Barbara Shelly

Barbara Shelly: A year after Tom Schweich’s suicide, Missouri politics are as mean as ever

Former U.S. senator John Danforth, an ordained minister, delivered the eulogy at the funeral for Missouri auditor Tom Schweich on March 3, 2015, in Clayton, Mo. Danforth denounced the ugly nature of American politics while eulogizing Schweich, suggesting that political bullying led his friend to kill himself.
Former U.S. senator John Danforth, an ordained minister, delivered the eulogy at the funeral for Missouri auditor Tom Schweich on March 3, 2015, in Clayton, Mo. Danforth denounced the ugly nature of American politics while eulogizing Schweich, suggesting that political bullying led his friend to kill himself. The Associated Press

After state auditor Tom Schweich took his own life last Feb. 26, as the pressures of his Republican primary race for governor mounted, people called for an end to the politics of destruction in Missouri.

They may as well have been shouting into a hurricane.

A year later, remorse over Schweich’s death at age 54 has all but disappeared. Money from the unlimited tap allowed by Missouri campaign finance law is flooding campaign coffers. Secret contributors are sending “dark” money to entities specially created to launch ugly ads and sleazy mailings.

The characters who figured prominently in the drama surrounding Schweich’s suicide have all survived and prospered.

Jeff Roe, the political operative who commissioned the despicable radio commercial that played into Schweich’s despair, has taken his bag of dirty tricks, along with more refined tactics, to the presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

His Kansas City-based company, Axiom Strategies, is doing campaign work for Republican candidates running for Missouri offices this year: Catherine Hanaway in the governor’s race; Will Kraus in the secretary of state’s race; Kurt Schaefer in the attorney general’s race; and Eric Schmitt in the treasurer’s race.

John Hancock, whom Schweich believed was whispering to people that Schweich was Jewish, although he was Episcopalian, continues as chairman of the Missouri Republican Party.

“It’s really a great disappointment,” former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth said.

In a homily at Schweich’s funeral, Danforth decried the political bullying that took place in the weeks before the auditor’s death. “Let’s make Tom’s death a turning point here in our state,” he implored.

People thanked him, Danforth said. But almost no one wanted to stand with him.

“I’m not going to get involved because I’m afraid of these people,” Danforth said one prominent Republican told him.

Danforth told me he knows of candidates who hire Roe because they want to win at all costs, and others who hire him because they fear what he’ll do if they’re not on his team.

That sounds about right. And Roe isn’t the only bottom-feeding operative in Missouri. He’s just the best at it.

Some of the most vile campaign material we’ll see in state races between now and November will come from groups set up so that they can accept money from anonymous donors. That’s the vehicle Roe used to finance an ad that ridiculed Schweich’s appearance and called him a weakling.

The Missouri General Assembly could require more disclosure of the people who finance these cowardly attacks. It would have been a fitting way to honor Schweich in last year’s legislative session. But almost no one talked about it.

One who did was Republican Sen. Mike Parson, who stood up on the Senate floor and denounced “the negative side of politics and the people that work under fictitious names and fictitious mailboxes.”

Parson, a farmer from Bolivar, Mo., is in a primary race for lieutenant governor, so far running a clean campaign.

“It’s a shame to me that if you cannot get elected on your own merits then maybe you’ll get elected by destroying someone else,” he told me. “I think Missouri is better than that.”

We shall see. “The antidote to the problem is public pushback,” said Danforth. He’s right. Candidates who benefit from vicious anonymous attacks on opponents are rarely innocent bystanders. They should be condemned for what goes on for their benefit.

Schweich was a brilliant but troubled soul who had the courage to call out the ugliness in politics but lacked the strength to withstand its onslaught. To continue to accept politics as usual is to diminish his work and the tragedy of his death.

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