Tony Sutton: Savior of Minnesota's Republican Party?
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.
For Sutton, it was a chance to learn firsthand how a great man leads. Cooper ran the party like a business. He made decisions. Even if they did not yield the perfect solution, adjustment could be made on the fly. The key was picking a direction and moving forward—even if it was a mistake, it was better than standing still.
"The thing I always like about Bill Cooper," says Sutton, "is that he is one of these guys who believe there are 10 different ways to solve a problem and the biggest hiccup that people have is picking the solution and going for it. A lot of times people suffer from analysis to paralysis."
After Cooper stepped down, Sutton continued in his position as executive director for two more years, under the new leadership of Ron Ebensteiner, then left to lead Brian Sullivan's campaign for governor, a move that culminated in a personal tragedy, 11th-hour maneuvering, and the christening of a new leader.
AS TIM PAWLENTY greeted the tide of national reporters, activists, and Republican high rollers in San Diego last month, everything seemed to be in his favor. He popped off cable-friendly quotes that included a dig at MSNBC's Chris Matthews's "man crush" on the president, and quipped that Obama's health care package would make "Bernie Madoff blush." Beaming out to the masses as the conservative from the heartland, he looked ready to make a play for the presidential nomination.
One almost forgets he was once the underdog. Back in 2002, Pawlenty was just a state representative from Eagan, a hockey-playing conservative who flaunted his mullet like the Hanson Brothers flaunted crosschecks.
Opposing Pawlenty was Brian Sullivan, the businessman from Baltimore with a Harvard degree in economics. He had traveled to Minnesota to buy a water-purification patent that he'd later reinvent as PUR water. While Pawlenty was the insider with experience, Sullivan was a millionaire whose business acumen could help solve Minnesota's finances. Sullivan had also locked up an all-important endorsement from Cooper as well as securing Sutton to steer the campaign.
"Tony was viewed as the best operative in the state," says Sullivan. "He is paranoid about something happening or something going wrong and constantly thinking how to mitigate the bad event.... Tony is a warrior."
With money, endorsements, and a team with political acumen, Sullivan jumped out to a huge lead. In March 2002, Sullivan whoopped Pawlenty in a straw poll by 14 percentage points. He relentlessly hammered Pawlenty's voting record in mailers, and flooded the airwaves with self-financed television commercials.
But as the June election neared, the race picked up. Pawlenty started to gain traction among conservative delegates, using connections with local legislators to climb back into contention. Heading into the convention, it was looking like it'd be a photo finish, and Sutton was working hard on polishing a ground game to implement on the convention floor.
Months before the big day, Sutton had received a phone call from his mom, who had moved with his dad down to Florida for retirement. She told him his father wasn't feeling well. They were going to the doctor.
Sutton didn't think much of it. His father led a vigorous life, was always healthy, loved to work outside. Which made it all the more shocking when tests revealed that he had a tumor and only months to live.
"I was in a little state of denial," reflects Sutton. "You know, I was like, 'You can fight this! You can treat this!'"
On the night before the nomination, Sutton held a meeting with a couple hundred Sullivan floor leaders inside a conference room of the Xcel Center. The following day, Sutton was to lead them in the battle for delegates. As he gave his pep talk, his cell phone rang. It was his mom. He ignored it, but it kept on ringing. ("My mom does that," he says. "She calls multiple times even if it's not an emergency.")
A half-hour later, he checked his messages. His mom told him he had to call right away. His father was in the hospital.
When Sutton called back, he could hear his father in the background, moaning. His mom told him his dad was dying. He wasn't going to make it through the night. She put the phone up to his ear so Sutton could tell his dad he loved him.
Sutton hung up and made the decision: He was going to Florida that minute. He met with Sullivan and another supporter, Jack Meeks, and told them he was leaving.
"Here he was at the end of all the months, all the long hours and mental stress of a year-plus effort, and right at the final moment...that happens," recalls Meeks. "It was a difficult time for him. But he made the right decision to leave. No doubt about it."
Sutton was in such a rush that he forgot his sport coat. He had a campaign volunteer fetch it for him from the Xcel Center as he waited outside the parking ramp. Then he got another call from his mother.
"Your dad just died."
Sutton picked up his brother in Minneapolis and both boarded a flight to Florida. Even with his dad already gone, he couldn't let his mom mourn alone.
"I never thought twice about going," he says.
