Sui­cides rat­tle Mis­souri GOP

The party is torn amid ‘fin­ger-point­ing’ af­ter the deaths of a gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date and aide.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Matt Pearce matt.pearce@la­times.com Twit­ter: @mat­tdpearce Times staff writer Kur­tis Lee in Los An­ge­les con­trib­uted to this re­port.

ST. LOUIS — When Mis­souri’s state au­di­tor and Repub­li­can gu­ber­na­to­rial hope­ful Tom Sch­we­ich shot him­self in his home in Fe­bru­ary, his death shat­tered those close to him.

And by com­ing at a time he had ac­cused the state party chair­man of spread­ing anti-Semitic whis­pers about him, Sch­we­ich’s sui­cide has also sent tremors of di­vi­sion through the high­est lev­els of the state’s po­lit­i­cal class. It set off a wide-rang­ing de­bate over whether his sui­cide re­sulted from men­tal health is­sues kept pri­vate and whether it was fed by the state’s vit­ri­olic pol­i­tics.

The frac­tured state Repub­li­can Party was cleaved anew this week by a sim­i­lar gun­shot sui­cide by one of Sch­we­ich’s top aides. Spence Jack­son, a re­spected and ex­pe­ri­enced Repub­li­can spokesman, left a note say­ing he couldn’t face be­ing job­less again.

“Within the Repub­li­can Party, you have a lot of fin­ger-point­ing go­ing on,” says Bill Ken­ney, the 60-year-old Mis­souri public ser­vice com­mis­sioner and a for­mer Repub­li­can state Se­nate floor leader, adding that Sch­we­ich’s death and that of his deputy pre­sented a sce­nario he’d never seen be­fore in pol­i­tics.

“This is just bizarre,” Ken­ney said. “Most peo­ple are in shock.”

The ex­act pre­cip­i­tant for the two deaths may never be determined, but, par­tic­u­larly in Sch­we­ich’s case, the ex­ten­u­at­ing cir­cum­stances ap­peared to have been known by many.

Sch­we­ich didn’t have the sup­port of the most con­ser­va­tive fac­tions that form the state party’s base. But he did have the back­ing of Mis­souri’s more mod­er­ate, pa­tri­cian Repub­li­cans, in­clud­ing for­mer U.S. Sen. John C. Dan­forth.

Sch­we­ich’s main op­po­nent in the GOP race for gover­nor was for­mer state House Speaker Catherine Han­away, the ben­e­fi­ciary of at least $900,000 in dona­tions from con­ser­va­tive St. Louis bil­lion­aire Rex Sin­que­field. (Such dona­tions are legal in Mis­souri, which has no limit on con­tri­bu­tions or lob­by­ist gifts.) Although he had a com­par­a­tively healthy cam­paign ac­count, Sch­we­ich was so riled by Sin­que­field’s dona­tions that he used his gu­ber­na­to­rial an­nounce­ment to attack the bil­lion­aire.

Then came a cam­paign ad linked to a Han­away strate­gist that ridiculed Sch­we­ich’s phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance.

“Is he a weak can­di­date for gover­nor?” the ad asked of the slen­der and bald­ing can­di­date. “Ab­so­lutely, just look at him. He could eas­ily be con­fused for the deputy chief of Mayberry” — the ever-ris­i­ble Bar­ney Fife.

A third devel­op­ment seemed to hit Sch­we­ich even harder: what he de­scribed as a whis­per cam­paign as­sert­ing that he was Jewish. Dan­forth spoke to Sch­we­ich two days be­fore the sui­cide.

“The sole sub­ject of the con­ver­sa­tion was the cam­paign against him,” the for­mer se­na­tor said, adding that 90% of the con­ver­sa­tion in­volved Sch­we­ich’s con­cern about anti-Semitic com­ments.

David Humphreys, a top party donor, would later sign an af­fi­davit say­ing that he’d heard the state’s new party chair­man, John Han­cock, re­fer­ring to Sch­we­ich as Jewish and im­ply­ing “that be­ing Jewish is a neg­a­tive at­tribute for Tom Sch­we­ich’s gu­ber­na­to­rial race.”

Sch­we­ich, who also had blamed Han­cock, was not Jewish. Han­cock, whose of­fice did not re­spond to an in­ter­view re­quest, has de­nied run­ning a whis­per cam­paign, although he said he may have told oth­ers that Sch­we­ich was Jewish be­fore learn­ing he was not. Be­fore he was elected state party chair­man, Han­cock had worked for Han­away.

Be­ing iden­ti­fied as Jewish would prob­a­bly be a li­a­bil­ity for a Repub­li­can can­di­date, said Ken­neth War­ren, pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at St. Louis Uni­ver­sity. He added that only three Jewish can­di­dates had won statewide of­fice since Mis­souri’s found­ing in the 1800s. (One is the cur­rent sec­re­tary of state, Ja­son Kan­der, a Demo­crat.)

“It has re­ally ripped apart the Repub­li­can Party here,” War­ren said. “Peo­ple are buzzing on both sides. They know this can hurt them. They know this is not good for the Repub­li­can Party.”

With more than a year un­til the gen­eral elec­tion, many Repub­li­cans across the state and in the Capitol are try­ing to lie low.

“They just want a re­prieve. They just want time to go by,” said a for­mer Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tor still in­volved in party pol­i­tics, who would only dis­cuss the sen­ti­ments anony­mously. “They just want the [leg­isla­tive] ses­sion to be over, they want the year to be over, they just want to go home and heal.... Re­ally, ev­ery­one’s de­mor­al­ized.”

But the cam­paign it­self is pro­ceed­ing. Han­away, the front-run­ner, called the deaths of Sch­we­ich and his aide, Jack­son, tragic.

“While like all Mis­souri­ans I mourn the loss of two great public ser­vants, the rea­sons I am run­ning for gover­nor have not changed,” she said in a writ­ten state­ment. “My ex­pe­ri­ence, abil­ity and pos­i­tive vi­sion for a bet­ter Mis­souri have not changed. I plan to con­tinue to build upon my grass-roots and donor sup­port and begin to talk to Mis­souri­ans about so­lu­tions to cre­ate more qual­ity jobs, bet­ter schools and bet­ter roads.”

An­other pos­si­ble can­di­date has re­cently sur­faced: Eric Gre­it­ens, a for­mer Navy SEAL and Rhodes scholar who started a non­profit that pro­vides ser­vices to vet­er­ans. He is also Jewish.

“I’m proud to be Jewish,” Gre­it­ens said in an in­ter­view with the Jewish Daily For­ward, adding that “the best way to honor the le­gacy of a per­son is to sup­port the living.”

GOP state Rep. Kevin En­gler knew both Sch­we­ich and Jack­son. As the state’s frac­tious Repub­li­can Party moves to­ward the 2016 elec­tion, he said, there will be squab­bles. But he’s hop­ing for a more pos­i­tive tone.

“When tragedies like this hap­pen, it makes peo­ple re­ally look at what’s im­por­tant,” En­gler said. “This is just pol­i­tics and an elec­tion. There’s plenty more im­por­tant.”

Jeff Rober­son As­so­ci­ated Press

THE FE­BRU­ARY DEATH of Tom Sch­we­ich, fol­lowed by the sui­cide this week of aide Spence Jack­son, fed a de­bate over the state party’s vit­ri­olic pol­i­tics. Some had mocked Sch­we­ich as weak; oth­ers said he was Jewish.

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