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Missouri's political parties look inward as they confront fallout from Ferguson and Schweich's death

Friends of Tom Schweich

For different reasons, both Missouri Republicans and Democrats have found themselves engaged in some introspection -- even soul-searching -- as they struggle to assess and reconsider their words, actions and policies in the face of some direct challenges from within.

The internal conflicts pitting Republicans against Republicans, and Democrats against Democrats, can be as sharp, and divisive, as the usual battles across party lines.

As is so often is the case in Missouri politics, the two biggest issues revolve around religion and race.

The state’s top Republicans are grappling with the Feb. 26 suicide of state Auditor Tom Schweich, a candidate for governor in 2016, and his private accusations, now very public, that newly elected state GOP chairman John Hancock was conducting a whispering campaign that Schweich was Jewish. (Schweich’s grandfather and father are Jewish, but Schweich was an Episcopalian.)

Hancock has denied engaging in any such effort, and so far no one has publicly stepped forward to say he or she heard any ant-Semitic comments from Hancock, a St. Louis-based political consultant and former state legislator, or from any other Republicans for that matter.

Schweich's chief of staff Trish Vincent doubled-down on his assertions in a radio appearance Wednesday on station KTRS, and Hancock reaffirmed his denials.

Republican leaders continue to be split over the accusation of anti-Semitism, particularly in the wake of the powerful homily at Schweich’s funeral delivered by his mentor, former Sen. John C. Danforth. He contended that the alleged smear campaign contributed to Schweich’s death and portrayed it as part of a broader descent of politics into territory “only for the tough and the crude and the calloused.”

Democratic scars fail to heal

Meanwhile, for Democrats, their political headache revolves around Ferguson.

The results of the investigations by the U.S. Justice Department into the treatment of African Americans by law enforcement in Ferguson and the Aug. 9 police shooting that killed 18-year-old Michael Brown threaten to exacerbate the racial tensions within the party, tensions already evident before Brown’s death.

Credit Parth Shah, St. Louis Public Radio
Steve Stenger (left) and Charlie Dooley (right)

Last summer, then-incumbent St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, an African American who had held the job for 11 years, and then-County Councilman Steve, who is white, were embroiled in a heated primary campaign for county executive.

Although both candidates sought to keep race out of their contest, the racial split was evident in the campaign and ultimately in the vote totals that saw Stenger win handily. Stenger’s key backers included most of the region’s labor unions, who were at odds with Dooley on some policy issues, and County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who had accused the Dooley administration of corruption.

Four days after the primary, Brown was killed. McCulloch was in charge of the grand jury investigating the shooting by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Many black leaders and activists called for McCulloch to appoint a special prosecutor. They questioned McCulloch's fairness because his father, a police officer, had been killed by a black man. McCulloch declined to step aside.

A bloc of Democratic African-American officials in the county then opposed Stenger in the general election, largely because of his support from McCulloch and Stenger's refusal to disassociate from McCulloch. Those officials very publicly backed Republican Rick Stream, who narrowly lost to Stenger on Nov. 4.

State and regional Democratic leaders are now privately concerned about how continued tensions between labor and African-Americans – two key Democratic blocs – could affect the party as it seeks to gear up for 2016.

And that’s where Schweich’s suicide may play a role. Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, will choose a replacement for state auditor who will serve the rest of Schweich’s term, which runs through 2018.

Nixon has been under fire for how he handled events in Ferguson and for the paucity of African Americans in high-profile positions in his administration. Some allies are now encouraging him to name an African American as the state auditor. If that happens, the person would be the first African American to hold statewide office in Missouri.

The governor long has had a tense history with some African-American officials in the state, but he has not signaled any of his thoughts on the appointment, other than to say he is taking the matter very seriously.

Schweich’s legacy may affect both parties

Meanwhile, Republicans are privately mulling the effects of Schweich’s death on the 2016 contest for governor. And some in both parties appear to be heeding, at least for now, Danforth’s call for campaigns that are less combative and more conciliatory.

George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University, doubted that Missouri politicians or their campaigns will be able to break completely from a lamentable tradition of political attacks that goes back to the vicious presidential contest in 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

Like it or not, Connor said, “Negative campaigns and ugly ads are part of the fabric of American politics.”