With Sutton off to Florida, Meeks was thrown into the position of campaign leader, twisting arms on the convention floor in what would be a 17-hour war that saw 13 rounds of balloting. The process began Friday morning and finally concluded at 2:45 a.m. Saturday. Pawlenty won a slim majority, and Sullivan—who had spent an estimated $2 million of his own money on the campaign—finally conceded the election.
To this day, Republicans wonder what would've happened if Sutton's father hadn't died when he did.
"I certainly think his having to leave the convention was a loss to the Sullivan campaign," says Meeks. "We had a whole plan for the convention and Tony was in charge of that plan."
Sullivan agrees. "It's like we had a great season," he says, "but we lost our quarterback the night before the Super Bowl."
"YOU GUYS REALLY NEED to take advantage of the salsas we have here," Sutton says, toting a plastic plate with three dipping cups. As he sets down his plate inside the Baja Sol Cantina in Inver Grove Heights and climbs onto a bar stool, he glances down at the menu and stops.
"Hold on a second, I need to send a message. We need to update our lunch menu."
The cantina was the prototype for the ever expanding portfolio of Mexican restaurants Sutton operates with his wife, Bridget. He's the acting CEO of the company, not something he ever would have predicted for himself after the 2002 election.
Sutton had been in politics full-time since his twenties. His life ebbed and flowed with the campaign cycles, a binge and purge of poll numbers buttressed by caffeine. Bridget worked as a lobbyist and also needed something new. So they set about searching for a business.
The mission began fancifully: Let's start our own restaurant! But they didn't want to do all the work of building it from scratch. They settled on the plan of franchising, meeting with up-and-comers like Jimmy Johns. But it was Baja Sol that really sold the couple.
"They were a Minnesota-based company in a fast-growing segment," says Sutton.
The couple talked over the investment with Cooper, who agreed to go in with them. In 2004, the Suttons opened their first Baja Sol in downtown Minneapolis. This quickly led to a second location in the Pillsbury Center.
When Baja Sol corporate didn't grow as fast as they needed it to, the Suttons took the unusual step of buying the whole company. Under the their direction, the Baja Sol chain now includes 20 restaurants, with another 10 in the works, earning annual revenues of around $15 million. Cooper remains the director of the company.
For someone who's been in the political trenches for decades, you'd think operating a humble Mexican Cantina would be a breeze. But Sutton says it's just the opposite.
"Running a business is way more difficult than running a campaign," he says. "In business, people are motivated by a paycheck. In politics, people are motivated by the mission."
IN THE SUMMER OF 2008, Joe Repya made his way down to Rochester to attend the state Republican convention. A retired lieutenant colonel with the Army, Repya was thrust into the spotlight when, at the ripe age of 58, he was deployed to the Middle East for Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was yet another tour of duty for a soldier who'd led a rifle platoon in Vietnam and fought with the First Infantry division in Operation Desert Storm. After his latest tour of duty, he had returned and run for GOP party chairman in 2007, losing to Ron Carey.
At the time of the convention, the Minnesota GOP was working to amend more than 60 campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission. The party's records filed between 2006 and 2008 showed serious fluctuations of cash on hand, starting from a reported $136,000 in '06 to $2.8 million in '07, back down to minus $28,000 in '08. During the same period, its debt swelled from a reported $128,000 to $218,000.
That was on Repya's mind during a question-and-answer period. He approached the microphone in the conference hall and asked Chairman Carey about the allegations, wondering aloud if the party might sue a local newspaper if what it reported was false.
Carey responded with a basic, step-by-step explanation that addressed the financial missteps and corrective actions taken by the party.
"I want to thank you for that answer," Repya responded. "It adds clarity and transparency that we didn't have prior to this. And my second part of the question...Tony, it is not directed toward you but to the chairman."
Sutton had taken control of the podium. He was tired of the conversation. Repya's constant complaints toward Carey also irritated him. It was also the end of a long day, and Sutton didn't appreciate someone hogging the microphone to score political points.
So Sutton interrupted with a pointed speech.
"Well, I'm going to take the first crack at it, Joe, because I know that you and Ron tangled last year and that's fine," Sutton said, standing tall in his tan suit, blue shirt, and gold tie. "But when you start to drag my reputation into it, I get a little ticked off."
The audience let out an audible "oooh" as the rhetoric ratcheted up.
"That was not called for," Repya responded. "You should not have said it! The question was to Ron Carey, let Ron Carey get up and answer the question!"
