Jewish politicians in Missouri fight ignorance more than anti-Semitism

Stacey Newman

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

When thinking about what, if any, role Judaism plays in Missouri politics, two recent events could serve as indicators as to the impact a candidate’s Jewish faith has on his or her chances of success.

In February 2015, Missouri state auditor Tom Schweich, a Republican who was running for governor, committed suicide after saying that he heard that a Republican operative, John Hancock, was telling people that Schweich was Jewish. Schweich was concerned that Hancock and others were using it against him in the Republican primary campaign or could in the future. (Schweich did not shy away from his Jewish heritage but he belonged to an Episcopalian church.) 

Hancock told Rolling Stone that he had mistakenly believed that Schweich was Jewish — just because of his last name — but that he did not say anything anti-Semitic about him. 

Then in November, Missouri voters elected Eric Greitens as Missouri’s first Jewish governor. 

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Between the Greitens historic high point — assuming you supported him or saw it as an important moment — and the Schweich dramatic low point, other Jews who have run for office in Missouri have stories of pleasant surprises, misunderstandings or insensitive words.

State Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said, “There are many legislators for whom I am personally the first Jewish person that they have met, and so I have seen a little bit of an undercurrent of ignorance around Judaism and the Jewish people. And by ignorance, I only mean not knowing or understanding and seeing me as different simply because I am Jewish.”

In December, Schupp traveled to Israel with other state legislators on a trip sponsored by Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Its purpose was “to increase understanding and appreciation (among legislators) of Israel as a strong and stable democracy,” said Andrew Rehfeld, president and CEO of the organization.

Schupp said one of the Republican senators on the trip called her “the little Jewish girl.”

“And when I say that to people, they are taken aback and kind of offended, but I think he means it just in an endearing kind of way,” Schupp said. “I don’t think it’s meant to be offensive, even though it is.”

Before Greitens’ first State of the State address, Schupp and the Republican senator were among those who escorted the governor at the state Capitol. 

The senator said to Schupp, “I see they let the little Jewish girl be an escort,” after which an African-American senator suggested to Schupp: “Why don’t you tell him that you’re escorting the little Jewish boy, the governor?”

“I went over and said that to (the senator), and I guarantee that he had no idea the governor was Jewish,” she said. “If you would have seen the look on his face of total shock and surprise, which is very interesting to me.

“There are so many people (in the Legislature) who are interested in what being Jewish means and seeing it from a Christian perspective and trying to relate their values and beliefs to my worldview.”

Responsibility to educate

State Rep. Stacey Newman, D- Richmond Heights, said she feels it is her responsibility to educate others about Judaism and her people’s history, particularly when she thinks they have said something inappropriate. 

For example, in 2013, State Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, responded to then-Gov. Jay Nixon’s opposition to a tax cut bill by sending an email to constituents that said: “If you will remember propaganda served as an important tool to win over the majority of the German public during Adolf Hitler’s rule. I say this to remind you that you simply cannot take one side’s viewpoint and proclaim it as the gospel.”

Newman then sent Rehder an email.

“I was extremely offended, as were many of my family, of your comparison of opposing policy views to the insanity of the Holocaust,” Newman wrote. “Your policy differences with our governor can be in no way comparable to the propaganda of Adolf Hitler.”

Rehder then issued a statement apologizing to anyone who was “truly offended,” the Associated Pressreported.

Newman said that in such situations, she “believes that it’s my role to educate. I am not going to blast someone for not understanding the Jewish faith if they have not been around” people who are Jewish.

Not the ‘Jewish candidate’

Newman and Schupp were both elected from districts in the St. Louis area. But what about Jews like Greitens and Schweich who run for statewide office?

Democrat Ken Rothman of St. Louis, a lawyer and Air Force veteran, served as Missouri lieutenant governor from 1981 to 1985 and ran for governor in 1984 against Republican John Ashcroft. Rothman lost that election but said he never felt that being Jewish was a liability. 

“I always ran for office as a candidate who happened to be Jewish,” Rothman said. “I never ran as a Jewish candidate.”

He recalls attending a hog roast in southwestern Missouri during the lieutenant governor’s race and eating only the side dishes. One of the people there asked him why he “didn’t have some pig, and I said, ‘I don’t eat pork.’ ” 

About six months later, Rothman came back to the same place and all of a sudden, a woman ran into the kitchen and came back with a beef casserole. 

“I didn’t see any animosity toward [being Jewish],” he said.“When it came up, I would discuss it, but I didn’t wear it on my sleeve.”

Rothman said he was not surprised that Greitens got elected.

He asked, “If I could get elected as lieutenant governor in 1980, why would it be an issue now?” 

Contact Staff Writer Eric Berger at [email protected] or 314-743-3674.