Catherine Hanaway

Schweich already had been engaged in a vigorous – and somewhat nasty – primary battle with state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, also from St. Louis County. When Schweich announced his decision to seek the GOP nomination for governor, he lambasted Hanaway as “bought and paid for’’because of her huge contributions from Rex Sinquefield.

Shortly before his death, Schweich was the target of a disparaging radio spot, a parody of the Netflix hit "House of Cards" that compared him to the comedy TV character Barney Fife. The group that produced the spot was affiliated with a lawyer who had ties to Hanaway.

Schweich had been critical of Hancock for some time because Hancock's firm had done campaign work for Hanaway, prior to Hancock's decision to run for state party chairman.

He was also upset by Hancock's large margin of victory for party chairman at the Lincoln Days event the weekend before Schweich died. Schweich didn't decide to go public with his allegations of an anti-Semitic whispering campaign until after Lincoln Days.

The GOP contest threatened to get more crowded the day before Schweich’s death, when bestselling author Eric Greitens – a former Navy Seal and Rhodes Scholar – announced he was setting up an exploratory committee for a possible bid for governor or other statewide office.

In the last two weeks, Greitens’ committee has raised more than $200,000.

Some in both parties also predict that outstate Republicans, often wary of their urban and suburban colleagues, may seek to draft one of their own to enter the contest for governor.  For some, the attraction may include Schweich's campaign warchest of $1.3 million, which his campaign could donate to another candidate.

U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, may be reconsidering his comment at Lincoln Days that he wasn't running for governor. In a statement Tuesday, a spokeswoman said, "Congressman Luetkemeyer's thoughts and prayers continue to be with the Schweich family. Right now, the congressman is focused on his duties representing the people of eastern and central Missouri in the U.S. House, but is mindful of the fact that many Missourians have encouraged him to consider running for governor in 2016."

Meanwhile, Hanaway has suspended her campaign since Schweich’s death. She said in a statement Tuesday that her public activities will remain on hold.

“I will return to the campaign trail after a proper amount of time has passed to honor Auditor Schweich’s service to our state and nation,” she said. “I have not set a date for when I will return.”

Koster calls for more cooperation, less conflict

The only major Democrat in the gubernatorial contest -- Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster – has begun to raise his campaign profile, serving as one of the headliners at last weekend’s regional Democrat Days in Hannibal.

His speech focused almost exclusively on policy issues. And Koster’s political jabs appeared to mirror Danforth’s advice, by attacking the political rancor that the attorney general contended is impeding the state’s progress.

Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Chris Koster

Said Koster’s speech, in part: “My wonder comes from knowing that there was once a day when this state legislature, and our state’s political system, actually worked, when our ideals and our ability to act as one came together, and we could achieve big things that benefited all the citizens of our state.”

“Today, people know that there’s something wrong in Jefferson City,’’ Koster went on. “They know the bones of government still exists there on the banks of the Missouri River. But the optimism that constructed those colleges, the confidence that state government is for all of us, and not for a privileged few…often seems a distant memory.”

In an interview later, Koster rejected the idea that the fallout from Fergusonis primarily a concern for Democrats. He contended the issues affect all Missourians, regardless of their politics.

That said, Koster offered advice for all the political players as they grapple with the implications of  Ferguson and Schweich’s death.

“Leadership in Missouri needs to disentangle the state from the fights and biases of the past in these two situations, being religion and race,” Koster said. “Work to solve these problems, and then quickly move forward to the challenges of the 21st century, which is investment in technology, education and economic development.”

Koster added, however, that he remained concerned about the proliferation of anonymously funded ads – such as the radio spot that compared Schweich to comedy TV character Barney Fife – and the rise in groups, such as 501C4s, that don’t have to identify their donors or report their spending.

As for Schweich, Koster said he had fond and respectful memories of the auditor.  Despite their political differences, Koster said he and Schweich had gone out to lunch or dinner “on a semi-regular basis’’ to discuss various issues of common interest.

Their two offices had both been examining communities -- including Ferguson -- that relied heavily on traffic tickets to generate income and might be violating state law.

As Koster portrayed it, their political rivalry didn't interfere with their friendship.  When asked, Koster observed with a slight smile that he didn’t take it personally when Schweich called him “corrupt’’ at Schweich’s January campaign kickoff for governor.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.