missouri moves

Will Scharf steps up to run for Missouri AG

Scharf is challenging newly appointed A.G. Andrew Bailey, who is seeking his first full term, in the Republican primary

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Will Scharf

Will Scharf, a recent federal prosecutor and conservative activist, announced on Tuesday that he will run against Missouri’s newly appointed attorney general, Andrew Bailey, setting the stage for what could be a heated two-way Republican primary.

“Year after year, election after election, we have entrusted our government to the same narrow set of political insiders, lobbyists and special interests and we expect to get different results,” Scharf said in his announcement. “Instead, the results are the same, year after year, election after election. Our cities are overrun with crime. Jobs and businesses are fleeing. Schools are failing. Our fellow citizens are suffering. Missouri deserves better.”

Scharf, who filed to run for statewide office shortly after the midterms, had been widely expected to launch his campaign for the attorney general seat, which has traditionally served as a springboard to higher office in state and federal government.

Before Bailey took office in early January, the position had been occupied by Eric Schmitt, a Republican recently elected to the U.S. Senate. Bailey was subsequently appointed to fill out the remainder of Schmitt’s term by Gov. Mike Parson. 

Bailey, the 41-year-old prosecutor who had served as Parson’s general counsel, said last week that he would run for a full term in 2024, casting himself as “a constitutional conservative” who “has defended Missouri communities by putting violent criminals behind bars.”

In an interview prior to his own campaign launch, Scharf, 36, said he was undeterred by his position in the race, even as he moves to unseat Parson’s choice for the job. “The governor made his pick,” he told Jewish Insider last month, “and in August of 2024, the people of Missouri are going to get to make their choice.”

Bailey, he insisted, “very much represents the establishment insider clique in Jefferson City,” the state capital. “I think we can present a very strong contrast there.”

The Democratic primary field is currently vacant with nearly two years until the election. The seat has remained under Republican control since 2017, when Josh Hawley, now a U.S. senator, claimed victory in an open-seat race to succeed Chris Koster.

It’s the first campaign for office for Scharf, a lawyer and prosecutor who previously served as a top advisor to Eric Greitens, the former Republican governor of Missouri who resigned from office in 2018 amid accusations of sexual misconduct. 

Following his tenure in state government, Scharf was actively involved in the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a consultant to the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative advocacy group now called the Concord Fund. He then served as a special nominations counsel in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, where he helped to confirm Amy Coney Barrett.

Until last November, Scharf had been working for more than two years as an assistant U.S. attorney in St. Louis, where he specialized in the prosecution of violent crimes, a focal point of his campaign. “If we don’t tackle the crime problem in this state,” Scharf told JI, “this state doesn’t have a future.”

Speaking more broadly, Scharf said he is now running for office to address what he characterized as “a culture of corruption in Jefferson City.”

“It’s one of the worst state capitals in America,” he told JI. “You have a very narrow set of lobbyists and consultants and insiders and trial lawyers and captured industries and people who do very well for themselves off of state government. The people who are left out and left behind are the people of Missouri, and I think until we break that mold, until we bring new leadership into Jefferson City, the macro problems the state faces just aren’t going to change.”

He said the attorney general can ideally serve as a “watchdog across a wide range of issues,” including education, “which you wouldn’t necessarily think of as an attorney general issue.” The office should be “willing to investigate school districts that may be violating state law or misusing state funds,” he argued, while pointing a finger at nonprofit groups that, in his assessment, “frustrate state policy in areas like school choice and education reform.”

“There are a lot of stones that the Jefferson City establishment would rather remain unturned,” Scharf claimed. “I would see my job as attorney general as diligently flipping those stones.”

Scharf, who is Jewish, added that he is personally concerned about recent instances on college campuses in which anti-Israel activism has given rise to what many students have described as antisemitic discrimination. “With the rise of the BDS movement and the dominance of intersectionality as a motivating principle on the left, I think a lot of Jewish students really feel under fire,” he said, referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. “We haven’t had big incidents like that here yet.”

But Scharf said he is “interested in getting involved” with such issues as attorney general if specific cases of anti-Jewish discrimination at state-funded universities in Missouri are brought to his attention. “College campuses are often not friendly places for Jewish students now,” Scharf told JI. “To the extent that’s the case in the state of Missouri, I’d love to play a role in improving the situation.”

For his part, Scharf, who believes he would be Missouri’s first Jewish attorney general, said he has never experienced antisemitism during the years he has lived in the state. “It’s a state with a long history of electing Jews to Congress, to statewide office, or electing people with Jewish family,” he said. “In terms of my race, I don’t see antisemitism being an issue and I hope it doesn’t become an issue.”

Scharf, who grew up in New York City and North Florida, was raised in a Modern Orthodox home but  attended non-Jewish schools, a dynamic he described as having “a foot in two worlds.”

“I believe I was the first observant Jew to graduate from Andover, which was very difficult,” he said, referring to the Phillips Academy preparatory school in Andover, Mass., where he graduated in 2004. “I had a special dispensation to not go to Saturday classes. The local Chabad rabbi was obviously very helpful.”

The Harvard Law graduate, who first moved to St. Louis in 2011 to clerk for a federal appeals court judge, said he keeps kosher, wraps tefillin every morning, davens regularly and walks to the local Chabad on Shabbat. 

“Judaism is still a big part of my life, and it comes up in weird places,” Scharf told JI, recalling one particularly memorable episode during his time with the Greitens administration. “I was at work late one night during Hanukkah and I lit a little travel menorah in my office in the governor’s office, and I thought to myself, like, this is probably the first time that a menorah has been lit in the governor’s office here, and it’s just sort of cool to think about things that way.”

It wasn’t the only time he remembers his Jewish identity intersecting, even to an occasionally comical degree, with his professional life. During a routine bill signing at the governor’s office, for instance, one of the attendees, a Baptist faith leader, asked if Scharf would lead the group in prayer, which he said came as a surprise.

“I was sort of caught off guard, so I said the  ‘Shehecheyanu’ in Hebrew and then translated into English,” Scharf said of the Jewish blessing of gratitude. “It was just kind of what came to mind.”

In his telling, the prayer was well-received. “We all said amen,” he told JI. “I think I passed the prayer test.”

“Coming from a strong faith tradition,” Scharf said more broadly, has often provided him with “a point of common origin” in what he characterized as a “pretty religious state.”

While Bailey officially launched his campaign for a full term last week, Scharf enters the race with a fundraising advantage. The political newcomer pulled in nearly $300,000 in just the month of December, including from such big-name Republicans as Leonard Leo, who co-chairs the Federalist Society; Patrick Morrisey, West Virginia’s attorney general; and Peter Bisbee, the executive director of the Republican Attorneys General Association. In January, Scharf also gave $500,000 to his own campaign.

“It’ll be an interesting race, given that neither Bailey nor Scharf are experienced in electoral politics,” Jeremy Walling, a professor of political science at Southeast Missouri State University, said in an email to JI on Tuesday. “Both men can point to accomplishments, but those have occurred offstage, out of the spotlight of electoral politics.”

Speaking with JI, Scharf explained that he had long been “content supporting other people” behind the scenes as an advisor and consultant. 

“But I think we’re at a period of time now where if good people don’t step up, we’re just not going to get done what we need to get done,” he said. “That’s how I feel about my race.”

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