Full version: Former legislator assesses his experience with anti-Semitism in Missouri politics

By Jack J. Schramm

I write with a heavy heart in the wake of the tragedy of Tom Schweich’s suicide.  Your expansive treatment of the subject of anti-Semitism in the election of public officials in Missouri is instructive not only for our community of faith but for the larger community as well.  Thank you for that.  I didn’t know Tom but he appears to have been an exceptional public servant and I grieve both for his family and for the opportunities lost for the rest of us. As for Tom himself, I believe that he is in a better place and free of the vexations — however they might have been parsed in his troubled mind — that proved too great a challenge for his coping mechanisms to overcome.  As we pause in this place, some have suggested that politics is no place for the sensitive at heart.  I truly hope that isn’t true for it would rob us of the qualities of empathy and responsiveness that are so sorely needed in public life today.  And, as Sen. Danforth so poignantly reminded us, the victim, in any event, should never be blamed for the crude and bigoted offerings of the bully. How true that is.
Yes, I wish that Tom, as an exemplar of the sensitive, policy-oriented public servant, had stood his ground. Plainly, he was troubled by the overt signs of anti-Semitism that were threatening to intrude into his clean and neat political domain whose construct allowed room only for the struggle between good and not-so-good governance ideas.  How does one cope with the insidious, unfair, beneath-the-surface trash that so often passes for politics today?  That trash takes many forms, and one of them is anti-Semitism, and it is particularly egregious when it invades the domain of electoral politics.  And most especially in an America whose exceptional political architecture purports to protect us from such perversions.  Yet, they are there — in diminishing degrees of intrusion over the years, I would argue, but always there.  Part of the human condition, I am persuaded, irrespective of constitutions.  “And, actually, I’m not even one of ‘them’,” Tom said to himself and others, in frustration, trying to find where justice was in that mix.
We in and of the Jewish community know exactly what it means to be one of “them.” So many of us are first generation Jewish Americans and have that special proximity to what might have been.  In my own case, I trace my good fortune to my maternal grandfather, Abraham Goruch, who, in 1911, bravely stood up to a marauding band of Cossacks in a shetl outside of Kiev.  To protect his family, he wrestled one off his horse and had to flee for his life, calling to his family as he ran, “I’ll get you out!”  And he did, two years later, after he had smuggled himself into a life boat on an ocean liner bound for New Orleans from whence he made his way to St. Louis to commence a new life as one of America’s early undocumented immigrants.  My grandfather’s courageous act changed his life and that of his descendants forever — including my mother, then 10 years old, and, in turn, me.  He, in fact and without exaggeration, made my life possible. 
A few years ago, I had an assignment in Kiev and insisted that we go to the Babi Yar Memorial, the place where 33,771Jews, and countless others, were slaughtered by Nazi Sonderkommandos in 1941.  I looked over the surrounding ravine in abject disbelief, trying to imagine the terror felt by the victims as they were made to dig their own graves before their murder.  There but for the grace of God would have been my grandfather and his family, including my mother, just 28 years after their escape to America.  Yes, as we know all too well, there are thousand of such stories of escape to this Promised Land.  And there were many more thousands who did not have the good fortune to escape. So we — our very own selves — grew up not very far at all from an alternative reality. “There but for the grace of God” should have real meaning for us.  Knowing what it feels to be the object of scorn, after experiencing it for millennia, is in our DNA.  Tom Schweich inherited the feeling from his Jewish grandfather who, according to the reports, warned young Tom to always stand up for what is right.  And isn’t that our only defense?  Together with the coping mechanisms that most of us learn from an early age, and with which Tom’s personal experience left him without.
After the news about Tom broke, I was asked about anti-Semitism in my own races for higher office and whether it played a role in my defeats. I had served eight years in the Missouri Legislature before embarking on the quest for wider responsibilities, and am happy to report that, during those legislative years, I encountered no religious hostility, at least none that ventured beyond the personal boundaries of a very few.  There is always some bigotry out there, one comes to expect, but no one was trying to line up votes against my legislation because I was Jewish.   In fact, I was able to compile, with lots of civic support, what some editorial writers around the state, and beyond, thought was a fairly supportable record of accomplishment and a suitable basis for moving up.  I thought it was a good thing to be sincere and sensitive, too, but more than that, I took very much to heart the Jewish teaching of Tikun Olam, to do whatever we could to repair the world, and, as Tom’s grandfather had wisely advised, to stand up for what is right. I was heartened to learn that our current Jewish legislators (Stacey Newman, Sue Meredith, Jill Schupp, and earlier, Jake Zimmerman) have experienced the same kind of acceptance, albeit with sometime revealing little stories that bespoke a modest need for further enlightenment about our culture!
