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Carolyn McCarthy, leaving Congress, feels she fought the good fight

Representative Carolyn McCarthy, in the Rayburn Room at

Representative Carolyn McCarthy, in the Rayburn Room at the United States Capitol building, Dec. 10, 2014, in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: Evelyn Hockstein

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Carolyn McCarthy is giving what she called a "bittersweet" farewell to Congress this week, ending an improbable 18-year political career launched by gunfire that killed her husband and critically wounded her son.

Fate changed her life, McCarthy said in her official farewell remarks, taking her from being "a nurse from Mineola living the life I wanted" to a congresswoman in Washington to fight "the scourge of gun violence."

McCarthy, 70, announced in January as she was undergoing her successful treatment for lung cancer that she would not seek re-election.

With her departure, Congress will lose what colleagues call the voice for victims of gun violence -- and a citizen lawmaker whose goal was a cause she did not quite accomplish.

In an interview, McCarthy conceded she has been "frustrated" as her bills to stop gun violence have been thwarted. But she never lost heart.

"I came here to try to do something about gun violence, and I wasn't going to give up," she said. "It's not like the killings and the shootings went away. They didn't," she said. "I had to keep fighting."

She pointed out she sponsored the last gun control bill enacted by Congress: a 2007 law to coax states to improve reporting of people with mental illness to the federal background check system to screen out ineligible gun buyers.

McCarthy said she grew beyond being a "one-issue" lawmaker -- she has passed measures on education, health and financial regulation, as well as laws to preserve civil rights oral histories and to create a day of service on Sept. 11, to mark the 2001 terror attacks.

McCarthy's last days in Congress come during a week of potent memories.

Twenty-one years ago, on Dec. 7, 1993, gunman Colin Ferguson shot and killed her husband Dennis and five others on a Long Island Rail Road commuter train. Her son Kevin was among 19 wounded.

McCarthy became an activist, fighting to curb the availability of guns and large ammunition magazines. She helped then-Rep. Charles Schumer (D-Brooklyn) pass an assault weapon ban in 1994. When her congressman, Rep. Dan Frisa (R-Westbury), voted to repeal it in 1995, McCarthy ran against him, and won.

At the age of 52, McCarthy, a boilermaker's daughter who had worked for 30 years as a nurse but had no political experience, went to Washington. No one knew how long she would last.

"I'm still amazed that I stayed here 18 years, because it went so fast," McCarthy said.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), credited McCarthy's fame and authenticity for her longevity: "She's direct. She was herself."

King said she also always had a good staff.

McCarthy said that includes Jim Messina, her onetime chief of staff who became President Barack Obama's deputy chief of staff in 2009 and campaign manager for his 2012 re-election.

Messina said McCarthy won elections because she reflects her constituents: "Hardworking, independent-minded, cares about the place she is from."

Another potent memory this week occurred two years ago: on Dec. 14, 2012, Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 students and six adults at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school.

Despite broad support for a bill to extend required background checks to purchasers at gun shows -- a show of support that brought tears to McCarthy's eyes -- NRA backers blocked it on the Senate floor.

"There have been a lot of heartaches," she said.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said, "The NRA very rarely agreed with Rep. McCarthy on firearm policy issues. Nonetheless, we sincerely wish her all the best in her retirement."

Being a member of Congress has been hard on her, physically. She lost some of her hearing from jets' noise on an aircraft carrier, had pneumonia after every campaign and in February broke three ribs in a fall.

"This is a tough job for anybody," said McCarthy, who looked hale yesterday as she made her final rounds.

McCarthy said she decided to step down after a bad patch in the past few years: the Newtown shootings, superstorm Sandy and running for re-election while feeling ill.

Her son Kevin told her in the summer of 2013: "Mom, enough." She recalled, "I said I'd think about it." Then she realized "it was time to go."

Besides, she said, "I'm comfortable leaving now because there are other voices that can do the talking."

Next year, she said, she will start looking for work, most likely teaching or lecturing.

But sitting in the Capitol's Rayburn Room, McCarthy said, "I'm not going to kid anybody. I'm going to miss this place."

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