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Suicides By Missouri Politicians Raise Questions About State Ethics

Apr 9, 2015
Originally published on April 9, 2015 1:53 pm

In Missouri, two political suicides have stunned the Republican Party. In February, state Auditor Tom Schweich, a leading candidate for the party's nomination for governor, shot himself. Then just last month, his press secretary, Spence Jackson, took his own life. The tragedies have sparked fresh scrutiny of Missouri's increasingly bruising political system.

Schweich launched his campaign for governor with a scathing broadside against the state's Republican Party establishment.

"They've tried to buy the courts. They've tried to buy the media," he said. "It's deception and it's fraud and it's influence peddling. And it's the kind of thing that worries me about the future of the Republican Party in Missouri. And I thought we needed a voice that says, 'No.' "

Schweich had just sailed to a second term as state auditor and was polling well in the Republican primary for governor. Then, the stunning news: The 54-year-old died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Schweich left behind a wife, two kids and lots of unanswered questions. Friends said he was distraught over a coordinated assault from Republican colleagues backing his chief primary opponent, Catherine Hanaway. With voting still more than a year away, they'd already launched an attack ad, in the style of the Netflix series House of Cards.

"Tom Schweich, like him? No. Is he a weak candidate for governor? Absolutely, just look at him," one of the ads says. "He could be easily confused with the deputy sheriff of Mayberry. But, more importantly, he can be manipulated."

And that is exactly what Schweich's supporters say the attack ad was intended to do — manipulate the candidate, drive him out of the race. Former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth, an Episcopal priest and fellow Republican, gave the eulogy at Schweich's funeral.

"Words do hurt. Words can kill," he said. "And that has been proven right here in our home state."

Speaking from the pulpit, Danforth said that Schweich believed Missouri Republican Party Chairman John Hancock was mounting a "whisper campaign," telling political donors that Schweich was Jewish, which he wasn't. Hancock admitted mentioning this casually, but said he meant no harm. But Danforth said it was hurtful and anti-Semitic.

"The only reason to go around saying that someone is Jewish is to make political profit from religious bigotry," he said. Danforth went on to call the attack ad bullying, and the man behind it, Jeff Roe, a bully.

Just after the funeral, Schweich's press secretary, Spence Jackson, spoke up demanding that Hancock, the party chairman, resign. Danforth agreed, but other party leaders went silent. None of Roe's clients, including presidential candidate Ted Cruz, publicly broke ties. Hancock remains party chairman.

"And a month later it looked like the furor was dying down," says Dave Helling, political reporter for the Kansas City Star. "And Spence was worried about that. That's what his friends said, that he was quite upset. It looked like, in their words, like the other side might get away with it."

Just one month and one day after Schweich's suicide, Jackson called in sick. The following Monday police held a press conference in Jackson's hometown, Jefferson City.

"Initial assessment of the scene indicated that Jackson died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound," said Jefferson City Police Capt. Doug Shoemaker. "There were no signs of forced entry, nor any sign of a struggle."

It may look like another political suicide, though Jackson's note said only that he couldn't take being unemployed again.

"This story doesn't add up. What's missing here? What would cause two prominent Republicans to take their lives?" asks Marvin Overby, political science professor at the University of Missouri. "I don't think it would be the prospect of not being the Republican nominee for governor."

Overby says that being Jewish is not a big political liability in Missouri.
Rumors abound about other factors that may have pushed Schweich and Jackson to take their lives. Danforth says such talk amounts to a second whisper campaign. The facts, as he sees them, are pretty stark.

"Tom Schweich publicly attacked what he thought was corruption in state government, and within a month of that he was dead," he says. "Spence Jackson publicly called for the resignation of John Hancock, and within a month of doing so he was dead."

Danforth says Missouri politics has devolved into an arena where ruthless operatives, financed by a wealthy few, battle for power. He hopes the suicides will leave voters here to re-examine the political landscape.

