Before his apparently self-inflicted death on Thursday, Tom Schweich was the Missouri political establishment’s worst nightmare.
He wasn’t part of it and he couldn’t be drawn in. He loathed it, in fact. The wining and dining. The enormous campaign donations. The way lobbyists and political operatives and out-of-state groups write laws and set policy and turn the citizens of Missouri into just bystanders to the establishment’s games.
Schweich knew the establishment. He’d spent four years watching it as state auditor.
He’d seen a citizen ballot initiative torpedoed by the profligate spending of the payday loan industry — a group that Schweich reviled because of its exploitation of the poor.
He’d watched his own proposed legislation crash into the jutted rocks of a powerful lobby. Schweich had wanted the General Assembly to require school districts to save money by seeking competitive bids on bond underwriting. The bond companies swooped in like sharks for the kill.
In particular, Schweich abhorred what he called “the Sinquefield machine.” He accused Rex Sinquefield, the retired investment banker from St. Louis, of undermining democracy in Missouri by giving candidates millions of dollars and bankrolling a vast political apparatus to impose his “free market” will on the state.
Schweich was right about all of that and he intended to make his case as he ran for the Republican nomination to be governor of Missouri.
But Schweich was a flawed messenger. He was volatile, prone to fits and outbursts. He took things too personally.
Schweich’s opponents in the political establishment knew this, of course. And they knew that one outburst, caught on camera, would drive a stake through Schweich’s campaign.
Why else produce the bottom-feeding radio ad that hit the airways days before the Missouri Republican Party’s annual meeting last weekend in Kansas City?
The ad was paid for by an incongruously named group called “Citizens for Fairness in Missouri.” Its treasurer is Seth Shumaker, a Kirksville, Mo., lawyer once suspended for unprofessional conduct.
Until recently the treasurer was James C. Thomas III, a Kansas City lawyer with close ties to campaign consultant Jeff Roe. Roe is working for Catherine Hanaway, a Republican candidate for governor who has received more than $1 million from Sinquefield.
In other words, the Missouri political establishment at work.
The ad ridiculed Schweich’s appearance, called him a weak candidate and said he could “be manipulated,” a lie that was sure to get the auditor’s blood boiling.
That ad was produced for an audience of one — Tom Schweich. It was designed to provoke a blowup, although certainly not in the way events played out.
Before last week, Schweich seemed to be at the top of his game. But he left the Kansas City meeting distraught about the Missouri Republican Party’s selection of John Hancock as its chairman. Schweich believed Hancock was falsely telling people he was Jewish. Hancock has denied that.
With a year and a half to go until the 2016 Republican primary, it was clear that running for governor of Missouri was going to be a nasty business.
Schweich was a fragile candidate who held out a shining hope — that Missouri politics and government can be better than they are. I don’t know if he could have been elected, or how good a governor he would have been. I just know that many of us who are sickened by what goes on in Jefferson City cherished that hope and appreciated the man who carried it.
It is gone now, at least for the moment. The likely candidates for governor, Hanaway and Democrat Chris Koster, are embedded in the establishment. They’ll differ on some issues, but both will be content to let the money flowing so freely into Missouri politics determine how the state is run.
What a tragedy. For Tom Schweich, for his loved ones, for his state.