Kenneth Rothman and Harriett Woods: only Missouri Jews to serve as Lt. Governor

Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light

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

Missouri’s new Secretary of State, 31-year-old Jason Kander, D-Kansas City, is only the third member of the Jewish faith to be elected to a statewide office. His distinguished Jewish predecessors are Kenneth J. Rothman and the late Harriett Woods, each of whom was elected to serve as Lieutenant Governor, the second highest office in Missouri since its admission to the United States in 1821.

Kenneth J. Rothman, a native of St. Louis, received both his undergraduate and law degrees from Washington University. He was first elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in 1962, and at the age of 26 was one of the youngest lawmakers in the Missouri General Assembly.

Prior to being elected Missouri’s first Jewish Lieutenant Governor in 1980, Rothman served a total of 16 years in the Missouri House, where he was very popular among his fellow legislators.  He became the first Jewish Missouri House member to serve as House Majority Leader and later became the first Jewish Speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives.

Rothman has always been proud of his Jewish faith.  A favorite memory is when he attended a barbecue for legislators and was offered a pork steak.  He courteously declined explaining “people of my faith do not eat pork.”

 While in office, Rothman compiled an impressive record, leading the legislative process and influencing passage of bills on such issues as the statewide criminal code law, revision of the state drug code, prevention of child abuse, strong licensing standards for nursing homes and a major reorganization of the state’s highway and transportation system and structure.

When Rothman was took office as Missouri Lieutenant Governor in 1981, serving under Republican Governor Christopher S. (Kit) Bond, he said, “Only in this great free country could a person of my background be elected to such positions.”

Harriett Woods, who died of leukemia on Feb. 8, 2007 at the age of 79, beat all kinds of political odds in 1984 when she was elected to the position of Lieutenant Governor of Missouri.

Woods was born in Cleveland as Ruth Harriett Friedman.  The family moved to Chicago, where she graduated from high school and attended the University of Chicago.  She graduated from the University of Michigan and was the first female editor of the student newspaper.

Pursuing a career in journalism, Woods worked as a reporter for the Chicago Herald-American, and then moved to St. Louis to continue her journalism career. When the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which at the time had no female reporters, turned her down, she was hired by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat as one of the first women on its staff.

In 1953, she married Jim Woods, a reporter and editor at the Globe-Democrat and later at the Post-Dispatch.  He was also international president of the Newpaper Guild. She later left the Globe and she and her husband had three sons.

Woods’s political career started in the early 1960s when she complained to University City’s elected leaders about a noisy manhole cover on her street that kept her sons awake during nap time.  The City Council, at her urging,  passed a ban on through traffic on that street–a ban that still is in place.

After a stint at KETC (Channel 9) and later at KPLR (Channel 11), where she hosted public affairs shows, Woods entered elective politics by winning a seat on the University City Council.  In 1974, then Governor Bond named her to the state Highway Commission, which later became the State Transportation Commission.

She was later elected to the Missouri State Senate, where she focused on curbing drunk driving and on nursing home regulations.  She failed in her efforts to get the Missouri General Assembly to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

In 1982, Woods ran against Republican incumbent John C. Danforth for a U.S. Senate seat.  She had won the Democratic nomination over the objections of the party’s establishment.  Woods lost to Danforth by 25,000 votes out of 1.5 million cast.

In 1984, as reported by the Post-Dispatch, Woods “bucked a statewide Republican tide” with her victory for lieutenant governor.  In 1984 she lost a second attempt to win a U.S. Senate seat, this time to Bond.

In 1989, Woods left public office and devoted her career to encouraging other women to run for office. She founded the Institute for Policy Leadership at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, and in 1991 she was elected head of the New York-based National Women’s Political Caucus.  She was a featured speaker at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.  After he took office, President Bill Clinton named Woods to chair the Coalition for Women’s Appointments.  She published a memoir, “Stepping Up to Power:  The Political Journey of American Women” in 2000.  

And so, as we congratulate Jason Kander on being elected the first Jewish Missouri Secretary of State, let us not forget two other Jewish trailblazers in holding statewide office: Kenneth J. Rothman and Harriett Friedman Woods.