Rough-and-tumble politics may have led Schweich into despair

Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich in 2014.  

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Former U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Sam Fox still recalls the day many years ago when a friend asked him to speak to a young Bryan Cave lawyer who was writing a book on management. Grudgingly, the busy businessman and philanthropist agreed to spare half an hour as a favor.

“An hour later, I remember getting out of my seat and going over to my assistant and saying, ‘Cancel everything for the rest of the afternoon,’ ” Fox marveled. “We spoke all afternoon. He was one of the most engaging men.”

Late last week, that man, state Auditor Tom Schweich, was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. Minutes before, he reportedly had phoned two reporters to schedule a time to discuss what he evidently felt was an effort to undermine his Republican bid for governor by implying that he was Jewish. His death placed the promising politician at the center of a tragic and bizarre story that has rocked state government and left some people questioning the real-world consequences of cutthroat politics.

“I think that Tom’s death really kind of shook up Jeff City. I really do,” said Fox, a longtime supporter and friend who was a significant donor to Schweich’s effort to take the governor’s mansion. “I couldn’t believe, from a lot of the pictures that I saw and stories I heard, about all the tears that took place in Jeff City as the word went around.” 


More religion than politics

Schweich, a longtime lawyer who worked in various roles with former U.S. Sen. John Danforth and President George W. Bush’s administration, unseated Democratic incumbent Susan Montee in a 2010 election to become the state’s top fiscal watchdog. Recently reelected with little opposition, he launched his campaign for 

the Republican gubernatorial nomination earlier this year.

But on Thursday, Feb. 26, Schweich left a voicemail inviting St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial page editor Tony Messenger to a briefing at his home regarding a matter that he described as “more a religion story than a politics story.” 

Just two days earlier, Schweich had apparently confided to Messenger his belief that Republican Party chairman John Hancock had been telling potential donors that Schweich was Jewish in an effort, Schweich felt, intended to harm his campaign and swing support to fellow Republican Catherine Hanaway, according to a published account by Messenger. 

The Associated Press reported that Schweich also placed a call to one of its reporters that Thursday morning to issue the same invitation. The AP said Schweich had discussed the issue with a reporter three days earlier and was ready to go public. Describing Schweich as “naturally high-strung,” the news service characterized him as “unusually agitated” during the Monday conversation, “his voice sometimes quivering and his legs and hands shaking.”

Schweich, who identified as Episcopalian, was not Jewish but did have a Jewish grandfather.

Messenger wrote: “He called again on Wednesday to tell me that he believed there was a chance that Mr. Hancock would resign and that he was holding off on his news conference to see if that was going to happen. He also told me he had talked to somebody in the St. Louis office of the (Anti-Dfamation League) and they told him that they would likely issue a statement of some sort to the press after his news conference.”

Karen Aroesty, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois, confirmed that she had spoken with Schweich regarding anti-Semitism but said she could not reveal the content of the confidential exchange.

“When we closed our last conversation, I really wasn’t sure whether he had made a decision to make a public statement about his concerns,” she said. “When I learned the news on Thursday,  I was shocked and stunned and very sad.”

In a statement that blasted Messenger as a “liberal Post-Dispatch columnist,” Hancock blamed political opponents for “using this tragic incident as an opportunity to criticize me and to smear the Missouri Republican Party.”

Hancock’s statement said that while he had erroneously believed that Schweich was Jewish, he felt that his religion was no different a part of his biography than his hometown or what law school he attended.

“While I do not recall doing so, it is possible that I mentioned Tom’s faith in passing during one of the many conversations I have each day,” Hancock said. “There was absolutely nothing malicious about my intent, and I certainly was not attempting to ‘inject religion’ into the governor’s race, as some have suggested (in fact, I have never met with donors or raised money on behalf of the Hanaway campaign.)”

Calling Schweich a “tenacious, energetic and effective elected official,” Hancock wrote that he was saddened to know that some of the late auditor’s final thoughts were about a disagreement with him.

“While those who know me understand I would never denigrate anyone’s faith, Tom had mistakenly believed that I had attacked his religion,” Hancock said. 

Hanaway’s campaign declined a request for an interview but released a statement offering  condolences to the family while calling Schweich an “extraordinary man with an extraordinary record.”

“Our state and nation are better places because of his tireless dedication to duty and service,” it read.

The office of Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, a Democrat running for his party’s nomination for U.S. Senate, also declined an interview and issued a statement online.

“Tom Schweich was a devoted public servant that I feel fortunate to have gotten to know as a friend and colleague over the past few years,” said Kander, who is Jewish. “Whether he was serving as our state Auditor, the U.S. Coordinator for Counternarcotics and Justice Reform in Afghanistan, or working at the State Department, Tom always fought tirelessly for the people he was serving.”

