The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Days before apparent suicide, potential Missouri governor agonized over alleged anti-Semitic remarks

Missouri state auditor Tom Schweich (R) announced his candidacy for governor in St. Louis in January. Schweich, 54, died Thursday, Feb. 26, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

For days, Missouri state auditor Tom Schweich had been growing outwardly agitated, those close to him noted, over remarks that were made about his religion. He also seemed upset about a recent low-blow political attack ad intended to present the gubernatorial candidate as one who “could be easily confused for the deputy sheriff of Mayberry.”

But this is standard fare in American rough-and-tumble political campaigns. And when Schweich fatally shot himself Thursday morning in his home — minutes after calling two reporters — it rattled state officials, staffers and journalists who knew him.

“I couldn’t speculate on his mental state,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page editor Tony Messenger told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. “But he was clearly agitated. He was clearly bothered. I just don’t know what other demons he had.”

“I have no idea why Schweich killed himself,” he wrote in the Post-Dispatch.

Schweich, 54, was someone who had been around. He was chief of staff to three U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations — John Danforth, Anne Patterson and John Bolton. He was principal deputy secretary of state in the administration of President George W. Bush, responsible for international law enforcement.

Schweich announced last month that he was seeking the Republican nomination for governor in 2016, pitting him against Republican contender Catherine Hanaway, a former Missouri House speaker. Messenger, who had known Schweich since he hit the state’s political scene some six years ago, said he took public service seriously and himself even more so. “For a politician, he had very thin skin. He didn’t take criticism well,” he told The Post. “If something was on his mind and he wanted to say it, he said it.”

Recently, Schweich alleged that Missouri Republican Party chairman John Hancock had launched a “whisper campaign” among his donors claiming Schweich was a Jew. Schweich said he wasn’t. He attended an Episcopal church. But his grandfather was Jewish, and he said he was “proud” of that.

“He said his grandfather taught him to never allow any anti-Semitism go unpunished, no matter how slight,” Messenger said in a written statement.

Still, Schweich told reporters at the Post-Dispatch and the Associated Press that he wanted to set the record straight.

On Thursday morning, Schweich called the AP at 9:16 a.m. to invite a reporter to his house for an interview that afternoon. The AP spoke to him again at 9:35 a.m. to confirm. At 9:41 a.m., he called Messenger at the Post-Dispatch and left a voicemail message.

“I’m willing to speak to the Post-Dispatch and AP only on this matter,” Schweich said in the recording. “To me, this is more of a religion story than a politics story, but it’s your choice on who the reporter is. Thanks, bye.”

Seven minutes later, a 911 call was placed from Schweich’s home.

An unnamed police source told the Post-Dispatch that Schweich’s wife, Kathy, heard him talking on the phone. Then she heard the gunshot. He was transported to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, where he was pronounced dead.

“What we know at this point suggests an apparent suicide,” Clayton Police Chief Kevin Murphy told reporters during a news conference Thursday afternoon.”There is nothing to support anything other than that at this point.”

But to many who knew him, his apparent suicide didn’t make sense.

One of Schweich’s campaign donors, Sam Fox, a former U.S. ambassador to Belgium, told the Post-Dispatch that Schweich did not seem personally or professionally troubled. “Not to me nor to any friends that I’m aware of,” he said.

Schweich joined the public service sector in 1999, when he was named former U.S. Senator John Danforth’s chief of staff for a federal government probe into the FBI’s actions at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex. In 2010, he won the seat for state auditor. He won it again last year. And he was gearing up for next year’s gubernatorial race. Though it was early, he was polling respectably and seemed to be on a path toward further political success.

Last week, a political action committee called Citizens for Fairness launched a radio attack ad in which the narrator mimics Kevin Spacey’s voice in “House of Cards,” calling Schweich a weak contender for the Republican party.

“Elections have consequences,” the advertisement begins. “Tom Schweich, like him? No. Is he a weak candidate for governor? Absolutely, just look at him. He could be easily confused for the deputy sheriff of Mayberry.” The ad was referencing the clownish Barney Fife character played by Don Knotts in “The Andy Griffith Show.”

This week, Schweich seemed to be getting anxious about some comments he alleged Hancock made about his faith. He told the AP that he had heard rumors that Hancock made some comments last year that Schweich was Jewish and he thought Hancock should step down from his position as party chairman, to which he was just elected. Messenger, from the Post-Dispatch, said in his statement that Schweich told him he thought Hancock meant to “harm him politically in a gubernatorial primary in which many Republican voters are evangelical Christians.”

On Monday, Schweich told the AP and Post-Dispatch reporters he wanted to hold a news conference to explain the issue. He canceled a scheduled press conference the next day. Then on Wednesday, he told Messenger he thought Hancock might resign and he wanted to wait and see.

Hancock told the Post-Dispatch he went to Jefferson City, Mo., for Tuesday’s news conference “to set the record straight” regarding allegations that, he said, were “demonstrably untrue.”

“This whole thing doesn’t make any sense,” he told the newspaper. “Three months of allegations about me that are not true don’t make any sense. Suicide doesn’t make any sense. It is a tragedy.”

Hancock told the AP that Schweich had approached him about the alleged incident late last year, claiming he found out that Hancock had made “anti-Semitic” statements about him. Hancock said he doesn’t have a “specific recollection” about any remarks relating to Schweich’s religion, but said that if he did mention something about it, it would not have been with any intent to harm him.

“It’s plausible that I would have told somebody that Tom was Jewish because I thought he was, but I wouldn’t have said it in a derogatory or demeaning fashion,” he said.

But, Hancock told the Post-Dispatch, he is not a bigot.

“I have been a public figure for nearly 30 years,” he said. “No one has ever accused me of bigotry in any shape, manner or form.”

After Schweich’s death on Thursday, Hancock released a statement, saying he was in “utter shock” and asking the state to mourn with him.

“Tom will be remembered as a tenacious, energetic, effective elected official who worked tirelessly on behalf of the citizens of this state and this nation,” he said. “I ask all Missourians to join me in praying for Tom’s family.”

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