With encouragement from colleagues, I undertook the race for lieutenant governor in 1972.  Republican Larry Roos, the highly capable St. Louis County Supervisor, and Jewish, had undertaken a race for governor against Warren Hearnes in 1968 and lost badly.  That Roos had won county-wide was impressive, but some of my Jewish supporters thought that being Jewish was a poison pill going state-wide and feared that I would be infected, too.  No Jew had previously been elected to state-wide office, but I felt confident that it was possible.  But there was a primary first, and my principal opponent was House Speaker Jim Godfrey who had the backing of Gov. Hearnes and what was considered the Democratic establishment across the state. Formidable, but I was undeterred.  I had formed very strong bonds with my rural brethren who liked that I had taken on some of my urban colleagues in the legislature, particularly a powerful group of North County Democrats  that was dominated by the then influential Pipefitters Union.  (I wanted more power in the hands of Roos’s County government which could more efficiently administer certain services than myriad small municipalities in North County which were power fiefdoms for their legislators but were woefully inefficient in certain areas and supported by inadequate tax bases, like, say, Ferguson today.  Sound familiar?  Thus, the North County labor Democrats didn’t like me very much, but my rural legislative friends did.)
An observation here:  Your coverage contained this:  “Dave Robertson, political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said he couldn’t say how much a candidate’s Judaism might hurt outstate, where antipathy toward the state’s urban areas might be just as powerful a force.”  An astute observation.  Other political scientists who had studied the political cultures of the various states characterized Missouri as an “individualistic political culture” where the person was more important than the issue, as compared with the “moralistic political culture” where the issue was more important than the person (some upper-midwestern and western states).  In a true reflection of Jeffersonian Democracy that likes its government close to the people, the election of liberally oriented senators such as Tom Eagleton and Stuart Symington in a rather conservative state, and the cross-overs in the 60’s and 70’s to elect Republicans like John Danforth, Kit  Bond,and  John Ashcroft in then Democratic Missouri, made sense.  That persuaded me that if a Jewish candidate could make his case, the people would elect him (or her, which was coming).
We campaigned in every corner of the state, recruited 10,000 volunteers by actual count, and won the primary very comfortably.  My rural friends were enormously helpful in the outstate areas.  We encountered very little anti-Semitism, and were terribly proud that our candidacy was the first statewide victory for a Jewish candidate.  If Missourians liked and respected you, they would vote for you.  But then came the general election of 1972.  Reformist forces in the Democratic Party won the day and nominated Sen. George McGovern for president — only to rue it later.  1972 was the Democratic equivalent of the Republican debacle with Goldwater in 1964 — a crushing defeat nationwide.  The tide  took me out to sea with it. But the numbers were interesting as we try to gain some insight into the behavior of Missouri voters. In Missouri, Nixon crushed McGovern by 450,000 votes, a 70 to 30% split, and the worst wipeout in the history of the state.  In the race for governor, my running mate, Ed Dowd, lost to Republican Kit Bond by what I call an ordinary landslide of 200,000 votes, or 55 to 45%.  My race was next on the ballot, and high up where influences from the top are felt most.  I lost by a fraction of a percent and only had  to change one vote per precinct to have reversed the result.  There was a recount and it took three weeks before there was enough evidence to persuade me to concede.  In other words, there was, as some newspapers described it, a “massive crossover vote for Schramm.” 
A Jewish friend said to me shortly thereafter, in dejected disappointment,  “A Jew just isn’t going to win in Missouri.”  I couldn’t have disagreed more.  Yes, there had to be some ant-Semitism out there.  There always is, but one just has to factor it in and treat it in the same way that you expect the hard core of the other party to be against you.  The numbers in our contest amply demonstrated that.  There is little doubt in my mind that if Tom Eagleton had remained on the ticket as McGovern’s VP choice, enough Democrats would have stayed home to proudly support Tom — at least one per precinct — and we would have won.  Eagleton would not have won Missouri for McGovern but he would have eased the margin just a fraction, enough for us to squeak through.  It’s pretty much as simple as that.  My religion had very little to do with it.  Missouri’s collective independence of mind — even if deemed quirky by some — delivered its judgments.  And my confidence in that independence was vindicated in the subsequent elections of Ken Rothman, Harriet Woods (the first woman), and, more recently, Jason Kander, competent Jewish candidates all, to statewide office.
