Tom Schweich was not supposed to become national news this early, and certainly not for this reason. But when the Missouri state auditor and Republican gubernatorial candidate shot himself in the head just three weeks ago in a suburb west of St. Louis, he posthumously became one of the most fascinating and mysterious stories in American politics.
The hours prior to Schweich's death appear to have been very frantic. The auditor, age 54, spent much of the morning of February 26 personally arranging a set of interviews at his home with both local and national journalists—a perhaps unusual step for a political candidate with a staff at his disposal. At 9:41 a.m., after speaking with a reporter at the AP, Schweich left a voicemail with someone at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, requesting an interview. Immediately after, he spoke to a family friend named Martha Fritz, who had been asked by Schweich's chief of staff, Trish Vincent, to alert Schweich's wife: Schweich's behavior had worried Vincent and she suggested that his wife check on his well-being. Fritz later said in a statement that during that phone call Schweich threatened to kill himself. She said that seconds after handing the phone back to his wife, Schweich went ahead with that threat. At 9:48 a.m., just seven minutes after Schweich left a voicemail with the Post-Dispatch about an interview, his wife called 911 to report that her husband had shot himself in the head.
In attempting to understand why Schweich—who officially announced he would be seeking the Republican nomination for governor of Missouri just less than a month prior to his death—might have taken his own life, it's important to understand why he was setting up those interviews in the first place.
Two days prior, Schweich had scheduled a press conference. The subject of that press conference, it was revealed after his death, was a rumor he believed local politicians in his party were spreading about his faith. Specifically, Schweich was going to publicly accuse Missouri Republican party chairman John Hancock of telling donors and other important figures in the local party that Schweich was Jewish. Schweich was eventually talked out of holding that press conference, but had decided to reveal his allegations against Hancock in the interviews he was setting up the day that he died.
But that never happened. Schweich did not appear to give any stated reason for his suicide to either his wife or Fritz, but the timing is certainly, well, interesting. Did Schweich kill himself because the leader of his party in his state was telling people that he was Jewish? Or was it something else?
The Religion Theory
The relevant history between Schweich and Hancock is short but fractious. Last summer, a man named Kevin Childress, who is identified in news reports as a "Schweich supporter," convinced Schweich that Hancock was bad-mouthing him. Childress apparently told Schweich that—deep breath, here—Hancock's brother-in-law Peter Christy told him at a party that Hancock was telling people that Schweich was Jewish.
"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 said. "That is what I told Tom."
As recently as yesterday, Hancock denied to the press that he had started a whisper campaign against Schweich based on his religion. Hancock says he made the same declaration to Schweich when the two talked about Schweich's concerns on the phone in November, but it's clear that Schweich believed that his own party was lining up against him—and he might have been right.
Hancock was actually only elected as the chairman of the Missouri GOP the weekend before Schweich died. Prior to that he had served as the party's "executive director" and hosted a local political radio show. But most pertinent to Schweich, and what appears to have led him to believe that his party was conspiring against him, was work that Hancock's consulting firm had done early in 2014 for Catherine Hanaway, a former speaker of the house in Missouri and the candidate who was Schweich's primary competition in the race for the party's gubernatorial nomination. (Hancock noted his work for Hanaway's campaign in a statement this week.)
Schweich's specific allegation was that Hancock was telling wealthy and important donors in the heavily Catholic suburbs of St. Louis that Schweich was Jewish as a means of undermining his campaign and furthering Hanaway's. (One of Schweich's grandfathers was Jewish, but Schweich himself identified as Episcopalian.) Hancock, again, has denied all of this, but in doing so has been making a pretty shitty case for himself.
Here is how Hancock characterized his actions to the AP in an interview shortly after Schweich's death:
Hancock told the AP on Thursday that Schweich had talked to him about the alleged comments last November, but not since then. Hancock, who is a political consultant, said he held meetings last fall with prospective donors for a project to register Catholic voters. Hancock said that if he had mentioned that Schweich was Jewish, it would have been in the context that Hanaway was Catholic but that was no indication of how Catholics were likely to vote.
"I don't have a specific recollection of having said that, but it's plausible that I would have told somebody that Tom was Jewish because I thought he was, but I wouldn't have said it in a derogatory or demeaning fashion," Hancock said.
