Barbara Shelly

The disrupter: Tom Schweich shakes up the Missouri governor’s race

Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich promises to spotlight ethics as he runs for governor in the 2016 election.
Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich promises to spotlight ethics as he runs for governor in the 2016 election. The Associated Press

Tom Schweich’s announcement that he’s running for governor of Missouri was greeted as an act of treason by some of his fellow Republicans, who already have cast their lot with former state House speaker Catherine Hanaway.

But actually, Schweich’s entry is a public service.

He is going to make his election bid about Rex Sinquefield’s outlandish campaign contributions, lobbyist influence in the Capitol, extravagant wining and dining of lawmakers and waste and fraud in government. A Tom Schweich for Governor campaign may not be great for the Republican Party, which has wounded itself with bitter primaries in recent years, but it is one of the best things that can happen to Missouri.

There was already a growing sense that state government has to change. That Sinquefield, the multimillionaire retired investment banker from St. Louis, can’t be allowed to set the agenda by dropping massive donations into the campaigns of legislators and statewide officials. That lawmakers have got to stop serving special interests and work for the people.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, and others are talking about a 2016 ballot measure that would legislate stricter ethical standards, including a cap on campaign contributions.

But Schweich, the newly re-elected state auditor, appears ready to stake his political career on calling out the people and groups corrupting Missouri government.

“You can’t get anything else done until you clean up the corruption,” he said Thursday during a stop in Kansas City.

Schweich provided an example. His auditor’s office has seen that public school districts are spending millions more than they should by not seeking competitive bids on bond underwriting deals. So he proposed legislation to require it.

“The bond lobby came in there and killed that bill so fast,” he said.

At his announcement in St. Louis that he was entering the governor’s race, Schweich blasted Sinquefield, who has spent well over $30 million on Missouri candidates and causes. The “Sinquefield machine,” he said, has tried to purchase candidates and exile Republican officeholders who depart from his agenda.

“This is not an army of patriots,” he said. “They are an army of mercenaries.”

Schweich noted that Hanaway, his Republican primary opponent, has received more than $1 million — over 70 percent of her total campaign fund — from Sinquefield and political groups that he bankrolls. He bashed state Attorney General Chris Koster, the lone Democratic candidate for governor so far, for taking donations from companies that his office regulates, and noted that Koster over the years also has received generous backing from Sinquefield.

Schweich returned the lone check he received from a Sinquefield-financed group, but he doesn’t exactly campaign out of a shoebox. He has more than $1 million in his campaign account and records show he has over the years received six-figure contributions from Sam Fox, a Republican businessman in St. Louis, and from David Humphreys, a Joplin construction executive.

But no one donor dominates Schweich’s account. He pledged this week to return contributions from a single donor if they grow to exceed 25 percent of his total campaign fund, and challenged other candidates to do the same.

If elected — which is anybody’s guess, at this point — Schweich said he would appoint a bipartisan “Missouri accountability commission.” Among other things, it would examine “the relationship between contributions and official actions.” In other words, did a campaign donation affect how an elected official voted or performed in office?

That would be something to see. And if Schweich can make ethics a burning campaign issue, the Missouri governor’s race will be very much worth watching.

Reach Barbara Shelly at 816-234-4594 or Twitter: @bshelly.