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Danforth: 'Does our party stand for what happened to Tom Schweich?'

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(Updated 4:20 p.m. Friday, March 20)

Retired U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth says he’s not giving up in his quest to force the ouster of Missouri GOP chairman, John Hancock, whom Danforth blames for an alleged anti-Semitic “whispering campaign’’ that Danforth believes prompted state Auditor Tom Schweich to kill himself.

“I think (Hancock) should be repudiated by all Republicans,’’ Danforth said in a telephone interview late Thursday.  The retired senator added that he was not calling for Hancock’s resignation, and instead wanted Hancock to be forced out.

"Does our party stand for what happened to Tom Schweich?" Danforth declared.

Hancock has denied making any anti-Semitic comments, or waging any sort of whispering campaign againstSchweich.

Danforth confirmed that he persuaded wealthy Republican contributor David Humphreys to sign an affidavit — released Thursday night — that alleges Hancock mentioned erroneously that Schweich was Jewish during a Nov. 24 conversation.

Schweich’s father and grandfather were Jewish, but Schweich — like Danforth — was an Episcopalian.

Friday afternoon, three other major Republican donors -- including business magnate Sam Fox of Clayton -- sent out a note to party leaders calling for them to take Humphreys' accusation seriously. The donors, who also include Peter Herschend, who heads Silver Dollar City, also defended Danforth.

"We regard this voluntary affidavit as an important development in the situation we have all been following since Tom Schweich’s tragic death.  We trust you will do the right thing," the donors wrote. "We also want to express our displeasure with the attacks that have been made on the role played by former Senator Jack Danforth in this matter.  Jack Danforth’s record of integrity and public service to both our state and nation are beyond reproach."

The letter was sent to all 68 members of the state Republican executive committee, as well as all Missouri Republicans in the Missouri General Assembly and in Congress.

John C. Danforth
Credit Washington University
John C. Danforth

Humphreys’ affidavit is the first from a donor alleging that Hancock made a comment about Schweich being Jewish. Humphreys also was one of Schweich’s top donors, giving his campaigns more than $300,000 since 2009.

Humphreys states in the sworn affidavit that Hancock “used words to the effect, ‘Well, you know he (Tom Schweich) is Jewish.’  The meaning I took from Mr. Hancock’s statement and tone of his comments was clear: … that being Jewish is a negative attribute for Tom Schweich’s gubernatorial race.”

Humphreys added in a statement that he "vowed there and then to no longer give Hancock any money for any reason."

Hancock denies making any such comment to Humphreys during that Nov. 24 meeting, which took place in Joplin.  Hancock contended in an interview that he had believed his relationship with Humphreys had been amiable until the affidavit "came out of the blue."

Another Republican present at the Nov. 24 meeting, Paul Mouton, appeared to back up Hancock. “I did not hear John Hancock say anything about Tom Schweich being Jewish,’’ said Mouton in a telephone interview.

John Hancock at 2015 Lincoln Days
Credit Jo Mannies/St. Louis Public Radio
John Hancock

Danforth says he doesn’t accept the denials and, instead, believes Humphreys. Danforth called the donor “a very prominent Republican, a very prominent businessman and a lawyer by training.”

Danforth said he telephoned Humphreys on Tuesday, after hearing about the Nov. 24 meeting with Hancock, in order to get the donor’s account of what was said.  During that call, Danforth said he persuaded Humphreys to sign the affidavit, as a counter to Hancock’s public denials last week.

Hancock was elected chairman of the state Republican Party at a Feb. 21 meeting of the party's 68-member executive board. Schweich had opposed Hancock's election.  Schweich's chief of staff, Trish Vincent, was ousted as party vice chair at that same meeting.

Senator steps up campaign to oust Hancock

Danforth appears to be renewing the accusations he first made public in the homily he delivered at Schweich’s funeral on March 3. Danforth cited the alleged whispering campaign, and a disparaging radio spot, as factors that prompted Schweich to shoot himself on Feb. 26.

Hancock has denied any such anti-Semitic campaign.  The radio spot — which disparaged Schweich as a “little bug’’ — has been linked to allies of Schweich’s rival for the 2016 Republican nomination for governor, former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway. She has denied any involvement.

Vincent, Schweich's chief of staff, had alleged earlier this month that Hancock confirmed to her that he had told Republican donors and activists that Schweich was Jewish. Hancock has denied that any such conversation took place.

Credit Friends of Tom Schweich
Tom Schweich

In an interview, Hancock acknowledged that he might have made a passing reference during a September meeting with Humphreys that he thought Schweich was Jewish. But Hancock said he would have done so in the context of a discussion about the Catholic vote.

Hancock, a political consultant, had been working for Hanaway.  She is Catholic.

"I met with David Humphreys on two occasions — Sept. 12 and Nov. 24,” Hancock said. “As I have consistently stated, it is possible that I mentioned what I believed to be Tom Schweich’s religion, but if I did so, it would have been at our earlier meeting and it certainly was not in a derogatory manner. I absolutely did not make that mistake at our November meeting because I had learned otherwise 10 days previously.”

Hancock was referring to a conversation he had with Danforth on Nov. 14, in which Danforth made clear Schweich was not Jewish.  Hancock says he later apologized to Schweich.  Hancock has made public an email from Danforth after their conversation, in which the former senator implied that he believed Hancock’s denial of any malicious intent.

Danforth said Thursday that he has had no doubt that Hancock sought to damage Schweich politically. “I think it’s very important to have this record set straight,’’ the former senator said.

Danforth also is beseeching fellow Republicans in Missouri to consider a key question: “Was the campaign against Tom Schweich within the range of acceptable politics, or was it not?”

“Do I want to vindicate Tom Schweich? Yes, I do,” Danforth said. “What was done to Tom was beyond the pale and we cannot let it stand.”

Hancock, meanwhile, appeared Friday morning on KMOX radio, where he has been a temporary radio host, to reaffirmed his denials.  Hancock implied, however, that he might be prepared to resign shortly -- a sentiment echoed in a subsequent interview. He said he wants to do what is best for his family and for the state Republican Party.

Hancock has said he has been busy in recent days raising money to pay off the state party's debt accumulated under the previous chairman, Ed Martin.

But what appears to be fueling Hancock most, at present, is his desire to restore his reputation.  

He said late Thursday that he was mystified as to why Danforth, and other Schweich allies, are continuing to press accusations that Hancock says are unfounded.

“To say that I am bitterly disappointed that this is coming from Jack Danforth is a gross understatement,'' Hancock said. "He is impugning my name falsely. This is not the Jack Danforth I thought I knew."

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