ST. LOUIS — One month before his suicide, Tom Schweich announced that he was running for governor. He looked pale and tired, with dark crescents under his eyes, but he spoke with precision and force. He told supporters he had learned to fight liberals by attending Harvard and Yale, to fight corruption by serving as state auditor, and to fight terrorism by serving the U.S. government in Afghanistan.
“At the State Department, I negotiated with everybody from Chinese bureaucrats to Afghan warlords,” he said. “And I’ll tell you: Negotiating with Afghan warlords was really good practice for Missouri politics.”
On the morning of Feb. 26, Schweich put a .22-caliber handgun to his left temple and pulled the trigger. He left behind a wife, two children and a Missouri Republican Party divided over the meaning of his death.
Four weeks later, Schweich’s loyal spokesman, Spence Jackson, also fatally shot himself. The two suicides stunned political observers far beyond Missouri’s borders and drew attention to the darkest undercurrent of a race that had quickly turned nasty: allegations that one of Schweich’s GOP rivals had made an insidious appeal to anti-Semitism.
The rival denied the charge, and a police report released this week found little evidence of a sustained campaign. But Schweich’s friends insist that the whispered bigotry was real and that it devastated the emotionally fragile Schweich — who, the report said, had threatened suicide in the past. As the governor’s race continues without him, his death has sparked a debate in Missouri over the ugliness and innuendo that pervade modern politics.
“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,” Schweich’s mentor, former U.S. senator John C. Danforth, said at his funeral. “Words do hurt. Words can kill.”
This article is based on interviews with more than 20 people who knew Schweich, Jackson and the inner workings of the Missouri GOP. It also draws from the 40-page report released by the Clayton Police Department detailing its investigation into Schweich’s death.
Schweich, 54, had an agile mind that raced from one fascination to another, from the Rolling Stones songs he played on electric guitar to the Ronald Reagan signatures he painstakingly replicated in the margins of meeting agendas. By the time he ran for state auditor in 2010, his first bid for elected office, he had already done enough work for two or three careers.
He had written books on leadership and avoiding lawsuits, helped investigate the 1993 siege in Waco, Tex., and served as chief of staff to three U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations, including Danforth. As auditor, he investigated state agencies run by Republicans and Democrats alike, quickly gaining a reputation as a tenacious adversary.
Then Schweich decided to run for governor, vying for the Republican nomination against Catherine Hanaway, a former U.S. attorney and Missouri House speaker who received nearly two-thirds of her campaign funds from one man, St. Louis investment mogul Rex Sinquefield. In his announcement speech, Schweich lashed out at Hanaway and her “billionaire patron.”
“Nothing is too dishonest for them,” he said. “It’s corrupt, and there’s a lot more corruption going on in that camp that we’ll be talking about in the days to come.”
(Sinquefield declined to comment for this article. A Hanaway spokesman said Sinquefield supports her stand on “better schools and lower taxes.”)
Friends worried about how Schweich would hold up under the pressure of the governor’s race. His wife, Kathy, told police that Schweich had never visited a psychiatrist but that he had spoken about killing himself in the past, including while holding a gun. Through a family friend, Kathy Schweich declined to comment for this story.
Danforth described Tom Schweich as “a person easily hurt and quickly offended” and said, “I told him I didn’t think he had the temperament for elective politics.”
One crucial test followed a trip to Kansas City last September that seemed to alter the course of Schweich’s life. He went there to meet Kevin Childress, a businessman helping him build support in a city where few people knew his name.
According to Childress, after lunch at an upscale restaurant, Childress gave Schweich what he thought was a useful piece of political intelligence: John Hancock, a GOP political consultant working for Hanaway, “is telling people you’re Jewish.”
Schweich seemed to take this news in stride, Childress said. When he returned to Kansas City for a fundraiser in October, he calmly described his religion and ethnicity. He said he had a strong Jewish heritage but that he was a practicing Episcopalian.
“It went over beautifully,” Childress says. “The Jews at the table were smiling, and the Episcopalians at the table were smiling.”
But something had changed in Schweich, friends said. The notion of anti-Semitism as a political weapon appeared to touch a vulnerable place in his psyche, and his search for the right countermeasure would continue into the morning he picked up the gun.
Childress said the seed he planted in Schweich’s mind came from one of his employees at My Freight World, a logistics company outside Kansas City. The man had just returned from a family reunion in St. Louis, where he had chatted with Hancock, his brother-in-law.
The man told Childress that Schweich had no chance to win, adding, “And by the way, he’s Jewish, you know.”
Childress said he got angry. “What the f--- difference does that make?” he recalls asking.
Hancock denies telling his brother-in-law that Schweich was Jewish, and his brother-in-law denies discussing Schweich with either of them. In an interview, Hancock said he honestly believed Schweich was Jewish and that he may have mentioned it in passing to others but only as a neutral biographical fact.