I felt buoyed — not defeated — by that 1972 vote.  And so did our state Democratic Party leaders, who offered me the nomination for state auditor in 1974, with no opposition and their full support.  I declined with gratitude, and that may have been a grave mistake, in retrospect.  The office of auditor had been a successful route to the governorship for both Kit Bond and John Ashcroft.  But I was a policy guy and felt that audits and numbers would have been boring for me.  Jim Symington was going to vacate his House seat in 1976 to run for the senate to succeed his father, and I began to salivate over the prospect of participating in the structuring of national legislative policy. But so did State Senator Bob Young, perhaps for other reasons.  Bob, a pipefitter and North County political leader, wanted to cap his career by going to the Congress.  We couldn’t talk each other out of the race so we agreed to fight it out in a primary election.  While the 2nd District in a general election was fairly balanced among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, a Democratic primary was hugely influenced by the heavy Democratic vote in North County.  The prospects were perhaps more daunting for that race than they were for the lieutenant governor’s race, but I felt the same confidence in voters if they could exercise a free choice.
What role would religion play, if any, in that congressional race?  More than I bargained for, and at several levels.  Young’s (considerable) base was in North County, comprised mostly of labor Democrats, and largely Catholic.  My base was in central county and comprised of business and professional Democrats and independents, and where the Jewish community was largely found.  The numbers were such that, in order to win, we had to do better in our base than he did in his.  A Democratic primary vote in that district usually brought out about 65,000 to 70,000 voters.  In early private polling, we found ourselves to be slightly ahead — according to plan.  Young had been around a long time and had made some enemies in his own backyard and they formed “rump” groups for us.  That helped us.  But we hadn’t considered two factors.  The first was the “dirty tricks”, alluded to in Bob Cohn’s piece referencing our race, which was not unlike the anti-Semitism that Tom Schweich had experienced.  While it was flushed out and probably contained, I feared that it might metastasize — an anxiety that our DNA makes us more susceptible to, right?  Of course, we were unable to measure its damage, but I am reasonably confident that, while there is always some degree of it out there, it was part of that group that one just factors in to the opposition.
Of greater concern was the second religious factor.  The Catholic community statewide had successfully placed on the ballot, by initiative petition, a measure that authorized aid to private and parochial schools.  They wisely selected auxiliary services (books, transportation, and the like) which the U.S. Supreme Court had constitutionally approved.  Both Young and I had supported it in the legislature, though it was not fated to go anywhere since it was strongly opposed by rural legislators.  But, as a Catholic, Young was more credible on the issue than I.  And he knew it.  So he set about to organize the Catholic community to come out and support this issue — shrewd
politics for him.  His strong identification with the issue in so many of the parishes of the district practically insured a greater share of their support for him.   The timing could not have been better for him, and he took advantage of the issue.  All that mattered — or so it seemed — was that he was Catholic and I was not, and, to the extent that I was identified as Jewish,  Jews on such issues always seem to suffer by comparison.  But I could understand it, even if I didn’t like where it put us.
The numbers told the story.  Instead of 70,000 votes in that primary, there were 90,000, and the difference was the heavy get-out-the-vote campaign organized by the Catholic community. The measure failed statewide by 60 to 40 %, as most observers expected it would, but it passed by a very strong margin in the 2nd District.  While Young defeated me by a confluence of events outside of our control (again), the margin should have been overwhelming but, surprisingly, it wasn’t. The difference was only 1,060 votes or 1.2%.  There was a compelling majority for auxiliary services in the district, but accompanied — again and notwithstanding the large surge numbers — by a large crossover vote for my candidacy. I had  tried to ground my campaign in responses to the important issues of the day. I like to believe that the reason for our strong showing rests in the peculiar character of Missouri voters, who simply refused to be herded — at least at that time.  
In retrospect, I am filled with joy over having encountered so many thousands of voters, both in St. Louis County and all over the state, who were willing to consider my candidacies on the merits and lend me their support in the face of such strong countervailing trends.  I am glad that I didn’t share the religious trepidations of some of my friends, and I like to think that the results in my two races, which I tried to ground in principle and good governance, proved me right and, perhaps more importantly, helped others to move forward. Tom Schweich would have made a good candidate for governor because he was sensitive to the needs of people, and he need not have been afraid of the bullies. Perhaps in some unseen way, his good life might serve as a marker for those qualities that matter most in public service.  As for me, I am realistic enough to know that a loss isn’t a win in politics, no matter how you spin it, but I like to bear in mind, through whatever travail I was destined to encounter, that I shall always owe a debt of gratitude to my grandfather for both the gift of life that he bestowed upon me, especially here in this exceptional country, and the inspiration to have motivated me to put it to some useful purpose.      
Jack J. Schramm, a St. Louis native and former member of the Missouri House of Representatives,  currently resides in Alexandria, Va. He is a semi-retired international governance consultant and is penning a memoir on governance insights. Schramm is a graduate of Washington University School of Law and has a distinguished record as a lawyer,  former Environmental Protection Agency official, and advisor to 25 countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, for the U.S. Agency for International Development, The World Bank and The Asian Development Bank.