Death and Politics: Did a Vicious Campaign Drive a Candidate to Suicide?
For all of Tom Schweich’s accomplishments — 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 — the first thing you noticed about the guy was that he sure didn’t look like a politician. He probably stood five foot four on a good day, with a receding hairline, sunken eyes and big jug ears. He never weighed more than 140 pounds, partly due to the fact that he suffered from Crohn’s disease, a gastrointestinal condition that diminishes appetite. His suits draped over his slight frame and his ties hung down to his fly. Harry Otto, who served as Schweich’s number two in the auditor’s office, remembers first laying eyes on his future boss and thinking, “He doesn’t look like he could fight his way out of a wet paper bag.”
Schweich didn’t act much like a politician either. He stepped on his applause lines. He let reporters into the little corners of his life, his collections of rare coins and autographed Hollywood memorabilia. Nor was he temperamentally suited for the rough-and-tumble of electoral politics. Tightly wound and thin-skinned, he took slights and insults personally and spoke his mind with refreshingly little filter. “Tom never thought about what the reaction would be,” says his former campaign treasurer, Joe Passanise. “He would just act.”
That’s certainly what he did on the evening of January 28, 2015, when Schweich announced his candidacy for governor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, in a speech the likes of which Missouri had never heard. The 54-year-old lifelong Republican told the audience that Missouri’s government had been held captive by lobbyists, political consultants and outside interests. Corruption and cronyism were endemic. Over the objections of his advisers, he singled out his opponents by name: His main Republican rival, former Missouri House speaker Catherine Hanaway, whom he referred to as “Catherine Layaway,” had been “bought and paid for.” The Democratic favorite, Attorney General Chris Koster, who allegedly gave preferential treatment to corporations after taking donations from those same companies, was the “poster child for selling his office to contributors.” (A Koster spokesperson denies any wrongdoing by Koster and says the campaign has “implemented what we believe is the strongest conflict of interest policy in the nation.”)
Schweich’s sharpest barbs, though, were saved for St. Louis mega-donor Rex Sinquefield, the wealthy investor and closest thing Missouri has to its own Koch brother. The “Sinquefield machine,” Schweich warned, sought nothing less than the takeover of the state. Despite representing opposing parties, Koster and Hanaway had each counted Sinquefield as their top contributor over the span of their careers. “Rex Sinquefield is trying to buy himself a governor,” Schweich said. “You have my word that as long as I can stand on these two feet, I will fight to keep the Republican Party from becoming the Rex-publican Party.”
It was a startling thing to behold, a campaign rollout speech built around shaming the state’s largest donor and two of its most well known politicians. And yet this was the essence of Schweich’s candidacy: He was running as “a true anti-corruption expert.” A Kansas City Star columnist hailed him as “the disrupter.” Schweich’s entry into the governor’s race signaled the beginning of a fight not just for Missouri’s highest office, but for the soul of the state’s body politic. And despite his unassuming stature and jittery disposition, Schweich looked ready to wage that fight to the end.