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. I didn’t know Tom, but he appears to have been an exceptional public servant and I grieve for his family. 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. John Danforth so poignantly reminded us, the victim, in any event, should never be blamed for the bigoted offerings of the bully. 

Yes, I wish that Tom, as an exemplar of the sensitive, policy-oriented public servant, had stood his ground. Plainly, he was troubled by threatening signs of anti-Semitism. How does one cope with the insidious trash that so often intrudes into our electoral politics? America’s constitutional exceptionalism hasn’t yet succeeded in protecting us from such perversions. Sadly, they remain — 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 the Jewish community know exactly what it means to be one of “them.” Knowing how 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. 

After the news about Tom broke, I was asked about anti-Semitism in my own races for higher office. I had served eight years in the Missouri Legislature before my quest for wider responsibilities, and am happy to report that, during those years, I encountered no religious hostility, at least nothing overt. There is always some bigotry out there, as one comes to expect. In fact, I was able to compile, with lots of support, what some thought was a decent record 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 tikkun olam, to help 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.

With encouragement from colleagues, I undertook the race for lieutenant governor in 1972. Some of my Jewish supporters thought that being Jewish might be a poison pill. No Jew had previously been elected to statewide office in Missouri, 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. Warren Hearnes and the state Democratic establishment. 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, who didn’t like me very much; but my rural legislative friends did.

Missouri’s political culture seemed to favor individuals over issues, which probably explained the election of liberally

ally oriented senators such as Tom Eagleton and Stuart Symington in a rather conservative state, and the crossovers in the ’60s and ’70s to elect Republicans like Danforth, Kit Bond, and John Ashcroft in then-Democratic Missouri. That persuaded me that if a Jewish candidate could make his case, the people would elect him.

We campaigned hard and won the primary comfortably. My rural friends were enormously helpful. We encountered very little anti-Semitism, and were 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 and reformist Sen. George McGovern headed the ticket. The country wasn’t ready and the Democratic ticket suffered a crushing defeat, and me with it.  But the behavior of Missouri voters was interesting: Richard Nixon routed McGovern by 450,000 votes; my running mate, Ed Dowd, lost the governorship to Republican Kit Bond by an ordinary landslide of 200,000 votes; and I lost by a fraction of a percent. Changing one vote per precinct would have reversed the result. 

Notwithstanding the massive crossover, a disappointed Jewish friend said to me, “A Jew just isn’t going to win in Missouri.” I couldn’t have disagreed more. There is always some anti-Semitism out there, but one just has to factor it in as “x” percent of the opposition. We would have won if Tom Eagleton had remained on the ticket. And my assessment was vindicated in the subsequent elections of Ken Rothman, Harriet Woods, 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 their full support. I declined with gratitude, noting with interest that Jim Symington was going to vacate his House seat in 1976 to run for the senate. But State Sen. Bob Young, a North County political leader, wanted to cap his career by going to the Congress. So we were in for a primary, which, on the Democratic side, was hugely influenced by the heavy labor vote in North County. The prospects were daunting.

The role of religion would play a larger role than I expected. The numbers were such that, in order to win, we had to do better in our central county base than he did in his. A Democratic primary vote in the district usually brought out about 65,000 to 70,000 voters. But we hadn’t considered two factors. The first was the “dirty tricks,” alluded to in Bob Cohn’s March 4 “Cohnipedia” column in the Light, referencing our race, which was not unlike the anti-Semitism that Tom Schweich apparently experienced. It was probably contained, and I am reasonably confident that it was a small factor.

Of greater concern was a second religious factor. The Catholic community had successfully placed on the ballot, by initiative petition, a measure that authorized aid (limited to auxiliary services) to private and parochial schools. The U.S. Supreme Court had constitutionally approved it earlier. Young, as a Catholic, shrewdly set about to organize the Catholic community to come out and support this issue, though it was not expected to win statewide. His strong identification with it in so many of the parishes would ensure a greater share of their support for him.

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 Young. As expected, the measure failed statewide but passed handsomely in the district. This confluence of events outside of our control (again) defeated me. The margin should have been overwhelming but, surprisingly, the difference was only 1,060 votes or 1.2 percent. The large crossover vote for my candidacy was further evidence that independent Missouri voters simply refused to be herded.  

In retrospect, I am filled with joy over having encountered so many thousands of voters in my races 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 my two races were grounded in principle and perhaps helped others to move forward. Tom Schweich would have made a good gubernatorial candidate because he was sensitive to the needs of people, and he need not have been afraid of the bullies, as noxious as they always are.

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.