New Jewish reps sworn in as new Missouri legislative session begins

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

They’re more than halfway to a minyan. Last November’s election increased the number of Jewish legislators in the Missouri House of Representatives from two to five and last week, the newly election legislators joined returning ones in being sworn-in on the first day of the legislative session.

Jill Schupp and Steve Brown, Democrats from the St. Louis area, and Jason Kander, a Democrat from Kansas City, joined Rep. Rachel Storch and Rep. Jake Zimmerman, both Democrats representing St. Louis districts, in Missouri’s House of Representatives in the 95th General Assembly. Missouri State Senator Jeff Smith, a Democrat from St. Louis, also is Jewish.

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“It is really sort of awe-inspiring,” said Schupp, referring to the swearing-in and first day of the legislative session. “It is a day of real ceremony. I felt amazed and fortunate to be part of it. And with a large group of friends and family in the audience, it was wonderful to look up and see them there.”

While the swearing-in takes about five minutes, said Storch, the bulk of the opening day ceremonies is made up of speeches given by the leadership of both parties.

“Both sides spoke about non-partisanship and were very specific about the issues that they care about,” Schupp said. “From both sides, we heard about the devastation being caused by the economy today. Both sides are interested in doing what they can to rev up the economy in the state of Missouri and to create jobs. So I think that is going to be everybody’s main focus this coming session.”

Schupp said the Republicans talked specifically about not raising taxes –perhaps even cutting them — as well as about being anti-abortion and pro-gun. “On the Democratic side, the focus was health care and, again, the economy,” she added. “Both the Republicans and the Democrats were concerned about that but, on the Democratic side, most of the focus was ‘let’s create jobs for people’ and ‘let’s make sure we get people covered with health care.”‘

“Both Democrats and Republicans spoke about health care and job creation,” Storch said. “So the goals are the same. I think where we may find some divergence is in the methods. But there is enough common ground that we can get some stuff done.

“We’ll see how long the spirit of bi-partisanship lasts,” she continued. “Although given the economic climate, I think there is a consensus, certainly on economic development issues, we need to join together to find some solutions.”

Schupp spoke about having so many Jewish legislators this year. “At the Democratic caucus meeting the other day, they were asking if there were any small caucuses that had announcements to make and the Black Caucus was talking about when they were going to meet. And (Rep.) Jake Zimmerman got up and said, ‘Well, we almost have a minyan and are close to having a caucus,’ with five Jewish representatives and Sen. Jeff Smith.

“Later on, someone from the Black Caucus came up to me in the hallway and said ‘Hey, Jill, I hear you’ve almost got a minyan.’ So they’re even using the terminology,” Schupp said. “I decided that was great. Surely, we have a lot of the same interests and values coming from the Jewish community.”

Zimmerman commented that although he was not an “old man,” he was ready to act as the “old hand” in the legislature, mentoring and guiding the new members.

Of the freshmen legislators, Steve Brown was more pragmatic about expectations for the upcoming session, as well as more matter-of-fact about the first day speeches and ceremony. “I really just wanted to spend the time with my family,” he said. Of the incoming freshmen, he expressed the most doubt about whether the spirit of bi-partisanship so often mentioned in the speeches would last.

Each of the new and returning representatives had overlapping goals for this session.

“I think that all three of the new Jewish legislators are people who come with very strong support of extended access to health care, strong support of science, strong support of education, so when it comes to something like supporting the life sciences, it will be a natural fit,” Storch said.

As to her legislative goals for this session, Storch said she will focus on a bill to create a tax credit for research and development in biotechnology. The bill, which she worked on with Speaker Ron Richard last year, made it through the House, but failed in the Senate.

“It is my goal this time to make sure that it passes both chambers and is signed into law by the Governor. It is the type of legislation that will both create jobs in Missouri and foster scientific research and, hopefully, medical cures,” she said.

Schupp spoke about her plans and hopes for the coming session. “Committee assignments have not been made yet and we have all been told as a minority group, we are very low on the totem pole. We should not have high expectation as far as working on a group that we necessarily care most about right now,” she said. “I am very interested in health care and education, and I also put in a bid to work on economic development.”

Brown’s legislative interests include energy independence and green-energy sources. His expectations for this legislative session were more modest than some of the other legislators. He commented that he expected this session to be an average one, as productive as any ordinary session, despite the election of a Democrat as governor, noting that the Republicans still held sizable majorities in the Missouri legislature.

Storch said that is was hard to guess how this Missouri legislative session would go this year. “We are so early on in the session, we are really waiting to see what happens with the federal bailout and how that will impact our state budget, if and when we get the federal bailout funds,” she said.