, began his political life in 1960 as a municipal judge in Rolla. He later served two terms in the state House of Representatives, rising to the level of Majority Floor Leader.

In 1980, Carnahan, a Baptist deacon, became state treasurer and in 1988 was elected lieutenant governor. His second term as Missouri's governor was nearly complete.

"Governor Carnahan always believed that public service was a noble calling," Nachtigal said. "His belief in the greatness of the citizens of this state, especially the children, was unwavering."

Sifford, 36, became Carnahan's communications director after a career as a journalist. Last year, he rose to chief of staff before moving on as senior adviser to Carnahan's run for the Senate.

Wilson's ascension is believed to be the fourth time in the state's history that a lieutenant governor has replaced a deceased governor. It represents the first time since 1887 when Gov. John Sappington Marmaduke died and was replaced by Lieutenant Governor Albert Pickett Morehouse.

Carnahan is not the first U.S. Senate candidate in Missouri to perish in a plane. In 1976, U.S. Rep. Jerry Litton of Chilicothe died in a plane crash the night he won the Democratic nomination.

He, his wife and his two children were killed on a flight they were taking from their home to a victory rally in Kansas City where Litton was to declare victory.