By mid-February, former state Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, will be taking up residence in Kenya and running the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.
McCarter takes experience running a nonprofit in the country to his new job as the United States’ diplomat in the east African nation.
The new ambassador and his wife, Victoria, are scheduled to leave for Nairobi on Feb. 16. After being confirmed and sworn into the position earlier this year, McCarter has been in Washington, D.C. to prepare for the new job.
“There are challenges in Kenya with corruption, but there’s a lot more positives,” Kyle McCarter said. “I believe Kenya has the ability to be really the shining star, the example for Africa as to how people will not let their differences hold back their success. I think unity within the country is going to determine how successful they are and I’m going to do everything I can to promote that.”
When his service in Kenya is complete, possibly at the end of the Trump administration, will the 56-year-old McCarter view the experience as leg up on another position?
McCarter, a Republican, previously served as a St. Clair County Board member and state senator. He did not seek re-election to the Illinois state legislature in 2018. In 2016 he unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, in the primary.
As he awaited nomination for the ambassadorship, McCarter said he decided he would consider another run for office if it didn’t come through or if the appointment wasn’t confirmed.
As he prepares for departure, he says, his focus is on the work immediately before him.
“I had never wanted to be in politics before I went to the county board. I never imagined I would be in the senate when I was on the county board,” McCarter said. “I never imagined I could be the ambassador when I was in the senate. I think it’s important to say, I’ve been given this opportunity to serve these people and I think you have to put blinders on and say ‘I’m going to do the best job where I’m at.’”
It wouldn’t be unprecedented for an ambassadorship being a precursor to an elected position. U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, Mo., served as ambassador to Luxembourg under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2009. She then was elected to Congress in 2012.
“I don’t think people care where the appointment was geographically, and I don’t think they have any sense an ambassador did a good job or a poor job,” said Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville Political Science Professor Andrew Theising. “I don’t think people are about those details. I think people put stock in the idea you were an ambassador — ‘You were appointed by the president. You were confirmed by the senate. You must be good.’”
McCarter says he doesn’t view the job as a stepping stone.
“Now if in the future if I have the opportunity to do something and I believe that’s where I’m supposed to be I’ll go,” McCarter said. “And I do believe 10 years ago, I probably would not have been equipped to do the job that I’ve been asked to do today, because I think, again, life builds you and prepares you for different levels of responsibility.”
McCarter was a reliable GOP vote in the state senate, said Jeremy Plank, the chairman of the Madison County Republican Central Committee.
Plank added anything is possible in the future, but he thinks McCarter is concentrating his efforts on Kenya.
“Based on my understanding of who Kyle is, I believe he has a genuine interest in maintaining healthy ties with Kenya and in helping the people who live there,” Plank said.
Whatever McCarter does when his service as ambassador is complete, Plank added, it will be something he is passionate about.
“If he decides to get back into the electoral process, we would support him against anyone the Democrats would choose to run,” Plank said.
Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler said he’s not aware of any future plans for McCarter, and noted the former state senator has kept his promise to limit his terms in the legislature.
Prenzler said the ambassadorship will help McCarter form new relationships in the country of nearly 48.4 million people.
“Any future career may be Kenyan related,” Prenzler said.
Keeping people safe
McCarter, who is in the process of selling his business, Custom Product Innovations in Lebanon, will arrive in the Kenya about a month after a terrorist attack in the nation’s capital that killed 21 people.
“When you take on the challenge of the job, you understand the risk, you understand the challenges. Even though I understand how serious those are I’m very confident this is the right place for me to be,” McCarter said.
He said his first obligation is to keep people safe, but he also wants to help people in Kenya become self-reliant.
“National security in Kenya is an important thing and has to be a priority, but I’m looking forward to putting together projects,” McCarter said. “Our country is very generous and I will never forget how hard people work to pay for those taxes to make it possible for us to be generous. So I want to be the best steward of that money. In the same way I want to be the most respectful person I can be to the Kenyans, because if we’re not thinking about their goal of self-reliance and their goal to being sustainable on their own, as they can be, I don’t think we’re doing the right thing.”
