The death of Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich from an apparent suicide continued to reverberate through state politics Friday.
The Republican from the St. Louis suburbs, seen as a leading contender in the race for governor in 2016, died from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot Thursday morning.
Campaign events were canceled Friday. So was a planned trade mission by Gov. Jay Nixon to Cuba. A replacement for Schweich was named, but only on a temporary basis.
And the Missouri Republican Party’s chairman worked to dispel rumors that he had engaged in a whisper campaign targeting Schweich’s religion — a charge Schweich made to reporters by telephone just moments before allegedly taking his own life.
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Nixon cited Schweich’s death in backing out of a scheduled trade mission next week to Havana. His wife, first lady Georganne Nixon, will go on his behalf.
Later in the day, Nixon, a Democrat, announced that one of his closest advisers would act as Schweich’s successor on an interim basis.
John Watson served as Nixon’s chief of staff from 1997, when he was attorney general, through his tenure as governor until December. The governor named Watson to serve as Missouri auditor until an appointment is made.
At that time, Nixon said, Watson will resign.
“I am pleased that he has agreed to serve while I move thoroughly and expeditiously to select a permanent replacement,” Nixon said in a statement.
The campaign for governor was also put on hold. The candidates who Schweich would have faced in a GOP primary — former U.S. attorney Catherine Hanaway and former Missouri House member Randy Asbury — canceled all upcoming campaign events.
“Out of respect to the Schweich family, and to honor the memory of State Auditor Tom Schweich, the Asbury campaign will suspend campaign-related activities and social media posts at this time,” the campaign said in a statement. “We encourage all Missourians to pray for Tom’s family and friends during this difficult time.”
In an email to the GOP state central committee sent Friday morning, Missouri Republican Party chairman John Hancock denied allegations that he was spreading rumors that Schweich was Jewish.
One of Schweich’s final acts before his death was an attempt to set up an interview with reporters from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Associated Press to discuss his belief that Hancock had been spreading misinformation about his religion.
Schweich told a Post-Dispatch editor that he was an Episcopalian with a Jewish grandfather and suspected references were made to his Jewish heritage to damage his standing with Republicans in the primary for governor.
Hancock said that he mistakenly believed that Schweich, 54, was Jewish, “but it was simply a part of what I believed to be his biography — no different than the fact that he was from St. Louis and had graduated from Harvard Law School.”
“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. “There was absolutely nothing malicious about my intent, and I certainty was not attempting to ‘inject religion’ into the governor’s race, as some have suggested.”
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., Schweich called Tony Messenger of the Post-Dispatch and left a voice mail.
“I’m willing to speak to the Post-Dispatch and AP only on this matter,” Schweich said in the voice mail. “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. He was rushed to a St. Louis hospital, where he was pronounced dead from a single gunshot wound. An autopsy was scheduled to take place Friday.
“No one will ever fully understand what led to yesterday’s tragedy,” Hancock wrote in the email to party leaders. “Still, I am sad to have learned that some of Tom’s final moments were spent thinking of an ongoing disagreement with me.”
Hancock said he had tried to make peace with Schweich for several months, and it is “my sincerest regret that we will be forever unable to do so.”
Mark Anthony Jones, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Committee, called Schweich’s death “a horrible, sad tragedy.”
“We’re all shocked,” Jones said Friday afternoon. “But I don’t fault John Hancock.”
Jones, who was among the Republican officials to receive Hancock’s email, said he has not heard any serious suggestions that Hancock’s job as party leader is in jeopardy.
“I don’t think John Hancock should resign,” he said. “I fully support him.”
A memorial service will be held for Schweich at 10 a.m. Tuesday at The Church of St. Michael & St. George, 6345 Wydown Blvd. in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton. Former U.S. senator Jack Danforth, a longtime friend and mentor to Schweich, will officiate, according to Danforth’s office.