Idaho History

Contrary to popular belief, Idaho’s Alexander wasn’t nation’s first Jewish governor

The Alexander’s building at 8th and Main in Boise.
The Alexander’s building at 8th and Main in Boise.

Idahoans have long been told that when Moses Alexander took office on Jan. 4, 1915, he was the nation’s first Jewish governor. He was not the first, but he is certainly his country’s first governor to devoutly practice his Jewish religion.

Washington Montgomery Bartlett, who had a Jewish mother, was elected governor of California in February 1887 after having served four years as mayor of San Francisco. He died only nine months after taking office. One historian comments: “Unlike the second elected Jewish governor, Moses Alexander of Idaho, Bartlett was not particularly religious and did not participate in Jewish observances while in California. His funeral was held in Trinity Episcopal Church in San Francisco.”

Our nation has had only 23 Jewish governors, two of them women (Madeleine Kunin of Vermont and Linda Lingle of Hawaii). Of these 23, 19 have been Democrats and four Republicans. Jewish governors elected by Idaho’s neighboring states were Simon Bamberger of Utah (1917-1921), Julius Meier and (1931-1935) Neil Goldschmidt of Oregon (1987-1991), and Edward S. Salomon of Washington Territory (1870-1872).

Alexander was elected mayor of Boise in 1897, succeeding realtor Walter E. Pierce. Alexander’s chain of clothing stores was growing and prospering at the time. He had been one of the founders of Ahavath Beth Israel synagogue in 1895, and since its completion in 1896, it has now been in continuous use longer than any other synagogue west of the Mississippi River.

Alexander chose not to run for re-election in 1899 but was elected again in 1901. Always an advocate of reform, he reorganized the city’s volunteer fire department into a professional body and secured passage of an anti-gambling ordinance. As governor he would work tirelessly to outlaw alcoholic beverages in Idaho, years before prohibition took effect nationwide in 1920.

In January 1911, Alexander had some fun with an Idaho Statesman reporter who asked him whether he was going to run for another term as mayor.

“M. Alexander for mayor is the latest surprise to be sprung in the city political situation. Many friends of the clothing man and many members of the opposition are intensely interested in the matter, and by one or two of those on the inside the statement is made that the word has gone forth — Alexander for mayor, and that’s all there is about it. Mr. Alexander himself is non-committal. When interviewed last night, in reply to the question as to whether or not he would be a candidate, Mr. Alexander said, ‘I am in the clothing business. You can see my ad in the Statesman. Who is going to ask me to run for mayor and when? I don’t know anything about it. I haven’t heard any such thing, and, as I said, I have a store at — ‘Can this be construed as meaning that you will not be a candidate if you are asked?’ ‘Well, I won’t say that,’ he replied. ‘My store — Say, I heard you were going to come down and buy a suit of clothes of me tomorrow, Yes?’ All of which may be taken to mean that Mr. Alexander has nothing to say.”

Alexander ran for governor of Idaho in 1914 and won on a platform that strongly supported prohibition and limited government spending. He was re-elected in 1916 and that fall hosted governors James Withycombe of Oregon and Ernest Lister of Washington in Boise, where they each gave a speech at the state fair. Republican Withycombe predicted that Charles Evans Hughes would win the national election and become president. Democrat Lister was equally sure that Woodrow Wilson would be re-elected, using the popular slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Of course, the nation went to war against Germany in April 1917 after Germany violated its pledge to discontinue unrestricted submarine warfare – and after Wilson had been re-elected.

Moses Alexander served as Idaho’s war-time governor until Jan. 6, 1919. In 1924 he built the last and finest of his men’s clothing stores at 8th and Main streets. This elegant white building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, as is the 1897 Alexander mansion at 3rd and State streets.

Moses and Helena Alexander celebrated their golden wedding anniversary on Nov. 5, 1926. He died on Jan. 4, 1932, at age 79.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email