Mazel Tov, Gov! 

Jewish Light Editorial

For the first time since Missouri was admitted to the Union in 1821, our state has a Jewish governor. Yes, it is a big deal that Gov. Eric Greitens, who was sworn into office Monday, is a member of our community. 

Greitens, who attended Parkway North High School and religious school at B’nai El Congregation, brings impressive credentials to his new job. The Republican is a former Navy SEAL and a Rhodes Scholar. He also is not your typical politician. He is a former Democrat who counts many Democrats among his supporters — they see him as a potential breath of fresh air in Missouri politics.

As Greitens takes office, Republicans hold solid majorities in both the Missouri House and Senate, so he is in a position to achieve many of his objectives in his term of office. We hope he will use Jewish values and Jewish sensibilities to deal with the issues he faces now, as well as those that may be unforeseen but will inevitably come up during the next four years.

 The most important of those values might be tikkun olam — the Jewish mandate to repair the world. If Greitens keeps that imperative in mind, the decisions he makes won’t necessarily be easy, but they will come from a sensitive reading of all the factors involved.

In his inauguration address on Monday, Greitens quoted from the books of Proverbs and Isaiah. He talked of the voice of the people calling for a new direction. He noted that Missourians don’t value big talk but want to be shown specifics. And he declared that the greatest conviction is to love our neighbors as ourselves.

 Those sentiments, those pronouncements bode well, but backing up words with actions is the hard work of government. Among the issues at the top of the list that deserve attention from the governor and the legislature are reforms in ethics and campaign finance. 

 In Jefferson City, as in Washington, too often it seems like influence over lawmakers and other government officials is for sale. Meals, tickets to performances and sporting events and other gifts from lobbyists flow freely, and no matter how strongly the recipients protest that their votes aren’t influenced by such handouts, the appearance of impropriety remains.

 The same is true of campaign finance donations. Last year’s passage of a state constitutional amendment restored limits that were removed in 2008, but money too often finds its way around legal limitations. Keeping a close watch to make sure the new constraints are honored will help restore badly needed trust in government.

But fixing how government works is only one side of the equation. Greitens and members of the legislature also have to work to make lives better for the most vulnerable Missourians, those who worry about getting sick, making a living wage and having top-quality schools.

 Top Republicans in the General Assembly have talked about imposing stricter limits on who would qualify for Medicaid. But with likelihood of changes in the Affordable Care Act, people need more assurance, not less, that when they need medical care, it will be available to them. Shortchanging them is shortsighted.

 The same is true of the push to make sure that there are enough full-time, well-paying jobs for anybody who wants one. The longstanding debate over so-called right-to-work legislation may be headed for a resolution, but that won’t end the larger conversation about the guarantee of a living wage, one that gives working families a decent standard of living.

 And that standard of living starts with good public education. The formula that distributes money to Missouri’s school districts is underfunded by hundreds of millions of dollars. Instead of lowering the target, or talking about diverting public money for non-public schools, Greitens and lawmakers need to concentrate on full funding and fair funding for students, from preschool through high school and beyond.

 On another high-profile issue, the GOP majority has already expanded gun rights in Missouri, including elimination of the requirements to obtain a permit or training. Greitens ran as a strong Second Amendment advocate, but the fact that his own wife was robbed at gunpoint, and the shocking number of homicides in Missouri’s urban areas, should be wake-up calls. Ideally, Greitens’ impressive intellect will help strike a balance between the right to bear arms and the urgent need to curtail gun violence.

Tellingly, Greitens chose the city of Ferguson as the setting for his first formal news conference as governor-elect. The violence that followed the shooting death of Michael Brown was a disaster that attracted national attention. The lessons learned from the Ferguson tragedy offer the new governor the opportunity to build bridges to the African-American community while at the same time respecting the essential role of police officers who daily put their lives on the line to protect Missouri citizens.

 Underlying all these issues is a crying need to restore civility to government. In Jefferson City and Washington, too many harsh words and too many lingering resentments remain from last year’s sharp-tongued campaign. Everyone involved needs to concentrate on the ability to disagree without being disagreeable.

The Republican majority in our state legislature is extremely conservative, and is likely to remain so through Greitens’ tenure. If the new governor can invest his political capital to curtail influence peddling, restore public confidence in government and elevate the tone of debate, everyone would benefit. Repairing the world, one state at a time, will help guarantee a legacy to be proud of.