In our investigative feature about former Missouri candidate for governor, Tom Schweich, who took his own life shortly after announcing his campaign in early 2015, it became clear that a number of forces weighed on him. The GOP hopeful was a lifelong overachiever — degrees from Yale and Harvard, partner at an international white-shoe law firm, chief of staff to three U.S. ambassadors, second-ranking international law enforcement official at the State Department, professor, author and twice-elected auditor of the state of Missouri. But Schweich was also a man coming apart. Mental health experts agree there is almost never a simple answer for why someone chooses to commit suicide, but in an effort to better understand the tragedy, we spoke with nearly 50 people who knew him, and obtained previously unpublished private notes, emails and texts that provide new details of the events leading up to Schweich’s death. Here are some of the more troubling points that we found, both about Schweich and the influence of money in politics in the state he promised to reform.
Schweich held a grudge against Ted Cruz’s campaign manager
Ted Cruz’s campaign manager, Jeff Roe, known for his brutal win-at-all-costs tactics, including digging through opponents’ trashcans and sending young staffers posing as volunteers into rival campaign offices, was a powerful player in Missouri politics. In a pair of op-eds Schweich drafted in early 2014 — the first titled, “Jeff and Me: Influence and Intimidation in the Missouri Republican Party,” and the second, “Political Consultants Who Act More Like Mobsters Than Advisors Are Destroying the Republican Party” — which were never published, Schweich details how Roe allegedly threatened to “gut” and “kill” one of Schweich’s aides, and later to “take Tom out.” In February 2015, Roe created a radio spot targeting Schweich that appeared on Missouri talk radio. A narrator imitating the southern drawl of Frank Underwood, the murderous Democrat from House of Cards, called Schweich “weak” and mocked his appearance. “Just look at him,” the Unerwood stand-in sneered. “He could be easily confused for the deputy sheriff of Mayberry” — a reference to the bumbling Barney Fife character from The Andy Griffith Show. Not two weeks later, Schweich committed suicide.
Missouri’s Republican party has a problem with Jews
Schweich’s father and grandfather were Jewish, a fact Schweich proudly embraced, even though he, his wife and two kids were members of the Episcopalian church. But in personal notes, Schweich detailed how questions of his faith continued to circulate within the GOP for years. In one personal note, Schweich quotes a Republican member of Congress who told him during his first campaign for auditor that “if people think you are Jewish, you will never win the Cape area” — an apparent reference to the evangelical, heavily white region in southeast Missouri. A former state senator allegedly told him that “my ‘funny sounding name’ will really hurt me in the primary because people will think I am Jewish.” In the months before Schweich’s death, the chair of the Missouri Republican Party, a veteran operative named John Hancock, incorrectly told a number of donors that Schweich was Jewish, which Schweich regarded as part of an anti-Semitic campaign to hurt his standing among Missouri’s Christian Republican voters.
A billionaire holds an insane amount of power in Missouri politics
A true rags-to-riches tale, Rex Sinquefield (pronounced Sing-field) was given over to a Catholic orphanage in north St. Louis by his widowed single mother and went on to cofound a global investment firm that now manages almost $400 billion. When he grew “bored” of making money in the mid-2000s, he returned to Missouri and embarked on a mission to use his vast wealth (he won’t say how much he’s worth) to transform his home state into a low-tax, small-government utopia. Consultants now speak of two distinct periods: Before Rex and After Rex. Sinquefield has poured nearly $40 million into campaigns, committees and ballot initiatives, making him easily the state’s largest donor. In the name of protecting limitless campaign contributions, he once threatened to create an armada of political action committees, 100 of them in all, and funnel the millions of dollars he would’ve given directly to candidates in smaller, legally permitted chunks. All of his giving, whether to candidates or causes, seeks to advance two issues: Eliminating income taxes at every level of government, and promoting school vouchers and other alternatives to the public education system. Schweich believed Sinquefield was “trying to take complete control over state government by any and all means.”
The influence of money in politics is out of control in Missouri
Six states have no limits on both individual and corporate contributions to candidates, but the Show-Me State is the only one that equally allows unlimited gifts from lobbyists and imposes no restraints on the revolving door between elected office and lobbying firms. Industry is so involved with policymaking that lobbyists have occasionally catered official committee meetings. And without a limit on gift-giving, lobbyists are free to pay for legislators’ meals at high-end steakhouses, treat them to rock concerts, squire them to WWE wrestling matches and baseball games, the Masters Golf Tournament and the Kentucky Derby. (By contrast, Iowa has a “cup of coffee” rule, barring legislators from accepting any gift valued at more than $3.)
Schweich’s suicide was spurred by more than mental health issues
In its final report on Schweich’s suicide, the Clayton Police Department found no evidence of a whisper campaign or any proof of anti-Semitism in Schweich’s records. The report instead painted Schweich as a mentally fragile man, and his wife Kathy told police that he had talked about suicide in the past. But Rolling Stone found that Schweich was obsessed with what he believed was an “insidious” effort to damage his name and undermine his campaign. The incidents, real or perceived, that preoccupied him at the time were well-known among his inner circle: That the chairman of the Missouri Republican Party had led an anti-Semitic “whisper campaign” against him; that Rex Sinquefield was bankrolling his opponents to scare him out of the governor’s race; that Jeff Roe, his party’s most powerful consultant — the man now running Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign — had crafted a vicious ad mocking Schweich’s appearance that aired on the eve of the largest Republican event of the year. Over the previous months, as the pressure mounted, his closest friends and advisers had urged him to brush it all off, to rise above the fray. Schweich, out of self-righteousness or anger or both, felt he couldn’t let the attacks against him go unanswered, an obsession that hounded him until he took his own life.