Copyright 2017 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's go next to Missouri, where two suicides have stunned the state Republican Party. In February, a leading Republican candidate for governor shot himself dead. And then last month, his press secretary took his own life. These tragedies have people asking if there is something wrong with Missouri politics. Frank Morris of member station KCUR has the story.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Tom Schweich launched his campaign for governor with a scathing broadside against Missouri's Republican Party establishment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM SCHWEICH: They've tried to buy the courts. They've tried to buy the media. It's deception, and it's fraud, and it's influence peddling. And it's the kind of thing that worries me about the future of the Republican Party in Missouri. And I thought we needed a voice that says no.

MORRIS: Schweich had just sailed to a second term as state auditor. He was pulling well in the primary for governor. Then this...

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: However, the stunning news is, is that the 54-year-old Missouri state auditor Tom Schweich, a leading candidate for governor in 2016 for the Republicans, is dead today of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

MORRIS: Schweich left behind a wife, two kids and lots of unanswered questions. Friends said he was distraught over a coordinated assault from Republicans backing his chief primary opponent Catherine Hanaway. With voting still a year-and-a-half off, they'd already launched an attack ad in the style of the Netflix series "House Of Cards."

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tom Schweich - like him? No. Is he a weak candidate for governor? Absolutely - just look at him. He could be easily confused for the deputy sheriff of Mayberry. But more importantly, he can be manipulated.

MORRIS: And that is exactly what Schweich's supporters say the attack ad was intended to do - manipulate the candidate, drive him out of the race. Former U.S. Senator Jack Danforth, an Episcopal priest and a fellow Republican, gave the eulogy at Schweich's funeral.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUNERAL)

JACK DANFORTH: Words do hurt. Words can kill. And that has been proven right here in our home state.

MORRIS: Speaking from the pulpit, Danforth said Schweich believed that Missouri Republican Party Chairman John Hancock had been mounting a whisper campaign, telling political donors that Schweich was Jewish, which he wasn't. Hancock admitted mentioning this casually, but said he meant no harm. Danforth said it was hurtful and anti-Semitic.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUNERAL)

DANFORTH: The only reason for going around saying that someone is Jewish is to make political profit from religious bigotry.

MORRIS: Danforth went on to call the attack ad bullying and the man behind it, political operative Jeff Roe, a bully. Just after the funeral, Schweich's press secretary Spence Jackson spoke up, demanding that party chairman Hancock resign. Danforth agreed, but other party leaders went silent. None of Roe's clients, including presidential candidate Ted Cruz, publicly broke ties. Hancock remains party chairman.

DAVE HELLING: And a month later, it looked like the furor was dying down.

MORRIS: Dave Helling covers politics for the Kansas City Star.

HELLING: And Spence was worried about that. That's what his friends said - that he was quite upset that it looked like, in their words, the other side might get away with it.

MORRIS: A month and a day after Schweich's suicide, Jackson called in sick. And the following Monday, police held a press conference in Jackson's home town, Jefferson City.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DOUG SHOEMAKER: Initial assessment of the scene indicated that Jackson died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. There were no signs of forced entry nor any signs of a struggle.

MORRIS: Jackson's note said only that he couldn't take being unemployed again.

MARVIN OVERBY: The story doesn't add up. What's missing here? What would cause two prominent Republicans to take their lives? I don't think it would be the prospect of not being the Republican nominee for governor.

MORRIS: Marvin Overby, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, says that being Jewish is not a big political liability in Missouri. Rumors about other factors that may have pushed Schweich and Jackson to take their own lives abound. Former Senator Danforth says such talk amounts to a second whispering campaign. The facts, as he sees them, are pretty stark.

DANFORTH: Tom Schweich publicly attacked what he thought was corruption in state government. And within a month of that, he was dead. Spence Jackson publicly called for the resignation of John Hancock. And with a month of doing so, he was dead.

MORRIS: Danforth says that Missouri politics has devolved into an arena where ruthless operatives financed by a wealthy few battle for power. He hopes the suicides will lead voters here to re-examine the political landscape. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.