JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The chairman of the Missouri Republican Party mounted a public defense of his reputation Thursday as several state lawmakers called for his resignation over his alleged involvement in an anti-Semitic whispering campaign against a state auditor who killed himself.
GOP Chairman John Hancock said he is not resigning and has been the target of "malicious rumors" from people who believe he was telling Republican donors that former Auditor Tom Schweich, also a Republican, was Jewish.
Schweich fatally shot himself Feb. 26, a month after declaring his candidacy for governor and minutes after telling reporters he was ready to go public with allegations that Hancock had made anti-Semitic comments about him. Schweich was a Christian, but said he had Jewish ancestry.
Schweich's death has roiled Missouri politics, highlighting the intense divisions among Republicans as they head into an important 2016 election in which they will be defending a U.S. Senate seat and seeking to recapture the governor's office from Democrats.
Former Republican U.S. Sen. John Danforth, an elder statesman and political mentor to Schweich, used his friend's funeral eulogy earlier this month to suggest Schweich had been driven to suicide by political bullying and angst over the perceived anti-Semitic comments.
On Thursday, five Republican lawmakers called for Hancock, who has said he mistakenly believed Schweich was Jewish, to resign.
"If we don't try to make a change in direction, this will haunt us in the August 2016 (primary) elections and the November 2016 elections," said state Sen. David Pearce, of Warrensburg. "Our party is at a crossroads. We need a change at the top, and that's why we're asking John Hancock to resign as our chairman."
Pearce was joined by state Sens. Mike Parson, of Bolivar, and Gary Romine, of Farmington, and state Reps. Bill White, of Joplin, and Jim Neely, of Cameron.
Hancock, meanwhile, released a list of nearly two dozen people — headed by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner— vouching for his character and integrity.
"There was no whisper campaign; there is no anti-Semitism in me; I did not do any of the things that had been alleged of me," Hancock told The Associated Press. "My reputation has been damaged greatly in this process, and I want my reputation back."
Hancock, a longtime political consultant, had worked for Schweich's campaign in 2011, but they parted ways and their relationship cooled. Last year, Hancock was hired by GOP gubernatorial candidate Catherine Hanaway at a time when Schweich was also widely expected to run. Hancock said his research focused on the Democratic candidate — Attorney General Chris Koster — not Schweich.
Hancock said he didn't find out Schweich wasn't Jewish until Danforth and Schweich confronted him Nov. 14 in separate phone calls about allegations that Hancock had been misrepresenting Schweich's religion to donors.
Hancock said he told Schweich he didn't recall telling people he was Jewish but "it was certainly possible that I might have mentioned that to someone in passing." Hancock told the AP he's certain he never mentioned it after that day.
Schweich's concern about Hancock grew in the ensuring months as Hancock ran for state party chairman and was elected Feb. 21, something Schweich tried to discourage. During the campaign, Hancock talked in December with then-GOP Vice Chairwoman Trish Vincent, who was Schweich's chief of staff. Vincent said Thursday that Hancock had acknowledged he had told people Schweich was Jewish earlier that year.
Hancock recalled to the AP saying only that he might have done so.
On Feb. 23, Schweich told the AP he wanted to hold a news conference about Hancock's alleged comments and that Kevin Childress, CEO of MyFreightWorld Technologies, could back up his assertions.
Childress never spoke publicly before Schweich's death, but told the AP on Thursday that his account was "hearsay." He said one of his former employees — Hancock's brother-in-law, Peter Christy — had told him that Hancock had said Schweich was Jewish.
Christy denied he told Childress that, and added he'd never even talked to Hancock about Schweich before the auditor's death.
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