Kyle and Victoria McCarter have worked in Kenya for more than 30 years and founded the Each One Feed One International charity in Tharaka, Kenya. The charity has worked with a kindergarten through eighth grade school, helped hundreds of abandoned, abused and orphaned children, and provided a medical clinic that serves about 15,000 people a year.
Victoria will continue with the as the organization’s country director while her husband serves the duties of his new role. She said she is looking forward to getting to know women in Kenya.
“I want to have times where I’m with them. They can talk to me about their issues so I can help them with my platform, women and children,” Victoria McCarter said.
Tough scrutiny from Democrats
Kyle McCarter has been outspoken during his political career, including his time as a Republican member of the Illinois Senate. Among other things, he criticized former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s decision to sign a bill to provide state health insurance and Medicaid coverage for abortions. McCarter then backed former state Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, in her nearly-successful bid to win the GOP nomination for governor.
He faced hard questions during his confirmation hearing in July from Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He had to discuss previous statements and votes regarding the LGBTQ community, Twitter comments about Hillary Clinton and whether she should go to prison, as well as his views on Syrian refugees coming to the United States.
McCarter was one of four ambassador nominees to testify that day, but he faced the toughest scrutiny.
U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, said there was a concern as to whether McCarter would advocate for equal rights citing his opposition to marriage equality, allowing same sex couples to adopt, and to legislation in Illinois that promoted equal opportunity for transgender people.
McCarter said the Kenyan high courts are taking up the issues of decriminalizing homosexuality and said he supported it and thought it is the right thing to do. McCarter also committed to meeting with members of the LGBTQ community while in Kenya.
“It has been my sincerely held belief and my foundational faith that we should love one another and love our neighbor as our self,” McCarter said. “This issue has no bearing on how and whom I serve in public, in public and in government. Every person is created equal and deserving of respect. Discrimination of any type should not be allowed and all those working under my leadership know this.”
McCarter also had to answer questions about a tweet he sent about Clinton.
“Hillary for prison. No, really,” the tweet read.
“There are conversations to have,” McCarter said during the hearing. “I’m not the one to say anyone should be accused unjustly. There is a hype in an election, we question, and I did pose the question. Perhaps that was not called for but I would tell you I did pose the question.”
“Perhaps it’s one of those tweets you like to reel in but you can’t and that was one of those,” McCarter later added.
Among those to push back on McCarter’s tweet were U.S. Sens. Christopher Murphy, D-Connecticut, and Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, who was Clinton’s vice presidential running mate in 2016.
“(It’s) probably worthwhile for anybody taking a diplomatic post to just stand down on Twitter,” Murphy said. “These are not helpful comments to someone who is being asked to represent the United States abroad.”
McCarter pulled back on his Twitter posts after the hearing, and hasn’t tweeted since September.
McCarter also was questioned about political reconciliation in the Kenya, and said new leadership at the local level will help bring people together in the country.
“These things don’t get better overnight but it’s encouraging to see how they’re moving forward,” McCarter said.
It wasn’t all scrutiny for McCarter. When U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, introduced McCarter at the committee, he cited the McCarters charitable work in the country. Inhofe said McCarter is familiar with the local politics facing Kenya.
“He understands the situation there, he has a love for Africa, specifically for Kenya, with a background there, and he’s going to do a good job,” Inhofe said.
In December, McCarter ultimately was approved out of committee in a 12-9 vote that was mostly along party lines, with one Democrat crossing over to vote yes, according to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee office.
McCarter was then confirmed by the U.S. Senate in a voice vote on Jan. 2.
Visit with Kyle and Victoria McCarter
There are two more receptions planned for Kyle and Victoria McCarter before they travel to Kenya. To attend:
- 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday at Global Brew Tap House at 455 Regency Park Drive in O’Fallon, hosted by Madison County Chairman Kurt Prenzler and former Belleville Alderwoman Melinda Hult.
- 10:30 a.m. Sunday at Christ Covenant Church at 3465 Shackelford Road in Florissant, Mo. There will be a service and reception to follow.