Community responds to election

Community responds to election

BY KIT WAGAR, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

To much of the Jewish community, the Nov. 7 election results signaled a dramatic reversal of public sentiment toward a more moderate course in tune with traditional Jewish values.

“The election showed more support for civil liberties, for social justice and greater concern for the whole of society, and for preserving the safety net,” said Gerry Greiman, who heads the Church-state Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “It signals a change of direction from where we’ve been headed the last six years.”

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From the higher minimum wage to new protections for stem cell research and a possible new direction in the war on terror, the election is likely to force policymakers to build consensus and take a fresh approach to a wide variety of problems, St. Louis Jewish leaders said.

Bob Millstone, chairman of the St. Louis Jewish Federation’s Government Relations committee for Missouri, said the Democratic takeover of Congress combined with the Democratic gains in the Missouri legislature would have a moderating influence on government policy at both levels.

“It will cause leadership in both parties to look for ways to bridge differences to solve problems,” Millstone said.

At the federal level, that could mean changes in U.S. policy in the Middle East. Millstone said U.S. leaders have been so polarized over the war in Iraq that the nation’s credibility suffered.

“One obstacle in the Middle East has been the inability to find consensus,” Millstone said. “I hope this creates an opportunity to figure out a policy that makes sense. That’s good for Israel and good for our country as well.”

President Bush called the vote “a thumping'” for Republicans. But Sam Fox, one of the leading donors to charitable causes in St. Louis and to the Republican Party nationally, put the election results in perspective. In an e-mail message to the St. Louis Jewish Light, Fox said the election seems to have renewed a spirit of bi-partisanship.

“I think most Americans would join me in welcoming this development and in hoping it can be maintained for a long time to come,” Fox wrote.

Democrat Claire McCaskill, who narrowly won a hard-fought race for the U.S. Senate, was helped by her support for a new direction in Iraq. But she was also on the prevailing side of several other major issues, including stem cell research and a higher minimum wage. McCaskill finished with 49.5 percent compared with 47.4 percent for Republican Sen. Jim Talent. The Libertarian and Progressive candidates split nearly 3 percent.

Missourians moved to help low-income workers by voting more than 3-1 to approve a 26 percent increase in the minimum wage. The proposition raises the minimum wage to $6.50 an hour beginning Jan. 1, with annual increases based on the cost of living.

The Jewish Community Relations Council unanimously endorsed the measure. Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, called the vote “a clear mandate that we care about the well-being of our most vulnerable.”

Greiman agreed.

“We’ve long been concerned with issues of poverty, health care and adequate nutrition,” said Greiman, who said he was speaking for himself and not necessarily the JCRC. “We’ve been concerned with the earnings gap between the very top income levels and the rest of society. People working at minimum wage jobs simply can’t make ends meet.”

Missouri voters also gave Democrats two additional seats in the state Senate and five seats in the state House. Republicans remain firmly in control of both houses of the General Assembly, but the election marked the first time in 20 years that Democrats gained House seats in a November election.

In the St. Louis area, incumbents dominated the results. Among the five House races profiled in the St. Louis Jewish Light, the closest was in the 87th District, where Republican Rep. Scott Muschany defeated Democrat Cynthia Kramer 55 percent to 45 percent.

In the 92nd District, Republican Rep. Chuck Portwood defeated Democrat Beverly White 56 percent to 44 percent. In the 86th District, Republican Rep. Jane Cunningham knocked off Democrat Martha “Marty” Ott, 56 percent to 44 percent.

In the 73rd District, Democratic Rep. Margaret Donnelly crushed Republican Suzanne O’Sullivan, 70 percent to 30 percent. And in the 82nd District, Democratic Rep. Sam Page easily defeated Republican Tom Cross, 64 percent to 36 percent.

In the Senate, incumbent Democrat Joan Bray won a second term with 61 percent of the vote over Republican John Maupin.

David Winton, lobbyist for the Jewish Federations of St. Louis, said any narrowing of the majority’s grip on power forces lawmakers to find middle ground.

“The hope is that legislation will be driven more by consensus,” Winton said. “When neither side clearly dominates, people talk more and listen more. That’s good for the Jewish community and good for the Missouri community.”

Abramson-Goldstein and Greiman said they hoped the election results put a damper on legislation that blurs the line between religion and government.

“Respect for diversity in religion and in other areas keeps us strong,” Abramson-Goldstein said. “I think that message was sent when our republic was founded.”

Jewish leaders said they hoped lawmakers would respect the public’s approval of Amendment 2, which allows Missouri scientists to conduct any stem cell research permitted under federal law.

Some conservative lawmakers, backed by the Catholic Church, have announced plans to try to put a referendum on next year’s ballot to reverse the Nov. 7 vote. They say the narrow margin of passage — 51.2 percent to 48.8 percent — was not a mandate and merely the result of supporters’ $30 million campaign.

Jewish organizations unanimously endorsed the measure because of the potential for stem cell research to produce novel treatments for Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and a host of other chronic conditions.

“I respect the rights of any religion,” Greiman said. “But I challenge their right to impose their beliefs on all of society.”

Fox, a national chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition, wrote that he was pleased by passage of the stem cell measure.

“Stem cell research might very well lead to cures for illnesses that affect the lives of 100 million people in the United States alone,” Fox wrote. “That’s approximately 1 in every 3 families — it’s huge. Thank goodness Missouri can now contribute to this very worthwhile cause.”

Winton said most lawmakers would find it difficult cast a vote to reverse the votes of more than a million Missourians. He predicted that the next legislature will be led by the political middle, and conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans will play key roles. And he forecast less legislation motivated by the religious right because lawmakers have so many big issues to address.

“I hope some of the rhetoric gets taken out of the process,” Winton said. “It’s not healthy. Legislators have to fix Medicaid and they have an opportunity to solve some problems because of a $500 million surplus. There just isn’t as much time to talk about those things that just the religious right tells me are important.”