Eric Greitens, another possible Republican candidate in the gubernatorial race who has formed an exploratory committee, released a statement expressing condolences and sadness at the tragedy. A spokesman said that Greitens, who is also Jewish, would refrain from further comment at this time out of respect for the family. 

‘Squash him like a bug’

For Democratic state Rep. Stacey Newman, the news hit close to home. She knew Schweich well, and he resided in her mid-St. Louis County district.

“We were friends,” she told the Jewish Light. “Our daughters went to high school and the University of Missouri together.”

Newman said she was trying to write down her recollections of their last conversation together.  She remembered that Schweich had called each time she won reelection to congratulate her, something she said was unusual across party lines.

“We shared a lot of friends and neighbors in common,” Newman said sadly. “He actually exemplified someone who was in public service for policy and not for politics.”

Newman said Schweich had never discussed with her any concerns about anti-Jewish sentiment.

“No, he didn’t. I would have loved to talk to him about it,” she said. “We will never know, but we have seen other areas of discrimination used so blatantly that it is easy to understand.”

Still, Newman said she is unaware of any anti-Semitic actions taken against a Jewish politician in the state, nor does she feel there is an atmosphere of anti-Semitism at the capitol. She did, however, express concern over the use of analogies to Hitler, Nazism or the Holocaust that she has heard in debate over the years. In one instance, such language prompted her to write a letter to all of her House colleagues inviting them to tour the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center with her.

“I had a great response,” she said. “Many of the legislators where I am very much on the opposite side of with policy reached out to me, and we’ve had some great discussions.”

Newman said she thinks rhetoric can sometimes get out of hand.

“I do know that statewide politics can get very ugly, very quickly,” she said. “I’ve been through some huge races myself, and I truly think this is a lesson and an opportunity for all of us to say how important it is for us as candidates to stick with issues and to not be attempting to win office by inflaming.”

Fox remembered Schweich as an articulate and deeply perceptive man gifted with a sometimes blinding intellect.

“You would get three words into a sentence, and he could finish the sentence,” Fox said, recalling fast-paced talks the candidate had given, often without notes. “He’s like a machine gun, that’s how fast his mind works. He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever been around.”

After their initial conversation, Fox followed Schweich’s career, which included helping Danforth’s investigation in 1999 of the deadly 1993 siege of the Branch Davidians compound in Waco, Texas. Attorney General Janet Reno had appointed Danforth as special counsel. Fox said Schweich made an impression with his thorough, meticulous work in the investigation.

Later, Schweich would show the same skill in acting as chief of staff for Danforth and two other U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations. In 2005, Bush appointed him to a top position in the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, where Schweich tackled the problem of opium poppy production in Afghanistan.

But Fox said that despite Schweich’s involvement in public service, Schweich had little tolerance for or understanding of politics’ more brutal aspects. The one elective office he’d held was auditor, a low-profile statewide position won in a race that hadn’t been particularly dirty.

A race for governor  promised to be a muddy slog. One attack ad from an independent group called Schweich weak and an easily manipulated pawn, mocking him with a comparison to TV’s rural Deputy Barney Fife while saying sarcastically, “Just look at him,” and concluding with a promise that Democrats would “squash him like the little bug that he is.”

Fox said such attacks might have affected Schweich “because of Tom’s makeup, where he is such a straight arrow.”

“He was just an absolute outright, straightforward, wonderful, honest individual,” Fox said. “Anybody who dealt differently than that upset him.

“He had never been in politics. He never contributed to candidates. He just didn’t know or want to know anything about politics.”

Fox, who is Jewish, said Schweich had mentioned to him his concerns over an alleged whisper campaign linking Schweich to Judaism. 

“It wasn’t a long conversation,” Fox said. “It was mixed in with other things that he wanted to talk to me about, and he mentioned it almost in passing.”

But Fox said his friend many have been affected by negative campaigning in general. Fox said that while bigoted voters exist, they are a small group, and he said he doesn’t feel that anti-Jewish sentiment has much effect on political races, referring to the success of former lieutenant governors such as Ken Rothman and Harriett Woods in attaining statewide office here.

“I don’t think anti-Semitism is a significant factor in Jewish people getting elected to public office in the state of Missouri,” he said. 

Behind closed doors

St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman agrees. The former state representative, who is Jewish, is setting his sights on the attorney general’s office next year. Zimmerman said that in dealing with evangelical voters of both parties, he’s generally found warmth and respect and never had a negative experience because of religion.

“I have, if anything, been pleasantly surprised by how deep the levels of mutual respect go,” said Zimmerman, a Democrat. “You think about things like the shared commitment to the security of Israel, for example.”

He recalled how his grandmother described having snowballs thrown at her and being called a “dirty Jew” as a young woman.

