Former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth on Tuesday remembered Tom Schweich as a sensitive friend and extraordinary public servant — driven to suicide, he said, by political bullies and an anti-Semitic whisper campaign.
“Words do hurt. Words can kill,” Danforth said at a memorial service attended by many of the state’s leading political figures. “That has been proven right here in our home state.”
Schweich, 54, was recently re-elected as Missouri auditor and had been a Republican candidate for governor in 2016. He died Thursday and was laid to rest Tuesday.
He was known to be upset at recent campaign tactics used by his opponents.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Danforth didn’t criticize anyone by name. But his targets seemed clear: newly elected Missouri Republican Party chairman John Hancock, who has admitted to inaccurately referring to Schweich as Jewish; and the strategists who produced a radio ad describing Schweich as a “little bug” in the days before the suicide.
“There is one word to describe the person behind (the ad),” Danforth said. “Bully.”
Hancock declined to comment Tuesday. Political consultant Jeff Roe, linked by some to the controversial radio ad, did not respond Monday or Tuesday to multiple calls and emails seeking comment.
Danforth’s remarks could echo through the state’s political infrastructure for months. They come as Schweich’s friends struggle to understand his death — and as a clearer picture emerges of the anguish of his final days.
Few of Schweich’s colleagues would speak publicly about their friend, worried about causing stress for his family. Many talked with The Star on the condition that their names would not be used.
They identified no single event that pushed the politician to suicide. Instead, they said Schweich became increasingly convinced that powerful factions of the state’s Republican Party were pushing him aside, ending his chances of winning the state’s highest office.
They described Schweich as “intense” and “high-strung,” unable to fully dismiss the criticisms of his candidacy contained in ads and phone calls attributed to his opponents.
“He was a person easily hurt and quickly offended,” Danforth said during Tuesday’s service.
A Republican associate said that “once he got a bee in his bonnet, he could not put it down until it was resolved.”
Former spokesman Spence Jackson said Schweich was focused on a campaign he thought had turned ugly.
“They took this campaign straight into the gutter,” Jackson said. “That was the part that bothered him the most.”
The incorrect assertion that Schweich was Jewish — he had a Jewish grandfather but belonged to an Episcopal church — first surfaced last year when a donor called to say Hancock had referenced the faith in a phone conversation.
Schweich’s worry quickly grew to anger as other potential donors reported similar phone calls.
“He thought what they were doing was very, very wrong,” Jackson said. “And it is wrong.”
In his eulogy, Danforth said he spoke with Schweich at length on Feb. 24, two days before the suicide. The former senator, who is an Episcopal priest, said he urged the candidate to let someone else make an issue of Hancock’s alleged anti-Semitic conversations, in order to stay above the fray.
Schweich resisted that advice, Danforth said, and the two friends argued.
“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,” Danforth said Tuesday.
In a statement Friday, Hancock said he told others that Schweich was Jewish, but “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.”
Danforth rejected that argument Tuesday.
“The only reason for going around saying that someone is Jewish is to make political profit from religious bigotry,” he said.
“Someone said this was no different than saying a person is a Presbyterian,” he said. “Here’s how to test the credibility of that remark: When was the last time anyone sidled up to you and whispered into your ear that such-and-such a person is a Presbyterian?”
Schweich’s concerns went beyond Hancock’s alleged anti-Semitism.
He was generally upset at the candidacy of former Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, friends say. Schweich — whose political ambitions were well-known — believed he had earned a chance to run for governor without significant primary opposition.
Instead, St. Louis businessman Rex Sinquefield gave Hanaway’s campaign nearly $1 million in 2014, instantly moving her to front-runner status.
This year, during a GOP convention in Kansas City on Feb. 20 and 21, Hanaway won a poll of the state party’s executive board, and delegates chose Hancock as chairman. Hancock had worked with Hanaway’s campaign.
A Schweich associate was ousted as vice chair during those meetings, further feeding the candidate’s feelings of isolation.
Schweich seemed distracted at that Kansas City gathering, friends said last week, but not unusually so. The candidate discussed the campaign with several party figures that weekend, including U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, but did not make a public issue of Hancock’s remarks.
He was also concerned about a 60-second radio ad that aired Feb. 19 and 20 on Kansas City radio station KMBZ-AM during the “Rush Limbaugh” program.
The spot — which a Republican played for a Star reporter during the Feb. 20 session in Kansas City — used a voice mimicking President Frank Underwood of “House of Cards” to criticize Schweich as a “little bug” and likened him to Barney Fife, a comedy figure in 1960s television.
The commercial was sponsored by a committee called Citizens for Fairness in Missouri. Circumstantial evidence suggests the committee is connected with Roe and his company, Axiom Strategies.
The radio station’s records show the ad time was purchased by Smart Media Group, a political advertising firm in Virginia. Roe’s clients have used Smart Media repeatedly in recent campaigns, and Axiom Strategies recently received an award for a radio spot that used the Frank Underwood imitation.
Smart Media Group did not respond to a request for comment. The treasurer for Citizens for Fairness in Missouri did not return a phone call.
In January, the committee’s mailing address matched that of a lawyer involved with several committees linked to Roe in 2014, including Freedom PAC and Hanaway for Governor.
Hanaway has denied involvement with the commercial.
Records show Citizens for Fairness in Missouri purchased 13 spots at KMBZ-AM spread over two days, at a cost of $2,600. Some consultants said the ad’s limited run indicates it was not intended to move voters away from Schweich.
Rather, they believe the ad was meant to “rattle” Schweich by showing him that the primary campaign would be rough.
Some in the GOP said reaction to the commercial was overblown. It was tough, they said, but not as tough as other races in other states. Consultants, they said, should not be blamed for Schweich’s irrational act of self-destruction.
Still, other Republicans remain furious about the spot.
“The commercial had no factual basis whatsoever. None. Zero,” state Sen. Mike Parson said Monday.
“It speaks volumes as to how far out of hand things have become — to base attacks on someone’s appearance, and to make reference to one being small and being able to be squashed like a bug,” the Republican from Bolivar said.
Axiom Startegies is working for several Kansas City Council candidates — and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a possible presidential candidate.
Other Republicans said Hanaway’s campaign might be damaged if Axiom remains her strategist, or if John Hancock stays on as party chairman. Some party members said they expected pressure to grow for Hancock to quit following Danforth’s remarks.
“Party leaders all over the state are saying John ought to resign,” Jackson said. “If there’s any decency left in him, he ought to resign.”
The politics of the Schweich tragedy rattled around the state Tuesday but seemed far from the minds of many who attended Tuesday’s memorial service.
Schweich’s casket was draped in a Missouri flag and positioned near the altar of the Church of St. Michael and St. George in Clayton in St. Louis County. Dignitaries included Blunt, Gov. Jay Nixon and other statewide elected officials, as well as several members of the General Assembly. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill also attended.
All listened quietly as Danforth remembered his friend: married, a father of two, a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law. Diplomat. “The model for what a public servant should be,” Danforth said.
“Let’s decide that what may have been clever politics last week will work no longer. …
“The bully,” he said, “should get the blame. Not the victim.”