In that passage, Hancock cops to talking about Schweich's religion, and holding meetings with important Catholic political figures, and possibly mentioning Schweich's religion in those meetings, but promises that if he did—and, of course, he doesn't recall—it was perfectly innocuous.
The timeline for the theory that Schweich killed himself in a panic over the alleged whisper campaign is pretty linear: Schweich hears that Hancock has been trying to undermine his campaign and the fear and anger over that simmers for months, and when Hancock is elected as chairman of the party Schweich feels compelled to expose him but is talked out of it, and things snowball so quickly from there that Schweich ends up taking his own life just a few days later.
In this theory, Hancock was doing the type of political maneuvering that is common in local and state politics across the country, but in this case the result was beyond the scope of anyone's imagination.
But what if Schweich killed himself for other reasons?
The... Something Else Theory
I don't have leak so much as a conspiracy theory. Tom Schweich, the Republican gubernatorial candidate for Missouri's suicide is VERY fishy. He had press conferences for later that day concerning other Republicans, he had threatened to expose corruption in the capital the way he had the rest of the state claiming half the capital to be run by "mercenaries" his words. He compared the politicians to Afghan warlords. He had no scandals, one lame attack ad and was pretty much GUARANTEED easy election. He received ONE phone call, and blew his brains out that hour. This looks like blackmail. No 55 year old man who graduated Harvard and Yale is so offended at a radio add calling him "Barney Fife" that he kills himself. He was going to expose something. Please keep looking.
It's worth noting here that some of Frenemy's facts are wrong or mischaracterized. Schweich had interviews set that day, not press conferences. He had mentioned in campaign speeches that he was going to root out corruption in the Missouri state government, but that's typical rhetoric of an upstart candidate. The attack ad, by some accounts, was not lame but vicious, calling Schweich a Democratic "pawn" who would be "squashed like a bug."
But Frenemy also makes a good point: Were rumors about Schweich's religion so serious that they would lead him to end his own life in the midst of a political campaign? Maybe Schweich was scared of some other, different, information being passed around. Or, as Frenemy notes in a subsequent comment, maybe his role as state auditor was at play:
He was the state Auditor. He knew where all the money was flowing and where all the government contracts were going and who was embezzling what and buying whom. Names and specifics? Died with him.
The Everything Theory
Yesterday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an article about the months leading up to Schweich's death. The piece, titled "Tom Schweich's final obsession," is thorough, but it also not-so-subtly insinuates that Schweich was maybe starting to go crazy:
Tucked within Schweich's vision of a bright new Missouri, however, was something darker.
From the stage, the Missouri auditor expressed bitterness toward fellow Republicans he believed were arrayed against him. He talked vaguely of a suspended lawyer working for the other side who was "telling a dizzying series of lies" about him. He berated wealthy conservative activist Rex Sinquefield, who was supporting Schweich's chief rival for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, Catherine Hanaway. He vowed: "There is a lot more corruption going on in that camp that we will be talking about in the days to come."
Here, the theory is that Schweich killed himself not because of a whisper campaign about his religion, but because a series of events that he believed had been set in motion by Hancock and others to derail his political career.
The Dispatch continues:
But interviews and emails from the back channels of Missouri politics show an accomplished and ambitious politician becoming increasingly obsessed with what he believed was a stealth campaign against him by GOP state party Chairman John Hancock — and increasingly frustrated that his own top advisers kept recommending restraint.
"He said, 'There's an insidious movement going on here,'" said Julius Schweich, Tom's father, recalling a conversation they'd had in February, two weeks before his son's death. The comment stuck in the elder Schweich's mind because it was unusual. "He never talked like that."
Missouri Republicans, the media and others are still trying to determine whether that "insidious" in-party campaign against Tom Schweich was real, or a figment of his imagination, or something in between.
Schweich had become convinced of a conspiracy against him, and though it seems eminently plausible, especially in the case of the religious whisper campaign, the problem was likely compounded by the fact that the people he had surrounded himself were (perhaps sensibly) urging him not to go public with his theory.
Unfortunately, at the time, they couldn't have known that he would make his theory known in the most tragic way possible.