Top 50 Stories: 1914 - Moses Alexander wins governorship

Native of Bavaria was first practicing Jew elected governor in the United States

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comJune 10, 2014 

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The big news after Idaho's general election in 1914 was that the state's incumbent governor, Republican John M. Haines, had been unseated.

Democrat Moses Alexander, a businessman and two-time former mayor of Boise, prevailed to become Idaho's 11th governor - perhaps, in part, due to an embezzlement scandal involving the state treasurer's office.

Though there is no mention of it in the Statesman's post-election story from 1914, Alexander's rise to the state's top executive was a first in the United States. Alexander was the first observant Jew to be elected governor. He was actually the second elected Jewish governor, but the first - Washington Bartlett, elected in 1887 in California - was not particularly religious and did not participate in Jewish observances while in California.

"It was played up prominently in the national Jewish press," Rabbi Dan Fink, of Ahavath Beth Israel in Boise, said of Alexander's election.

"It was a really big deal. It was the highest position to which a Jew had been elected anywhere, ever."

Alexander was one of the founders of Boise's first synagogue - Temple Beth Israel - which later merged with another congregation to create Ahavath Beth Israel. The 1896 synagogue is still in use, though it was moved from its original location on State Street to Latah Street.

Moses Alexander was born in Obrigheim, Bavaria, in 1853, and he immigrated to the United States when he was in his early teens. He had two sisters who were living in New York, according to his grandson, 84-year-old Nathan Alexander, of Boise.

Nathan Alexander said that while his grandfather was in New York, he met a distant cousin who owned a store in Chillicothe, Mo. Moses Alexander was hired and worked at the dry goods store for nearly a quarter-century.

"He worked in that store until he became a partner," Nathan Alexander said. "His hobby was politics. He was on the city council and he became mayor."

Family lore has it that Moses Alexander made a trip West on a cattle drive - in part to get doctor-ordered fresh air - then later moved to Idaho to set up a men's clothing store.

He was headed to Pocatello but continued west.

"The conductor, according to what I've heard, said, 'Why don't you stay on the train and go to Boise? Now that is the central point of the economy in Idaho,' " Nathan Alexander said. "They were supplying the miners."

Moses Alexander was 38 when he arrived in Boise in 1891. He prospered in business and politics.

"As mayor he had brought sidewalks and streetlights to Boise and closed down its bawdy houses," Todd Shallat wrote of Alexander in his book "Ethnic Landmarks: Ten historic places that define the City of Trees."

Alexander failed in his first bid for the governorship in 1908. He won the second time, when he pledged to reduce taxes and promote prohibition.

"As governor, he had defended capitalism, refinanced state government, increased food production and sent a regiment of farm boys against the Kaiser's army in Europe," Shallat wrote.

Alexander was re-elected governor in 1916. He died in 1932 at age 78.

Two surviving Alexander buildings are his 1897 house at 304 State St. and the iconic terra-cotta clothing store (known as the White Store, or Big White Store), built in 1924 at 9th and Main streets.

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