John Hancock made it clear Thursday that he’s not going down without a fight.
The chairman of the Missouri Republican Party mounted his most aggressive defense of his reputation yet on Thursday after weeks of swirling accusations that he engaged in an anti-Semitic whispering campaign against Tom Schweich — the state auditor and Republican candidate for governor who took his own life last month.
Responding to calls from a group of Republican lawmakers that he step down for the good of the party, Hancock said he has no intention of leaving his leadership position over false allegations.
“For me, this is about a lifetime of earned reputation and a lifetime of experiences,” Hancock said. “If I just walked away from this post, I think in the eyes of many I’d be confessing to having done something I just simply didn’t do. There’s no evidence of a whispering campaign, because there was no whispering campaign.”
The back-and-forth between the lawmakers and the embattled chairman marked the latest chapter in a drama launched in February. Schweich — convinced that powerful interests were inaccurately claiming he was Jewish in order to sink his campaign for governor — shot himself at his suburban St. Louis home on Feb. 26.
On Thursday, state lawmakers said Hancock’s role in the dispute might never be fully known, but that it is a continuing distraction for the party.
“We need to change the leadership and direction of our party,” said Sen. Mike Parson, a Bolivar Republican.
Hancock said his fellow Republicans have “jumped to conclusions before the truth has been fully revealed.”
“There was no anti-Semitism here,” Hancock said. “There was no whispering campaign. I’m not a bigot.”
Hancock promised to release emails he exchanged with former Sen. Jack Danforth about the allegations when they surfaced privately last November. The emails, Hancock said, would show both sides considered the matter settled before Schweich made them a public issue shortly before his suicide.
Later Thursday, the state Republican Party released statements from nearly two dozen current and former GOP officials and activists, all vouching for Hancock.
“He is a good and decent man,” said the statement from U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, “and any accusations to the contrary are false.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, considered by many to be the leader of the Republican party in the state, did not lend his name to the document. In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Blunt repeated his position that Hancock’s fate remains in the hands of the 68-member Missouri GOP committee.
He declined to comment further.
But the state lawmakers, who met with reporters in Jefferson City, said the problems in the party aren’t limited to alleged anti-Semitic statements. They also discussed possible connections between GOP gubernatorial candidate Catherine Hanaway and an ad that ran last month attacking Schweich’s appearance.
The ad, which compared Schweich to Barney Fife and suggested he was a weak candidate, was paid for by a political committee with some ties to the Hanaway campaign.
“Catherine Hanaway is going to have to answer some tough questions, too,” said Parson, who has been rumored to be considering a run for governor himself.
Negative campaigning, the role of political consultants and unlimited campaign contributions have “led to a very negative kind of campaign that none of us are proud of,” said Sen. David Pearce of Warrensburg.
Parson and Pearce were joined by Republican Sen. Gary Romine of Farmington and Reps. Bill White of Joplin and Jim Neely of Cameron.
Parson and White had publicly announced their support for Schweich’s 2016 gubernatorial campaign. Pearce, Romine and Neely had not yet endorsed a candidate.
Lawmakers can’t remove Hancock as chairman. Only the state Republican committee has that power. To date, its members have expressed support for Hancock. Pearce said he’s hopeful that if enough lawmakers call for Hancock to resign, it will affect the committee.
“If we don’t try to make a change in direction, this will haunt us in the August 2016 (primary) elections and the November 2016 elections,” Pearce said.
Parson said he sat down with Hancock last week and asked him whether he told people Schweich was Jewish. Hancock, Parson said, said he couldn’t remember.
“That doubt is always going to be there,” Parson said. “Sometimes you do things for the greater good, and this is one of those times.”
Schweich’s grandfather was Jewish, but Schweich was a practicing Episcopalian.