“The fact that Catherine Hanaway is Catholic and Tom Schweich is Jewish is no guarantee of how the Catholic vote is going to go,” Hancock says he may have told a donor.
But Schweich saw something darker, and he confronted Hancock. Hancock said he apologized, but Schweich was unappeased. He believed the rumor had reached multiple donors. And he was angry that Hancock planned to run for state party chairman. The election was scheduled for February.
As Schweich laid the groundwork for his gubernatorial campaign, his operatives quietly launched a separate campaign to undermine Hancock’s bid for party chairman. They approached members of the Republican State Committee and urged them to vote against him.
Schweich had built a career on marshaling evidence, but this time he came up short. All he had to convince committee members of Hancock’s misstatements was the word of Childress, which Childress acknowledged was little more than hearsay. Meanwhile, the crusade angered some Republicans who were already feeling besieged by charges of racism every time they criticized President Obama.
“Maybe the anti-Semitic accusation kind of hit that same vein among other Republicans on the state committee,” committeeman David Kelsay said. “They were tired of hearing that Republicans were biased or bigoted.”
Five days before his death, at a state GOP convention, Schweich lost a straw poll for governor to Hanaway. And Hancock was elected party chairman with 50 of 68 votes.
Instead of rethinking his strategy, Schweich forged ahead. Two days later, voice quivering and hands shaking, he told an Associated Press reporter he wanted to hold a news conference to expose Hancock. He called Childress, Childress recalled, saying, “I just want you to back me up on this story.”
“If a reporter asked me to say what this proves,” Childress replied, “I’d say it doesn’t prove anything.”
“I’m not asking you to prove anything,” Schweich said, getting frustrated. “I’m asking you to tell what you know.”
Then he told Childress about a framed document on the wall in his house outside St. Louis, a kind of passport given to one of Schweich’s Jewish ancestors in Germany. Schweich described it as saying, “Let this man travel freely,” or words to that effect. “He is a good Jew.”
“That’s why I’m doing this,” Schweich told Childress. “It’s the equivalent of being called a good Jew. And I’m not going to stand for it.”
But Schweich’s resolve wavered. He scheduled a news conference, then canceled it. Danforth told him to move on, but he said that made Schweich angry. As Danforth said later, “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.”
Schweich suffered from Crohn’s disease, a gastrointestinal condition that kept his weight around 140 pounds. His wife told police that he had been under stress from the condition. Early on the morning he died, he also expressed despair about the state of the Missouri Republican Party. In a phone call with his chief of staff, he said he either had to “run [for governor] as an independent or he needed to kill himself.”
Deeply concerned, his wife, Kathy, spoke to a family friend and political ally who, like so many others, advised Schweich to drop the Jewish issue and move on with the race.
“We are not against you, Tom,” the woman told Schweich, according to an account of Schweich’s final moments that she and his wife provided to police. “We are trying to help you and give you our best advice. We can’t all be wrong.”
“I’m going to kill myself,” Schweich replied, dropping the phone on the bed.
Kathy Schweich picked up the phone.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Does he say stuff like that?” the woman asked.
“Sometimes,” Kathy Schweich said.
Then she gasped: “Oh, my God. He shot himself.”
Afterward, Jackson, spokesman for Schweich in the state auditor’s office, called on Hancock to resign as GOP chairman. Five Republican lawmakers joined the call. And David Humphreys, a Republican donor from southwest Missouri, came forward to corroborate Schweich’s story.
Humphreys filed a sworn affidavit saying Hancock told him in November that Schweich was Jewish and that his religion could hurt him in the governor’s race.
However, another person at the November meeting denied hearing Hancock say anything of the kind. Humphreys backtracked, saying Hancock actually made the comments in September, but police said that ruined his credibility.
Humphreys did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Hancock, meanwhile, assembled a list of people to vouch for his character, including former U.S. attorney general John D. Ashcroft. He remains chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, and his two-year term will keep him in charge through the 2016 election.
Hanaway suspended her campaign after Schweich’s death. But in late March, she quietly returned to the campaign trail.
As the world of Missouri politics whirred back to life, Jackson walked into Paddy Malone’s Irish Pub in Jefferson City, the state capital. Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, would soon appoint a new auditor to replace Schweich, and Jackson would probably lose his job. He had been unemployed before, long enough to need help with rent money, and now he had alienated the most powerful members of his party.
Four days before police found Jackson dead in his apartment, the proprietor at Paddy Malone’s said he asked Jackson asked how he was doing.
“Not so good,” Jackson replied, ordering a sandwich and a Boulevard Wheat beer.
Lake is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. Stephanie McCrummen and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.