“I’m no Pollyanna on this subject,” Zimmerman said. “There was a time not so long ago that, in some parts of America, that was a fact of life.”

But he said that today, if anything, being a fellow person of faith has made it easier to connect with voters around the state.

Zimmerman said he did not know Schweich well but described him as someone in politics for the right reasons.

“You want to see more people like that, and it is devastating when this happens to anyone, let alone one of the good ones,” he said.

The Jewish community has long had complicated ties with the Republican Party. The traditionally Democratic constituency’s progressive views on church-state issues and domestic affairs have often been unpopular with Republicans. However, in recent years, relations have warmed between the GOP’s rural evangelical base and Jewish groups, both of which are strong supporters of Israel.

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said he couldn’t say how much a candidate’s Judaism might hurt outstate, where antipathy toward the state’s urban areas might be just as powerful a force.

“Whether the Jewish faith is a separate disadvantage from being from St. Louis, it is really hard for us political scientists to sort out,” he said. “We can’t draw a conclusion based on the evidence we’ve got.”

The ADL’s Aroesty said her organization’s tracking of anti-Semitic incidents has shown an increase in Missouri and southern Illinois over the past year, to 11 from two, including the deadly shooting near the Jewish Community Center shooting outside Kansas City last year. 

Aroesty also recalled a 2004 medical malpractice case involving a local eye care center in which one juror’s remarks about a witness being a “Jewish witch” and a “penny-pinching Jew” ultimately led to a ruling by the state’s Supreme Court.She said it was a reality that Jews are still sometimes looked at as “the other” due to faith.

“Do people talk behind closed doors about people’s religion? Yeah, they do,” she said.

Still, Aroesty doesn’t believe that being Jewish is considered a negative in running for office,  nor is it seen as unusual these days. She said the bigger concern may be too great a focus on Christianity in the development of public policy.

“Does that mean that there is anti-Semitism in that? I don’t think so,” she said.

However, she said, Schweich was not the first candidate to phone her with concerns.

“It has happened,” Aroesty said. “His call was not unique in what he was presenting. We are periodically brought into these conversations.”

Rhinoceroses, prayers and wine

State Rep. Sue Meredith is quick with a response when asked whether anti-Jewish sentiment has ever harmed her politically.

“Not in my district,” said the Democrat, who represents the central corridor, including the area of Jewish Community Center. “I haven’t had any kind of repercussions to the negative on that at all – only on a positive note.”

Still, sometimes people don’t know that she’s Jewish though she wears a chai (life in Hebrew) symbol on a chain around her neck.

“People either know what it is or they don’t,” Meredith said. “I had one person ask me if it was a rhinoceros. If it was the Star of David, I might get a different reaction.”

Meredith recalled that the chaplain for the House used to offer a prayer invoking Jesus – until she approached him about it.

“I said it was a very nice prayer if you are Christian, but not everyone is,” she said.

After that, she said the prayer became more inclusive.

“I had one guy during Passover last year specifically ask for that date,” Meredith said. “He was trying to find a rabbi for us to give the invocation.” 

Meredith said she never met Schweich and didn’t know whether his allegations were true. She said there isn’t that much “palace intrigue” in the capitol, although people do talk.

“There is lots of gossip here, lots of people trying to get things done backstage that nobody knows what’s going on except those people involved in whatever that particular effort is,” she said.

Recently elected State Sen. Jill Schupp said she thinks it is important to remember that, at the present time, no one really knows why Schweich apparently took his own life and that no one should presume it was due to his Jewish ancestry.

The St. Louis County Democrat said she’s never found her Judaism to be an impediment to electoral success.

“It doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t instances that occur in Jefferson City that demonstrate to me that people either know very little about Jews or the Jewish religion, or that people come in with some strong biases and prejudices,” she said.

Schupp recalled one instance in which she was at a dinner with colleagues and offered to buy the wine. One of her companions joked “Well, I wouldn’t have expected that from you.”

Later in the evening, he apologized. She said it was unclear whether the comment was an attempt to play off Jewish stereotypes of frugality.

“I didn’t want to ask the question because I didn’t want to hear that that was the answer,” she said.

Other experiences were more positive. Schupp remembered when one colleague gave a prayer that invoked the name of Jesus. The other member later apologized, noting that she simply hadn’t thought about it.

“I was grateful to her because she got it,” Schupp said. “She understood that that might have been offensive to someone who was Jewish. I was very grateful that one person at a time, maybe people are learning or understanding or trying to overcome a singular worldview.”

She said she wonders whether Schweich’s death might not create a time for reflection on the divisive nature of the political system. 

“Maybe this is a moment in time when we stop and reflect on what it is that we are looking for in our elected officials and how our prejudices get in the way of allowing people to feel confident and comfortable in moving forward in what they believe is in the best interest in the state,” Schupp said.