Did Bullying Kill Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich?
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Shortly after Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich killed himself last week, questions about whether politics—and politicians themselves—were to blame hovered quietly beneath the surface.
But on Tuesday, as the state’s political establishment gathered around Schweich’s flag-covered casket at the Church of St. Michael and St. George near the Republican’s former home in Clayton, the Band-Aid concealing the political mess was quickly ripped off in an emotional and frustrated homily by Rev. Jack Danforth, a former U.S. senator for whom Schweich served as chief of staff starting in 1999 during his investigation into the FBI shooting in Waco, Texas.
In his remarks—before two U.S. senators, Missouri’s governor, dozens of state lawmakers, and the state’s political consultants and lobbyists—Danforth said he felt “overwhelming anger that politics has gone so hideously wrong” in the state’s Republican primary for governor, which Schweich joined last month.
That anger, Danforth said, stemmed from a series of moves by people he called “bullies” in the state’s political scene.
One person he referenced was Jeff Roe, a Kansas City-based Republican political consultant who works for Republican gubernatorial candidate Catherine Hanaway and U.S Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
Roe produced a negative radio commercial that referred to Schweich as a “little bug” and likened his physical appearance to that of the quirky, unintelligent deputy sheriff on the television show The Andy Griffith Show.
Then there was John Hancock, the newly elected chairman of the Missouri Republican Party.
In the months leading up to Schweich’s death, the auditor believed that Hancock—an opposition researcher who did work last year for the campaign of Hanaway, Schweich’s primary opponent and a former U.S. attorney—had led a whisper campaign that he was Jewish.
While Schweich did have a Jewish heritage stemming from his grandfather, he did not practice the faith. He was Episcopalian and open about his Christianity.
Schweich, Danforth said, believed that Hancock was telling Christian conservative donors that Schweich was Jewish in an effort to feed off the anti-Semitism that still exists in parts of Missouri.
Since Hancock announced his candidacy for party chairman late last year, Schweich had pleaded with his campaign staff to make his story known.
Even those closest to Schweich, in interviews following his death, said the problem was that Schweich had no substantial evidence of a whisper campaign to present to the press, and they refused to push his narrative.
Last Tuesday, two days before Schweich took his own life, he had planned to stage a news conference in Jefferson City to make his claims known.
Danforth, in his eulogy a week later, said he had advised Schweich against it. Schweich backed down, but two days later, he moved forward on his own, scheduling interviews with reporters from the Associated Press and leaving a message with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Minutes after Schweich left that message, Danforth’s office was on the phone with Schweich’s home, once again urging him to back down.
It was at that point, when Schweich felt that he had lost everyone, that he pulled out a handgun and ended his life, with his wife nearby.
“He may have thought that I had abandoned him and left him on the high ground, all alone to fight the battle that had to be fought,” Danforth said in his remarks.
That high ground, Danforth said, was against what Schweich saw as anti-Semitism. Schweich, he said, was taught by his grandfather to take the high ground against it.
“Tom called this anti-Semitism, and of course it was. The only reason for going around saying that someone is Jewish is to make political profit from religious bigotry,” Danforth said.
That charge, Schweich spokesman Spence Jackson said Tuesday, should be enough for Republican leaders to distance themselves from Hancock and demand his resignation.
“There is no way that the Missouri Republican Party can move forward under his leadership for the reasons that Sen. Danforth made,” he said. “It is unconscionable to think that the party can be successful in 2016 with John Hancock as the chairman.”
On Wednesday, David Steelman, a Missouri politician who now serves on the University of Missouri Board of Curators, joined the call, along with state Rep. Paul Fitzwater, for Hancock to resign.
But aside from calls made by those close to Schweich, the party has steered clear of calling for Hancock’s resignation.
After a tumultuous two years under a previous chairman during which the state party went underfunded, establishment Republicans here were joyous at the election of Hancock—one of their own—late last month at a committee meeting in Kansas City.
One of those was U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, who is seeking reelection next year.
"This is ultimately up to the Republican State Committee, which elects the state party chairman. I continue to focus my attention on remembering Tom’s life and work in the wake of this tragedy,” said Blunt, whose wife, Abigail, is Jewish.
U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, a Republican who is close to both Hancock and Hanaway, also resisted calls for the chairman to step down.
“Ann does not feel that it is appropriate for anyone to inject politics into the situation so soon after Tom Schweich’s tragic suicide,” said Christian Morgan, Wagner’s chief of staff.
Hancock, of course, has said repeatedly that nothing nefarious went on and has denied the charge that he led an anti-Semitic campaign against Schweich. In a letter to the Missouri Republican State Committee last week, Hancock said that until recently, he believed Schweich was Jewish.
“While I do not recall doing so, it is possible that I mentioned Tom’s faith in passing during one of the many conversations I have each day. There was absolutely nothing malicious about my intent, and I certainly was not attempting to ‘inject religion’ into the governor’s race, as some have suggested,” he wrote.
In light of Schweich’s death, Hanaway has suspended her campaign and is not making a public peep about her relationship with Hancock.
“I suspended my campaign last week out of reverence to Auditor Schweich’s family and will not add any additional commentary to further politicize this tragedy. I continue to pray for the Schweich family during this difficult time,” she said in an email Wednesday.
Privately, Republicans here believe that in order to mount a campaign against Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, for governor in 2016, someone soon will have to give, whether it be Hancock or Hanaway, to relieve the negative pressure that has built following Schweich’s death.
Danforth questioned what kind of candidate would even want to emerge in a political field open seemingly only to the “tough and the crude and the calloused.”
“If this is what politics has become, what decent person would want to get into it?” he said.