At a Missouri GOP gathering last month, party leaders sided in a gubernatorial straw poll with state Auditor Tom Schweich’s opponent and elected a new chairman who Schweich believed was involved in a whisper campaign against him based on religion.
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — To some Republicans, the strains of a bitter intraparty fight for the gubernatorial nomination seemed to be grating on state Auditor Tom Schweich. At a GOP meeting a week ago in Kansas City, state Rep. Kevin Engler said his wife commented that Schweich “looked very tense.”
“Yeah, you’re under a lot of pressure” in a statewide race, Engler said he replied. “This is not an easy business. People forget we’re human. When people start criticizing you, it hurts.”
Five days later, Schweich died from what police said was a self-inflicted gunshot in his Clayton home. Friends and allies said his high-octane pace and zeal for being the state’s fiscal watchdog never ebbed and, while there were mounting pressures, he had shown no sign of giving up.
“He was pretty fearless in calling things as he saw them,” said Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific. “He was definitely one of the hardest-working people in the Capitol.”
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But the tension in a run for governor was becoming clear.
Though the election is more than 20 months away, Schweich faced a mocking radio ad comparing him to Barney Fife, the fictional deputy sheriff in “The Andy Griffith Show; constant barbs through fake accounts on social media; and a pending “sunshine law” request for every email he had written in the past three years, apparently part of “opposition research” aimed at digging up dirt.
Moreover, at the Kansas City Reagan-Lincoln Days event Feb. 21-22, party leaders sided with his opponent in a straw poll and, also, elected a new chairman who Schweich believed was involved in a whisper campaign against him based on religion.
“We knew he was bothered by this, but we didn’t know how deeply he was bothered by it, by the negativity of it all,” said Spence Jackson, his office spokesman.
Just a month earlier, Schweich, 54, was teeming with enthusiasm and ideas when he announced his candidacy for governor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
He promised to focus on “cleaning up the rampant corruption in Jefferson City,” and he criticized his chief GOP opponent, former House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, for relying on retired investor Rex Sinquefield for 70 percent of her campaign funding — $1 million out of $1.4 million.
He said he blamed the defeat of one of his priorities last year — requiring that school districts and local governments put most bond underwriting deals out to bid — on campaign contributions by underwriters and bankers to certain legislators.
If Schweich thought his campaign kickoff last month would begin a debate on issues, he was wrong.
In the radio ad that began airing last month, the announcer aimed to sound like Kevin Spacey’s voice in “House of Cards,” the political drama on Netflix. The announcer called Schweich a “weak candidate” who “could be easily confused for the deputy sheriff of Mayberry,” a reference to the Barney Fife character.
The ad was sponsored by a political-action committee called Citizens for Fairness in Missouri. Until Feb. 16, the committee’s deputy treasurer matched Hanaway’s campaign treasurer: James C. Thomas III of Kansas City.
Thomas is a lawyer who has been linked to Hanaway’s campaign consultant, Jeff Roe. Roe’s firm, Axiom Strategies of Kansas City, has long been associated with campaigns that go for the jugular.
The new treasurer of the Citizens for Fairness committee is Seth Shumaker, of Kirksville. Schweich referred to Shumaker, though not by name, in his speech announcing his candidacy for governor.
Schweich said a “suspended lawyer” was circulating a “dizzying series of lies” about Schweich on social media. Shumaker lost his law license in 2011 for violating “rules of professional conduct.” Schweich’s office confirmed Friday that he was talking about Shumaker.
Shumaker, who did not return a phone call, has filed six “Sunshine Law” requests with the Auditor’s Office, seeking voluminous information about Schweich, such as several years of his emails and daily calendars, and travel and expense records for some staff members.
While political campaigns often involve nasty accusations and innuendo, Schweich was most disturbed, said Jackson, by what Schweich considered an attack on his family’s religion.
The day he killed himself, he called two reporters to suggest that they come to his house that afternoon. He had planned to discuss his accusation that John Hancock, the new Republican Party chairman, had mentioned to others that Schweich was Jewish. Schweich felt the comments were anti-Semitic and were designed to hurt him politically.
Schweich was an Episcopalian, but he has said his grandfather 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,” Hancock wrote in a letter to party leaders Friday. “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.”
Jackson, Schweich’s spokesman, was at a loss as to why Schweich committed suicide, but he said that of all the recent tensions, “it was the comment about the Jewish faith, the Jewish history of his family, that had hurt him the most.”