It’s been more than a week since Missouri gubernatorial candidate and state auditor Tom Schweich (R) took his own life, but the state’s political community is no closer to understanding what truly prompted the tragedy.
Schweich was reportedly planning to go public the same day that he died with allegations that the state Republican Party chairman, John Hancock, had been spreading misinformation about his religion. Some political figures have since demanded that Hancock resign his post over what Schweich believed was an anti-Semitic “whisper campaign” designed to hobble his support among evangelical Christian primary voters.
Hancock’s supporters say he’s no anti-Semite and argue there’s no evidence of a “whisper campaign,” though. Hancock’s radio co-host, Democratic consultant Michael Kelly, put it this way in a call to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter: “Anyone who rushes to the conclusions that are being drawn here is not thinking about the issues that surround a person’s decision to commit suicide.”
We may never know exactly what pushed Schweich over the edge to suicide, but those who knew him have said he was extremely distressed about the alleged whisper campaign.
Here’s a timeline of the major events that occurred in the nasty Republican gubernatorial primary before Schweich’s death and the finger-pointing that followed.
Catherine Hanaway, a Republican former Missouri House speaker and U.S. attorney, announced that she planned to run for governor in 2016. Hancock did some consulting work for Hanaway’s campaign in 2014.
A Schweich supporter named Kevin Childress said he had a conversation with Hancock’s brother-in-law, Peter Christy. During the conversation, Childress has alleged that Christy made a statement Childress felt was anti-Semitic.
In an interview this Sunday, Childress recounted to the Missouri Times what he told Schweich about that alleged conversation.
Days before his death, Schweich had identified Childress to the newspaper as the person who could corroborate his allegations of an anti-Semitic whisper campaign led by Hancock.
“I had one conversation with John’s brother-in-law last summer where Peter told me that the crowd in St. Louis that John ran with were saying that Tom was Jewish,” Childress told the newspaper. “That is what I told Tom.”
Christy, who worked with Childress at the time, denied that conversation took place.
“I never said that to Kevin,” he told the Missouri Times. “Kevin told me that the Hanaway people were anti-Semitic. I had never discussed Tom Schweich with John until his death.”
Rex Sinquefield, would-be Missouri kingmaker, donated $750,000 to Hanaway’s gubernatorial campaign. (By January 2015, his total donations to the candidate would reach $1 million.) Missouri currently places no limit on campaign contributions.
Schweich’s gubernatorial campaign, which wasn’t official at the time, immediately slammed Hanaway for accepting the funds and accused Sinquefield of “attempting to buy Missouri government.”
Hancock and Schweich talked by phone about the auditor’s belief that the GOP chairman had been telling people he was Jewish.
Hancock described the conversation in interviews on the day of Schweich’s death.
“He told me he was aware I had made anti-Semitic remarks and I told him it was not true,” Hancock told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Schweich formally announced his campaign for governor with a speech that cast Hanaway, his primary rival, as “bought and paid for” by a single wealthy donor. He also vowed to root out corruption in the state Capitol and curtail money in politics to some degree by limiting donations from a single person or entity to 25 percent of a candidate’s total funds.
A political action committee called Citizens For Fairness in Missouri launched a statewide radio ad campaign against Schweich. Officials with the PAC were linked to Hanaway’s gubernatorial campaign.
The ad featured a “House of Cards”-style narrator who accused Schweich of being “weak” and a pawn for Democrats in Washington, D.C. who plan to “squash him like a bug” with their own candidate, state Attorney General Chris Koster (D).
The Missouri Republican Committee elected Hancock as its chairman at the party’s annual Reagan-Lincoln Days convention.
The 68-member committee also chose Hanaway over Schweich for governor in the convention’s straw poll.
Schweich postponed a planned press conference to accuse Hancock of spreading misinformation about his faith after his advisors talked him out of it. Hancock told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he’d heard about Schweich’s plans and drove to Jefferson City, Mo. to attend the conference that never took place.
In the morning, Schweich made several calls to reporters to set up an interview at his home later in the afternoon to discuss rumors about his faith. He took his own life shortly after making those calls. Thanks to the statements of those who spoke to the auditor, we have a timeline of his final hours and a sense of how Schweich became increasingly anguished as he made those calls.
7:20 a.m.: Schweich’s chief of staff, Trish Vincent, spoke with him by phone. Vincent said in a statement that Schweich told her he’d spent most of the night awake and physically ill over rumors about his faith.
Vincent then called Martha Fitz, a friend of the Schweich family and assistant to the auditor’s mentor, former U.S. Sen. John Danforth (R-MO), to ask her to get in touch with Schweich’s wife, Kathy.
9:16 a.m.: Schweich invited an Associated Press reporter to come to his house that afternoon for an interview alongside another reporter from the Post-Dispatch.
9:32 a.m.: The Associated Press reporter talked with Schweich again to confirm the details of the planned interview.
9:40 a.m.: Fitz received a call from Kathy Schweich after leaving an earlier voicemail. The two spoke for a few minutes.
Tony Messenger, editorial page editor of the Post-Dispatch, said he received a call from Schweich at 9:41 a.m. but let it go to voicemail instead of picking up the phone.
After leaving that voicemail, Schweich appears to have joined the phone call between Fitz and his wife.
In a statement released last week, Fitz said Schweich threatened to kill himself during that call.
He then got off the phone, Fitz said, and handed it back to his wife.
“Seconds later,” Fitz said, “I heard Kathy say, ‘He shot himself!'”
9:48 a.m.: A 911 call was made from Schweich’s home. Schweich was taken to the hospital with a single gunshot wound and pronounced dead.
Later that day: Missouri politicians react with shock to the auditor’s sudden death and offered condolences to his family. Hanaway suspended her gubernatorial campaign out of respect for Schweich’s family as well.
Hancock wrote a letter to state Republican Party committee members in which he strongly denied spreading misinformation about Schweich’s religion. He acknowledged that he previously believed Schweich was Jewish but accused his political opponents, in particular Post-Dispatch editorial page editor Tony Messenger, of trying to “smear” him and the state party with allegations of anti-Semitism.
Schweich’s funeral service took place. Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth (R) strongly rebuked Hancock’s denials of an anti-Semitic “whispering campaign,” without mentioning him by name, in a eulogy.
After the funeral, Schweich spokesman Spence Jackson called for Hancock to resign as party chairman.
More Republican figures demanded Hancock’s resignation: former state House Speaker David Steelman (R), state Rep. Paul Fitzwater (R), and party stalwart Paul DeGregorio.
Some members of the Missouri Republican Party Committee went on the record in support of Hancock, arguing that there’s no evidence to prove Hancock spread misinformation about Schweich’s religion.