By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
In 1984, Tony Sutton took a long walk home. It was early September, and the 17-year-old Hibbing High School senior was lugging bags of political flyers touting the merits of the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan.
He'd been assigned the duty of "knock and drop." It seemed simple enough: He'd walk up to a house, rap on the door, drop a bag of flyers into the hands of the homeowner, and conduct a mature discussion on the political distinctions of Reagan and his opponent, Walter Mondale.
While most people gave him a polite reception, Hibbing was a town filled with Blue Dog Democrats in the center of the union-heavy Iron Range. So it was only a matter of time before Sutton walked up to the home of a union man who didn't take kindly to some kid selling him on the virtues of a president infamous for his hostility to organized labor.
"The guy looked like Sgt. Slaughter," Sutton recalls. "You know, the crew cut, thick mustache. Just a big union guy."
Slaughter leaned over Sutton and jabbed him in the chest with his finger as he spoke his mind:
The union gave me this house. And I'm only voting for whoever the union tells me to vote for!
"Here I am, 17 years old, idealistic, believe in America and apple pie, and this guy was getting in my face," Sutton says. "There wasn't any violence. But it taught me how passionate people get about their politics."
Slaughter told the pesky kid to take his campaign literature elsewhere. Little did he know, Sutton would grow up to become chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party.
"WELCOME TO THE INNER chamber," says Mark Drake, communications director for the state GOP.
A door opens to a central room with a copier on the left. Everything is tan. Drake walks through the space toward a back office. The room itself is bare, nothing but a whiteboard on the wall, and the windows face south toward the back of the Capitol. Behind a small table sits Tony Sutton, sipping on a Diet Coke.
"I don't need much," Sutton says. "I told the guys to just put a Minnesota and American flag in there, and a refrigerator full of Diet Coke."
He wears a pressed suit, tie, and wire glasses. His thick black hair folds over his head neatly. He looks like the kind of guy who makes hospital corners on his bed sheets every morning.
Sutton has the unenviable job of turning around a party that seems to have lost its bearings on a national scale. But don't tell that to Sutton.
Far from playing defense, Sutton has come out swinging with a gloves-be-damned attack on Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. When Ritchie hosted his peers at the National Association of Secretaries of State, the Minnesota GOP ran the kind of negative radio ads usually reserved for the waning days of a tight campaign.
The commercials accused Ritchie of botching the Coleman/Franken recount on a number of fronts, from improperly training local election officials to lying about using state resources for political purposes and switching positions on rejected absentee ballots at the behest of the DFL. (Ritchie has denied the allegations.)
The move was akin to pantsing Ritchie in front of his peers, and it's a sign that the GOP is alive and swinging.
For Sutton, it was just the latest in a series of steps that led from Hibbing to the head of the party. In the 1990s, some of his many positions included state director of the Bush/Quayle campaign, executive director of the Republican Party of Minnesota, and executive director of Phil Gramm's bid for president.
Along the way he gained enough respect to cover the book jacket of a future memoir:
Tony really knows the party inside and out. He is a nose-to-the-grindstone, hardworking guy. He's not in it for special promotion. Just in it to elect Republicans.
—Vin Weber, former Republican congressman for the Second District
Tony's just relentless. There is nothing lazy about him. He's constantly working. And he comes from northern Minnesota and has that no-nonsense attitude, definitely not a city slicker, he comes off straightforward and direct.
—David Strom, senior policy fellow at Minnesota Free Market Institute
Tony has a real understanding of how the party works. His historical knowledge is important as we work to return our party to prosperity.
—Laura Brod, Republican representative from New Prague
Most of this praise came from his tenure as executive director of the party during the Bill Cooper era of 1997-99. Cooper, the CEO of TCF Bank, is still referred to as the most demanding, rigorous, and bullshit-free man ever elected to lead the Minnesota GOP.
"Tony learned a lot from Bill Cooper," says Marsie Leier, known as the godmother of Republican activists. "Before, his expertise was on the political side. Under Cooper, he learned a lot about raising money. Just based on who Bill is, he had to have acquired skills on the financial side of politics."
Cooper oversaw a period of dominance for the GOP in local elections. They carried a supermajority in the House and cut deep into the Democratic lead in the Senate. Even though a professional wrestler resurfaced to swipe the gubernatorial election, the era is still looked back on by local Republicans as a period of glory.