With election of Eric Greitens, state will have its first Jewish governor

Eric Greitens won the gubernatorial race in Missouri in his first run for office.  

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Missouri has elected Republican Eric Greitens as its first Jewish governor since the Show Me State was admitted to the Union in 1821. 

It has been a long road for Jewish candidates seeking to move into the Governor’s Mansion in Jefferson City. The highest executive office attained by Jewish candidates had been that of lieutenant governor, won by Democrats Kenneth Rothman and the late Harriett Woods. Rothman also had served as the first Jewish speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives. 

This election was also the first in which two Jewish candidates ran for statewide office. The other was Jason Kander of Kansas City, who was elected Missouri Secretary of State in 2012 but lost his bid to oust Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt in last Tuesday’s GOP landslide.

In 2015, Judaism became an issue in Missouri politics in a different way: Amid rumors of a smear campaign with anti-Semitic overtones, State Auditor Tom Schweich took his own life. While Schweich was an Episcopalian, his father’s family was Jewish.  Reports that Schweich’s Jewish parentage was the subject of a whispering campaign was denounced by former Missouri U.S. Sen. John Danforth. Schweich had indicated his interest in seeking the Republican nomination for governor before the tragic events unfolded.

The late Lawrence K. Roos, the highly respected St. Louis county supervisor (executive), in 1968 won the Republican nomination for governor, becoming the first Jewish nominee of either major party for the state’s highest office. Roos’ popularity as county executive could not overcome the statewide popularity of his Democratic opponent, Warren Hearnes. Roos and Hearnes, who became good friends after the election, used to joke that he was “only 500,000 votes short of beating Warren for governor.”

Roos was not the first Jewish political figure in Missouri to seek  the nomination of his party for a major Missouri office.

Republican Nathan Frank, a prominent business leader who had served on the World’s Fair Committee, was Missouri’s first — and thus far only —  Jewish person to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, in 1888. Walter Ehrlich, in his two-volume history of the Jewish community of St. Louis, writes that two St. Louis newspapers that usually endorsed Republican candidates failed to endorse Frank in his House race, as did some prominent local Republicans.

There was “a charge that the real opposition to Frank was to his religion,” Ehrlich writes. Frank tried and failed to get the GOP nomination for U.S. senator in 1910, 1916 and 1928. A member of Congregation Shaare Emeth, Frank went on to become a major philanthropist and civic leader in St. Louis.

It is truly historic that not only will Missouri have its first Jewish governor in January, but that Greitens ran for governor in the same election that Kander ran for the U.S. Senate. What was once thought politically impossible in Missouri has finally happened: capable candidates in both parties, both proud of their Jewish backgrounds, and for which religion was not a factor in their campaign. That’s real progress.