On January 4, 1915, Moses Alexander, the first practicing Jew to be elected governor in the United States, was sworn into that position in Boise, Idaho. This was the first of two two-year terms served by Alexander, a Boise businessman and former mayor of that city. He was to introduce Prohibition to his region well ahead of the rest of America – but also to fight for the little man, and for women’s rights.
There were Jews who served as governor before Alexander: David Emanuel was Georgia’s chief executive for part of 1801, but he was appointed, not elected, after the incumbent resigned to become a U.S. senator. On the other hand, Washington Bartlett, governor of California for eight months in 1887, before dying in office, was elected – but despite being born to a Jewish mother, he did not identify as a Jew.
Moses Alexander was born in Obrigheim, Bavaria (today in Germany’s Rhineland-Palatinate state), on November 13, 1853, the youngest of eight children. The family was very poor, and shortly after his bar mitzvah, Moses sailed for New York, where two of his sisters had already emigrated.
Shortly after his arrival, a distant cousin visiting New York invited Alexander to come to Missouri, where he owned a clothing store. Alexander accepted and was soon earning $10 a month working as a janitor at Jacob Berg & Co., in Chillicothe, Missouri.
He quickly moved up the ladder and when Berg died, in 1874, Alexander became a partner in the store, which was renamed Wallbrunn & Alexander.
That same year, he married Hedwig Kaestner, a native of Crimmitzsehau, Saxony, who had immigrated to Missouri in 1868. Their wedding took place only after Hedwig converted to Judaism, and also changed her name to the slightly more American-sounding Helena. They had three children.
In 1886, Alexander was elected to city council, and the following year to the first of two terms as Chillicothe’s mayor.
No red lights, no music
In 1891, after finishing his second mayoral term, Alexander left Missouri, heading for the gold fields of Alaska. He didn’t get beyond Boise, however – a rapidly growing city and the capital of Idaho, which had gained statehood a year earlier. (Boise’s population doubled between 1890 and 1900, and again, to 320,000, in the decade following that.)
That same July, Alexander opened his first men’s-clothing store in Boise, at the corner of Ninth and Main Streets, and in the years that followed, opened branches in three other towns. In 1895, he was instrumental in the establishment of Idaho’s first synagogue, the Reform Congregation Beth Israel, whose new large structure opened a year later. The shul, today called Ahavath Beth Israel, is still in use – although it was moved to a new location – making it the oldest continually functioning synagogue west of the Mississippi River.
Alexander was twice elected mayor of Boise – first in 1897 and again, after a two-year break, in 1901. He had a reputation as a political and social reformer, who wanted to clean up a hard-drinking, hard-playing frontier town. He found it wasn’t possible to close the brothels in Boise, but did insist on a policy of “no red lights, no music, no dancing.”
After Alexander became governor, on his second try, in 1914, he introduced prohibition to Idaho, six years before the United States went dry.
During his first term, he was the lone Democrat in state office and was able to accomplish very little. But his second term, 1917-18, was productive and eventful. Alexander was a supporter of labor who brought workmen’s compensation insurance to Idaho, and did his best to mediate between lumber-mill owners and the unions; he oversaw construction of a state highway system, supported women’s suffrage, dealt with a serious water-distribution problem, and prepared the state’s militia for entry into World War I.
Alexander did not make a bid for a third term in 1918, but, after a two-year break, did run again in 1920 – and came in third. In his remaining years, he continued to be active in business and in Democratic state politics.
Moses Alexander died on January 4, 1932, at age 78, so that today is also the anniversary of his death.