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Jewish legislator takes the lead in Missouri against gun violence

Stacey Newman

While most of the Jews in our community live on the Kansas side of the state line, there are still plenty of Jews — about 59,000 according to estimates — who live in Missouri.

{mprestriction ids="1"}One is Missouri State Rep. Stacey Newman, who is running unopposed in the upcoming election and could be the only Jew in the Missouri legislature when the new session begins in January. Newman is also one of the strongest voices against gun violence in the state. She will be one of the featured speakers Oct. 13 at “Gun Violence — Finding Common Ground — Taking Action,” sponsored by the Heartland Coalition Against Gun Violence. (For more information see Page 18.)

Assuming she will be re-elected, Newman — a Democrat who was first chosen to serve in a special election in 2009 — will begin her fourth term representing District 87 (Clayton, Richmond Heights & University City in St. Louis County) in January 2015. She has her daughter to thank for arousing her passion against gun violence.

As Newman explains, her daughter Sophie was scared following the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and the shooting at the Jewish Community Center shooting in Los Angeles where several people, including three children, were hurt. So in 2000, when Sophie was 7 years old, the first-grader wrote a letter describing her fears to Rosie O’Donnell. The letter was written on three pages of legal-size paper and was placed in a giant envelope decorated with stickers. 

“It was hard for someone not to pick it out of a mailbag,” Newman noted.

The letter resulted in Sophie being invited to appear on O’Donnell’s daytime talk show.

“You talk about a wake-up call to both her parents in terms that a first-grader could be that eloquent and was willing to be on national TV and talk about her fears in terms of going to school. It put both her father and me into very high gear,” Newman said in a phone interview recently.

Shortly afterwards, Newman began lobbying the legislature against proposals that would allow concealed weapons in Missouri. (Such a law was enacted in 2003.)

“I jumped in with both feet lobbying for three years, actually working with Gov. Bob Holden’s office, to try to defeat that,” she said.

During that time she met another mother, Jeanne Kirkton, who is now a close friend and a colleague in the Statehouse and took on other causes as well. 

“We learned lobbying by the seat of our pants and because we were angry, and because there was no one else fighting it, that led me directly to working with women’s groups throughout the state, which led me to working on the John Kerry for President campaign in 2004. I was the women’s vote director for the state, and that led me to running for office when my legislative seat was open,” she explained.

As parents often do with their children’s work, she kept a copy of Sophie’s letter.

“I framed it and it’s hanging in my office at the Capitol and I look at it almost daily when I’m there, which reminds me why I am there,” she said.

Newman has been a consistent voice on gun violence prevention and is a fierce opponent of the N.R.A. in the legislature, taking the lead on the House floor in fighting extreme gun rights proposals.  

On the national level, Newman is working to form a Gun Violence Prevention Caucus of legislators in over 35 states and was part of Vice President Joe Biden’s White House Initiative on the Prevention of Gun Violence. She sponsors Missouri’s universal background check, domestic violence firearm and school security legislation.

Judy Sherry, co-founder and current president of the Missouri Kansas Chapter of Grandmothers against Gun Violence, is thrilled Newman will be sharing her expertise at the Oct. 13 event.

“Stacey is a passionate advocate for reasonable gun laws and is persistent in her efforts to see something positive happen in the face of extreme opposition in Jeff City,” Sherry said. “I believe her tenacity will inspire us to keep on keeping on until we achieve our goals — which include at a minimum: universal background checks as well as hoping to stem the tide of continuing to make guns more accessible by loosening gun restriction.”

Besides her work against gun violence, Newman currently chairs the House Progressive Caucus (the largest Democratic caucus of over 40 members) and also takes the lead in the Statehouse in fighting for voter’s rights, reproductive rights, pay equity and equality rights. In addition, she directs the national blog, www.ProgressWomen and was recently named to the national WAND, Inc. board of directors, a national women’s legislative group which advocates for reduction of violence and excessive U. S. military resources.

When Newman first became a state representative, there were five Jews in the state house. Now that the Jewish caucus is smaller, she doesn’t have a group to help her combat the anti-Semitism she sometimes sees on the House floor, noting for example the word Nazism has been used during floor debates on labor issues.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility as a Jewish legislator to say look, anti-Semitism is real and it has no place on the House floor,” she said, pointing out she has several Holocaust survivors living in her district and the last survivor in her husband’s family recently passed away. 

She also works to convince the speaker of the house to alter the daily prayer said during the session out of respect to other faiths.

“Not everybody on the floor is a Christian or has a faith. That’s a battle I’ll continue because I feel like it’s important for me to educate my colleagues as to what is right or what’s wrong.” 

She said her district contains a “large Jewish contingency.”

“People vote about 70 percent Democrat,” she said. “There are probably two House districts where the majority of the Jewish population in St. Louis reside and I have one of them.”

A native of Kansas City, Kan., Newman lives in Richmond Heights, Mo., with her attorney husband, Burt Newman. In addition to Sophie, a senior at the University of Missouri, Newman is “Nana” to her four young grandchildren all under the age of 7.

As for young Sophie, once her letter to Rosie was answered, she wrote to others as well.

“Our lesson was yes, you should go ahead and write that letter because you do get responses,” Newman said.