It has been a hundred years since Moses Alexander of Boise vaulted to the Idaho Statehouse. A German-speaking native of Bavaria, he was the first elected (practicing) Jewish governor in the United Sates. His governorship, wet and dry, brought Snake River water projects and statewide Prohibition. Alexanders White Store at 890 Main Street, the anchor to his chain of men’s stores, still stands as gleaming relic of the retail commerce lost to Boise’s downtown. –Eds.
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2014 promises to be an exciting year in Idaho politics, with hot legislative debates on gun rights and gay rights and a crowded and factionalized Republican Party primary. Exactly 100 years ago, Idaho saw another exciting election year, marked by a statehouse financial scandal, divided political parties, the beginning of a major farm revolt and the election of Idaho’s first and, to date, only Jewish governor, Moses Alexander.
Alexander was born in 1853 in Bavaria and emigrated to New York City in 1867, at the age of 13. When he was 18, he moved to Chillicothe, Missouri, to work in his cousin’s store. He quickly demonstrated a talent for merchandising. He studied English, history and government at night, married, and started a family. He was elected to the Chillicothe City Council in 1886 and was elected mayor of Chillicothe in 1887. In 1891, he moved to Boise, where he bought a former saloon at the corner of 9th and Main, converted it into a men’s clothing store and later constructed a new building on the same corner (it’s still there – the Alexander Building, currently serving as a Zions Bank location).
Alexander was successful in business and local politics in Boise. He was instrumental in organizing and constructing Idaho’s first synagogue at 11th and State Streets in 1896 (later moved to its present location beside the Morris Hill Cemetery). In 1897, he was elected mayor of Boise on a non-partisan ticket, and was elected again in 1901. In a day when municipal corruption was rampant in the U. S., he established a reputation for clean government and, in the words of historian David Lester Crowder, “Moses Alexander… moved Boise into the Progressive Era.” Much of this account comes from David Lester Crowder’s 1972 dissertation at the University of Utah: “Moses Alexander, Idaho’s Jewish Governor, 1914-1918.”
Alexander was an active Democrat in state politics. The Idaho Democrats were a fiercely divided party at the time. By 1908, there were at least three separate factions – an “anti-Mormon” faction led by former U. S. Senator Fred T. Dubois, an urban progressive group centered in Southwest Idaho and led by John F. Nugent (himself a future U. S. Senator from Idaho), and a somewhat more conservative faction led by prominent Boise attorney James H. Hawley. Alexander strongly opposed Dubois’ anti-Mormon policies and was actively aligned with the Nugent progressive faction. For background on the divisions within the Idaho Democratic Party, see Merle W. Wells, “Fred T. Dubois and the Idaho Progressives, 1900-1914,” Idaho Yesterdays 4 (1960), 24-31. For Alexander’s role in the party, see Crowder, “Moses Alexander,” 59-71. In 1908, Idaho Democrats nominated Alexander as candidate for governor of Idaho. He lost the 1908 election to Republican James H. Brady, 47,864 to 40,145 (a Socialist Party candidate received 6,105 votes), but carried several Idaho counties, including Ada, Blaine, Boise, Custer, Elmore, Latah and Owyhee Counties.
Republicans, too, were divided between the “progressives,” led by Senator William Borah, and the more conservative “regular” Republicans. John M. Haines, a successful Boise realtor and, like Alexander, a former mayor of Boise, was aligned with the regulars. In 1912, four parties vied for power in Idaho and across the U. S. Nationally, the 1912 Republican presidential candidate was incumbent President William Howard Taft. He lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson in an election in which former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt ran as the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party candidate and Eugene Debs made a serious presidential run on the Socialist Party ticket. The same four parties had candidates for governor in Idaho in 1912. Haines won in 1912 by a narrow margin over the incumbent governor, Democrat James Hawley. Haines presided over a flurry of progressive legislation in the 1913 legislative session, including enactment of Idaho’s workmen’s compensation act and the creation of Idaho’s Public Utilities Commission and the State Board of Education, among other progressive measures. Idaho governors at that time served two-year terms. In 1914, Haines again won the Republican nomination for governor. Alexander had remained active in politics and was again the Idaho Democrats’ candidate for governor in 1914.
