Love Me Two Times

You pay Tony Sutton to serve the state of Minnesota. The Republican Party pays Tony Sutton to serve them.

Tony Sutton pulls down two paychecks. Of course, there's nothing strange about that; a lot of people work a couple of gigs to get by. Yet Sutton, who was earning about $85,000 a year in his job at the State Auditor's Office, would seem to have been handsomely situated. Ostensibly, then, he didn't take his other job--a $42,000-a-year post with the state Republican Party--for the money.

In fact, as Sutton tells it, he just wanted to become more involved with the party that's been the mainstay of his professional life. Growing up in a Democratic household on the Iron Range, Sutton was distributing literature for Ronald Reagan by the time he was 17. Two years later, the precocious pol was a GOP district chair--a rapid ascendance that, he acknowledges, was helped along by the dearth of Republicans on the DFL-dominated Range.

In the decades since, however, the 38-year-old Sutton has earned a reputation as one of the state's more industrious political operatives. His résumé includes stints as a field director for former U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz, campaign manager for gubernatorial hopeful Brian Sullivan, finance director for the Republican Party of Minnesota, an unsuccessful run for the state legislature, and two separate tours of duty as the executive director of the Republican Party of Minnesota, the GOP's top staff position.

But in 2003, Sutton decided to drop out of party work to accept a government job. As one of three deputies serving under State Auditor Patricia Anderson, he helps oversee a staff of approximately 150, with the aim of monitoring the approximately $19 billion counties, cities, and other local government units spend each year.

While the work is largely bureaucratic, it is not without its partisan aspects--and, in the view of some, Anderson has been more aggressive than most of her predecessors. In her first month in office, for instance, Anderson released a stinging report on the state's local government aid program, earning her the lasting enmity of many city officials who regard LGA as an essential tool for leveling the financial playing field between rich and poor communities. Earlier this year, Anderson made headlines again when she blasted Minneapolis's DFL mayor, R.T. Rybak, for an eight-page newsletter--prepared at taxpayer expense--that she regarded as more about politicking than public service. (The Minneapolis Ethical Practices Board later dismissed a complaint about the mailing, but Rybak agreed to pay for a percentage of the costs).

Through it all, Sutton has represented Anderson's case behind the scenes and in the press; he is frequently referred to not as Anderson's deputy but as her "spokesman."

There is nothing especially unusual in Sutton's career trajectory. These days, the revolving door between party jobs and government jobs scarcely raises eyebrows (except, of course, when an instance of rank cronyism results in disaster; think of the appointment of Michael Brown to head FEMA). Lacking training in either auditing or the law, Sutton enjoys what appears to be, in essence, a patronage post.

Perhaps it should have been no surprise, then, when in April Sutton decided to run for the position of secretary-treasurer of the state Republican Party. Before doing so, he says, he cleared the matter with his boss and the office's general counsel. Because the secretary-treasurer post is traditionally a volunteer office, Sutton says, he figured it wouldn't demand too much of his time. And the commute couldn't be better. The Republican Party headquarters, it so happens, are located in the same St. Paul building as the state auditor's office.

Running unopposed, Sutton won the secretary-treasurer's job on June 11. In the same election, Ron Carey, an old Sutton friend, unexpectedly knocked off incumbent GOP party chair Ron Ebensteiner. Carey then tapped Sutton to fill a newly re-created position: chief operating officer. The job, Carey explains, was designed to ease the transition in party leadership. Because of Sutton's "long institutional memory," Carey says, he was an ideal selection to "make the trains run on time."

With the new title came some extra income: According to Federal Elections Commission filings, since July Sutton has received a biweekly check for $1,638--or $42,588 a year--from the state GOP. After agreeing to take on the additional party work, Sutton points out, he reduced his hours in the auditor's office by a fourth, with his pay cut accordingly.

Though this arrangement may have been tidy and legal, it raises questions about whose interests Sutton is serving--on whose time and whose dime.

Last month, Andy Aplikowski, a party activist from Blaine and chair of the GOP Senate District 51, published an anonymous complaint on his blog, Residual Forces. Along with some musings on the meaning of the new leadership, the nameless commentator concluded that Sutton "should either be a state employee or a Party staffer, but not both" and fretted that Sutton was "a scandal waiting to happen." For his part, a less judgmental Aplikowski concluded that Sutton's dual roles were "somewhat troublesome."

Sutton professes befuddlement that anyone would question the propriety of his employment arrangement. "It's obvious that someone has a political axe to grind," he says, noting that the rough-and-tumble chairmanship battle at the GOP's June convention embittered some of the party faithful.

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