Jewish leaders dissect Nov. 6 election results

Andrew Rehfeld, CEO and President of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Last week’s state and national election results are eliciting a range of responses from local Jewish community and political leaders as they look to the future.

“I always find it thrilling to watch democracy in action and it’s inspiring,” said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “There was a hard fought campaign but the people expressed themselves at the ballot box and that’s the beauty of the system.”

Like other non-partisan Jewish community groups, the JCRC does not endorse candidates for office but Goldstein said she was happy to see both President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney pledge cooperation going forward in approaching the nation’s problems.

Locally, the JCRC did take a position in opposition to two statewide initiatives. One changed certain aspects of Missouri’s non-partisan court plan while the other blocked the establishment of a health insurance exchange under the recently upheld federal Affordable Care Act. The former failed while the latter passed.

“We support the Affordable Care Act and the exchanges are an important part of that act,” she said. “The fact is that since Missouri has opted out, unless it’s found by the courts to be unacceptable, there’ll just be a national exchange. It’s not the best way of doing it but at least it will be done.”

Darien Arnstein of the local branch of the National Council of Jewish Women said her group similarly opposed the anti-ACA measure and was disappointed in its passage; however, NCJW was gratified that the court plan was not altered.

“We felt the statutes for the Missouri courts plan were working well at this point and we didn’t need to do any tweaking of a successful system so we were pleased that was defeated,” said Arnstein, the group’s state policy advocacy chair.

NCJW was also part of a coalition of groups backing a proposed increase in the tobacco tax. The measure, known as Proposition B, failed.

“We felt it was important to provide additional revenues that would go for education and for smoking cessation, not to mention improved health outcomes for the population if people were to quit smoking,” she said.

Beyond that, Arnstein said NCJW was highly active at the national level in efforts to educate voters and increase electoral participation.

“We were pleased with voter turnout,” she said. “It was definitely an engaged population.”

Andrew Rehfeld, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation, said that exit polling from the election seemed to confirm that, nationally, Jews were concerned mostly with the economy.

“What I’m most curious about is the voter dynamics,” he said. “If you look at the swing states where they were competing, the Jewish vote really mattered and will continue to matter in Florida, Ohio, Virginia – increasingly because of suburban Washington – so even though Jews are a very small percentage in the total, their influence will continue to matter to the national campaigns.”

Rehfeld, an associate professor of political science who taught at Washington University prior to Federation, said that polls showed the traditional tendency of the Jewish community to vote Democratic seemed to be holding. However, he added that Republican efforts to make inroads and the president’s desire to leave a legacy may prompt Obama to put Mideast concerns at the top of his to-do list.

“That set of issues that Jews care very much about could be high on his agenda of leaving a legacy,” Rehfeld said. “It has been for many presidents and they haven’t been very successful but maybe he’ll give it a shot.”

Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Missouri and Southern Illinois, said she planned to keep an eye on the state legislature’s session.

“I am looking forward I think to the issues which are of most concern for us on a regional level and that is how the continuing discussion around religious freedom issues is going to play out in Jeff City and in local communities,” she said. “I think that, even with the presidential election over, folks are still going to seek to make public policy which is religious focused and that will still cause challenges for the Jewish community and for minority religions generally.”

The ADL took an aggressive position against Amendment 2, a “right to pray” measure that gained passage on the August ballot but the organization took no positions on any state issues this time around.

Nancy Lisker, head of the local American Jewish Committee, said that energy policy and job growth looked to be big issues for the reelected Obama administration. She noted that AJC would continue to advocate for immigration reform.

“We will also continue to work on a non-partisan basis both at the national and local level on another critical thing for AJC, which is the nuclearization of Iran,” she said, noting that she hoped a bill could be reintroduced in the Missouri legislature to limit the involvement of the state’s companies with the rogue nation. “We will continue to press for sanctions and for sanctions to be enforced.”

The new Missouri General Assembly will count a much reduced Jewish contingent in its ranks. Two St. Louis area Democrats, Jill Schupp and Stacey Newman, were returned to office running unopposed in races this month but they appear to be the only two Jews left in the Missouri house. Another member of the community, Rep. Jason Kander, a Kansas City area politician, was elected Secretary of State while Rep. Susan Carlson was redistricted into the same territory as Newman in a bizarre primary election.  It appeared to have been decided by a single vote before a major error was discovered necessitating a rerun of the contest in which Newman eventually emerged as the winner.

Schupp said she was thrilled to see Obama reelected, which she felt would be good for both Israel and health care reform, but she was less happy about the Missouri legislature, where besieged Democrats again suffered defeat — leaving them so badly outnumbered that Republicans now have enough members to override Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s vetoes without any votes from the minority party.

“That’s a little bit difficult, for one party to feel like they are not as powerful or relevant as they might be otherwise,” she said. “I don’t think that bodes well for the state of Missouri as a whole.”

She was enthused to see Democrats do well in statewide offices however, including Kander.

“Not only because I think he is a brilliant young man who will serve the state well but he was also a Jewish legislator,” she said, “and I think it’s good for the Jewish community to have that representation at the statewide level.”

Although several attempts were made, Kander could not be reached for comment.

Newman said she would continue to fight for progressive values and that the Jewish caucus would keep working against any efforts to legislate religion into public policy.

Running unopposed allowed Newman to assume duties elsewhere for her party. She traveled to the swing state of Ohio to help President Obama’s campaign there. She particularly enjoyed her time engaged with the Cleveland Jewish community.

“They set a fine example in terms of getting out the vote and being active,” she said. “I worked with many Democratic members who are not just Jewish donors but activists who felt the weight of the county’s effect on the entire country and stepped up, people who were engaged every single day and every single night. That’s a lesson for us all.”