JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Tom Schweich, a Republican candidate for governor of Missouri, apparently killed himself shortly after telling journalists that a fellow party member was leading a whisper campaign saying he was Jewish.
Schweich, the state auditor, had Jewish ancestry but attended an Episcopal church. He was pronounced dead at a hospital from a single gunshot after paramedics responded Thursday to an emergency call made from Schweich’s home in a suburb of St. Louis.
Schweich’s death appears to have been a suicide, police chief Kevin R. Murphy told The New York Times.
Schweich Thursday morning had invited a local journalist and an Associated Press reporter to his home.
“To me, this is more of a religion story than a politics story, but it’s your choice on who the reporter is,” Schweich said on a voice mail he left the local journalist, Tony Messenger of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, seven minutes before the police call.
In recent days, Schewich had said that John Hancock, the chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, was spreading rumors that Schweich was Jewish. Schweich told Messenger that Hancock was trying to hurt his chances in the primary with evangelical Christian voters.
“I don’t have a specific recollection of having said that,” Hancock said later Thursday, “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.”
Messenger, in a column, said Schweich was proud of his Jewish roots. Schweich’s Jewish grandfather “taught him to never give an inch where anti-Semitism was concerned, Schweich told me,” he wrote.
The Post-Dispatch reported that Schweich had contacted the Anti-Defamation League about his allegations.
Schweich’s death stunned many of Missouri’s top elected officials, who described him as a brilliant and devoted public servant with an unblemished record in office. Just 13 minutes before police received the emergency call from his home, Schweich spoke with The Associated Press about his plans to go public that afternoon with allegations that Hancock had made anti-Semitic comments about him.
Schweich’s spokesman, Spence Jackson, said Schweich had recently appeared upset about the comments people were supposedly making about his faith and about a recent radio ad describing him as “a weak candidate for governor” who “could be easily confused for the deputy sheriff of Mayberry” and could “be manipulated.”
“The campaign had been difficult, as all campaigns are,” Jackson said. “There were a lot of things that were on his mind.”
But Jackson said Schweich had been diligently going about his work, with another audit scheduled to be released next week.
Police Chief Murphy said Schweich was pronounced dead at a hospital from a single gunshot. “Everything at this point does suggest that it is an apparent suicide,” Murphy said, adding that an autopsy would be conducted Friday.
Schweich was 54. He had been in office since January 2011 and had easily won election in November to a second, four-year term. He announced a month ago that he was seeking the Republican nomination for governor in 2016, and was gearing up for a primary fight against Catherine Hanaway, a former U.S. attorney and Missouri House speaker.
Schweich seemed unusually agitated — his voice sometimes quivering and his legs and hands shaking — when he told an AP reporter on Monday that he wanted to hold a press conference to allege that Missouri Republican Party Chairman Hancock had made anti-Semitic remarks about him.
Schweich postponed a planned press conference Tuesday. But he called the AP at 9:16 a.m. Thursday inviting a reporter to his home for a 2:30 p.m. interview and noting that a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was also invited. An AP reporter spoke with Schweich by phone again at 9:35 a.m. to confirm the upcoming interview.
Police say the emergency call to Schweich’s house was received at 9:48 a.m.
Schweich told the AP he had heard that Hancock had been making phone calls last fall in which he mentioned that Schweich was Jewish. Schweich said he felt the comments were anti-Semitic and wanted Hancock to resign the party chairmanship to which he was elected last Saturday.
Hancock told the AP on Thursday that Schweich had talked to him about the alleged comments last November, but not since. Hancock, who is a political consultant, said he met 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.
At the Capitol early Thursday afternoon, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder joined lawmakers in the House chamber for a brief prayer service remembering Schweich.
Hanaway said in a statement that she was “deeply saddened” by Schweich’s death and described him as “an extraordinary man with an extraordinary record of service to our state and nation.”
Schweich, who attended Yale University and then Harvard Law School, made his political debut in 2009. He had considered running for the seat being vacated in 2010 by Republican U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, and he had the encouragement of his mentor, former U.S. Sen. John Danforth. But Schweich deferred to Rep. Roy Blunt to avoid a divisive GOP Senate primary and instead challenged and defeated Democratic State Auditor Susan Montee in the 2010 election.
Schweich spent last weekend wooing fellow Republicans during the state GOP’s annual conference in Kansas City. He spoke energetically, frequently touting his work rooting out government waste and corruption.
But he also emphasized charity, citing his Christian beliefs as a source of compassion and promising to cut back on government spending and misuse without hurting the poor.
“Part of being a Christian is you gotta help people,” Schweich told a dozen members of the Missouri Republican Assembly on Saturday at the Kansas City Marriott Downtown.
Later that day he scooped dollops of ice cream for supporters until his hands hurt.
Schweich was Danforth’s chief of staff for the 1999 federal investigation into the deadly government siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and followed Danforth to the United Nations, where he was chief of staff for the U.S. delegation.
President George W. Bush appointed Schweich to the State Department in 2005 as an international law enforcement official. Two years later, Bush picked Schweich to coordinate the anti-drug and justice reform efforts in Afghanistan.
JTA contributed to this story.