In 1912, Haines had narrowly carried most of the Southern Idaho counties, but by 1914 the politics of the Snake River Plain were changing. Idaho’s population had increased dramatically since statehood, doubling from 88,548 in 1890 to 161,172 in 1900, and then doubling again to 325,594 in 1910. Idaho Department of Commerce and Development, The Idaho Almanac: Territorial Centennial Edition, 1863-1963. Much of that increase had occurred in Southern Idaho, where settlers initiated 42 separate reclamation projects under the Carey Act of 1894. Other settlers homesteaded in the Payette-Boise and Minidoka reclamation project areas. Unfortunately, federal and state reclamation engineers often badly underestimated both the costs and the volume of water deliveries. Money for improvements to dams, reservoirs, canals and laterals ran out and the market for water project securities dried up along with much of the land. One settler noted that “the shortage of water had caused a short crop of every farm crop except Debts and Expenses,” according to a 1976 report in Idaho Yesterdays. As a result, the newly-arrived farmers were in serious revolt by 1914. Although the federal reclamation authorities shared much of the responsibility, the state government also came in for a large share of the blame. Election results in 1914 would show this clearly. Hugh T. Lovin, “The Farmer Revolt in Idaho, 1914-1922,” Idaho Yesterdays 20 (1976), 3.
There were other candidates for governor in 1914 as well, notably Hugh E. McElroy, who ran on the Progressive Party ticket, and Socialist Party candidate L. A. Coblentz. Neither candidate would gain as many votes in 1914 as their parties’ candidates had received in 1912, in part because 1914 was not a presidential election year, and in part because excitement for third-party candidacies had simply worn off by 1914.
Alexander campaigned hard on the theme of economy in state government, lower taxes and statewide alcohol prohibition, but Haines appeared to be leading well into October. Then came the bombshell from the statehouse. On October 20, a front-page story in the Idaho Statesman reported that State Treasurer O. V. Allen and his chief deputy had resigned, that an audit of the treasurer’s books was under way and that Governor Haines had broken off his campaign to return to Boise. On October 22, Allen was indicted by a grand jury, pleaded guilty to embezzlement and was sentenced to the penitentiary for a term of five to 10 years (his deputy was later sentenced to prison as well). The total amount of state funds missing was $93,112. Much of this amount was ultimately recovered from the treasurer’s bonding company, but the last two weeks of the campaign “centered on the defalcation of state funds,” according to Crowder. Although Governor Haines acted promptly to deal with the crisis, and although the state treasurer was a separately-elected constitutional officer, Haines was blamed in much of the press, rightly or wrongly, for not uncovering the embezzlement earlier.
The result was that Haines lost the election to Alexander, 47,618 to 40,349 (McElroy received 10,583 votes). Alexander ran well in all portions of the state except the Southeast, but did especially well in the Snake River Plain counties (he carried Twin Falls County by a vote of 2,909 to Haines’ 1,295, for example). The combination of a massive farm revolt and a statehouse scandal was too much for Haines to overcome. Moses Alexander was Idaho’s first (and so far only) Jewish governor.
Idaho’s press responded favorably, for the most part, to Alexander’s election, displaying little if any overt anti-Semitism. Nationally, Jewish leaders praised his election and Alexander himself saw it as proof of Idaho voters’ support for religious freedom, tolerance and liberality as well as the beginning of, “a new era in our National life,” according to Crowder.
Alexander presided over another progressive legislature in 1915. He successfully promoted both a statewide ban on the sale of alcohol and a prohibition amendment to the Idaho Constitution (adopted by statewide vote in 1916), together with other legislation favored by the progressives of both major parties. He was reelected by a tiny margin in 1916 and left office after the 1918 election. He died in 1932 and is buried at Boise’s Morris Hill cemetery, not far from the synagogue he had helped build in 1896.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.