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Suicides By Missouri Politicians Raise Questions About State Ethics

Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich committed suicide following political attacks during his campaign for governor. His press secretary, Spence Jackson, committed suicide just one month later.
Jeff Roberson
Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich committed suicide following political attacks during his campaign for governor. His press secretary, Spence Jackson, committed suicide just one month later.

In Missouri, two political suicides have stunned the Republican Party. In February, state Auditor Tom Schweich, a leading candidate for the party's nomination for governor, shot himself. Then just last month, his press secretary, Spence Jackson, took his own life. The tragedies have sparked fresh scrutiny of Missouri's increasingly bruising political system.

Schweich launched his campaign for governor with a scathing broadside against the state's Republican Party establishment.

"They've tried to buy the courts. They've tried to buy the media," he said. "It's deception and it's fraud and it's influence peddling. And it's the kind of thing that worries me about the future of the Republican Party in Missouri. And I thought we needed a voice that says, 'No.' "

Schweich had just sailed to a second term as state auditor and was polling well in the Republican primary for governor. Then, the stunning news: The 54-year-old died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Schweich left behind a wife, two kids and lots of unanswered questions. Friends said he was distraught over a coordinated assault from Republican colleagues backing his chief primary opponent, Catherine Hanaway. With voting still more than a year away, they'd already launched an attack ad, in the style of the Netflix series House of Cards.

"Tom Schweich, like him? No. Is he a weak candidate for governor? Absolutely, just look at him," one of the ads says. "He could be easily confused with the deputy sheriff of Mayberry. But, more importantly, he can be manipulated."

And that is exactly what Schweich's supporters say the attack ad was intended to do — manipulate the candidate, drive him out of the race. Former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth, an Episcopal priest and fellow Republican, gave the eulogy at Schweich's funeral.

"Words do hurt. Words can kill," he said. "And that has been proven right here in our home state."

Speaking from the pulpit, Danforth said that Schweich believed Missouri Republican Party Chairman John Hancock was mounting a "whisper campaign," telling political donors that Schweich was Jewish, which he wasn't. Hancock admitted mentioning this casually, but said he meant no harm. But Danforth said it was hurtful and anti-Semitic.

"The only reason to go around saying that someone is Jewish is to make political profit from religious bigotry," he said. Danforth went on to call the attack ad bullying, and the man behind it, Jeff Roe, a bully.

Just after the funeral, Schweich's press secretary, Spence Jackson, spoke up demanding that Hancock, the party chairman, resign. Danforth agreed, but other party leaders went silent. None of Roe's clients, including presidential candidate Ted Cruz, publicly broke ties. Hancock remains party chairman.

"And a month later it looked like the furor was dying down," says Dave Helling, political reporter for the Kansas City Star. "And Spence was worried about that. That's what his friends said, that he was quite upset. It looked like, in their words, like the other side might get away with it."

Just one month and one day after Schweich's suicide, Jackson called in sick. The following Monday police held a press conference in Jackson's hometown, Jefferson City.

"Initial assessment of the scene indicated that Jackson died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound," said Jefferson City Police Capt. Doug Shoemaker. "There were no signs of forced entry, nor any sign of a struggle."

It may look like another political suicide, though Jackson's note said only that he couldn't take being unemployed again.

"This story doesn't add up. What's missing here? What would cause two prominent Republicans to take their lives?" asks Marvin Overby, political science professor at the University of Missouri. "I don't think it would be the prospect of not being the Republican nominee for governor."

Overby says that being Jewish is not a big political liability in Missouri.
Rumors abound about other factors that may have pushed Schweich and Jackson to take their lives. Danforth says such talk amounts to a second whisper campaign. The facts, as he sees them, are pretty stark.

"Tom Schweich publicly attacked what he thought was corruption in state government, and within a month of that he was dead," he says. "Spence Jackson publicly called for the resignation of John Hancock, and within a month of doing so he was dead."

Danforth says Missouri politics has devolved into an arena where ruthless operatives, financed by a wealthy few, battle for power. He hopes the suicides will leave voters here to re-examine the political landscape.

Copyright 2015 KCUR 89.3

Frank Morris
Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.