Sutton didn't budge. He stayed at the podium while Repya continued to shout. After a few seconds of back and forth, Sutton unleashed a barrage of words, seemingly in one breath, that took control of the room:
"I do take it personally because we worked hard, very hard, to work through these mistakes that were made, technical mistakes, inadvertent mistakes. And I know in the political process people butt heads but I'm a little tired, okay, and maybe I'm a little sensitive about it, but we worked really hard to keep this from being a political issue internally within the party and I resent the attempt to make it a political issue within the party because we're trying to work to correct it."
The crowd stood and cheered. Repya continued to yell out his question. As Sutton waved to the crowd and sat back down, Carey returned to bang the gavel, scold Repya for his out-of-order conduct, and declare that "the truth shall set us free."
Repya, who ended up leaving the GOP after his experience at the convention, has nothing but bad things to say about his former friends. "The Republican Party is now the party of rabid ideologues that will attack its opposition and people within its own party. And Tony Sutton is nothing but a carbon copy of Ron Carey."
But Sutton's other political opponent for chair, Dave Thompson, has a more nuanced take. Reached by phone in Pennsylvania, where's he's working for NASCAR, Thompson spoke highly of Sutton. But he's frank about Sutton's challenge.
"It will take two things: openness and honesty, and adhering to the priorities and values of grassroots Republicans," Thompson says. "That is the thing that Tony has to overcome. People still believe he is part of the Ron Carey machine, which was a heavy-handed machine. Tony will need to overcome it."
BACK AT HEADQUARTERS, the Diet Coke is just about gone, and Sutton starts to sound almost chipper about the GOP's prospects after the 2008 election, a moment he refers to as the "Obama hiccup."
If recent trends are any indication, Sutton has reason to hope. The latest SurveyUSA poll found that 34 percent of Minnesotans now identify as Republican. The number is the most robust since the party began its slide in 2006. And it bodes well for the upcoming election, as historically this is a time when the minority party has the opportunity to gain seats.
"But whether the gain is a tickle or a tsunami remains to be seen," says Steve Schier, political science professor at Carlton College.
It will be a tsunami if Sutton has any say in it. For every Democratic blunder, Sutton fires off a quick, concise response. When Rep. Collin Peterson spoke out about 9/11 Truthers in his district, Sutton pounced.
"I was amazed," Sutton reflects. "Peterson said that thing about 25 percent of his constituents...just a crazy thing. We issued a statement, a press release saying we call on Collin Peterson to apologize...and he did! This has to be the first, last, and only time a political party calls on an opposition to apologize and they do! And then, we call on him in an editorial. We say, 'He needs to speak out and tell us where he is on health care,' and on the same day he says, 'I'm going to vote against it.' The guy is...boy, we should issue another statement and ask for something."
The rest of the job won't be as easy. One major issue is that voting trends in the last two elections show Olmsted County, the western suburbs, and high-income earners treading Democratic. For years, those demographics went strongly for Republicans.
Sutton calls it the "canary in the coal mine." He lists two specific ways his party plans to address the issue.
The first is honing their message as the party of fiscal responsibility. At the State Fair, Sutton hopes to unveil the "Obama-care" competition. The planned contest will have 20 people standing in line throughout fair hours for a chance to win $2,500. According to Sutton, the line symbolizes socialized medicine. It's a little bit of street theater, he says.
But all of this can't be done without organization, the second and most important part of regaining the GOP's footing. That's where Sutton's business background comes into play. Part of his plan includes face-to-face meetings, knocking on doors, and more radio ads that will build the party up to the October straw poll, when the GOP will pick its first and second choice for governor.
Sutton knows the media loves a horse race, and he's prepared to provide one. But the larger impact of the poll is to get his horses from a trot to a gallop.
"It will force them to get organized early, if they want to win the straw poll," he says. "Whatever happens, we will come out of the convention strong."
Exposure is key with the departure of Tim Pawlenty to the national stage and Norm Coleman in limbo, which leaves the party with a roster of lesser-knowns.
"It's a very important time," says Larry Jacobs, noted political scientist at the University of Minnesota. "For a while the Republicans had a starting five and a strong bench. I think this is a period of nervousness. Where do we go? Where is the next generation of leaders?"
Somehow, that prospect doesn't faze Sutton. He takes the question and laughs.
"That is a problem with political scientists: They are always looking back a little bit. There are a lot of people that are coming up. Look at Laura Brod, Paul Kohls, Marty Seifert...the list goes on," he says. "I don't want to wax too poetically, but the Golden Age could be coming up."
IT'S FRIDAY NIGHT and the Metrodome is placid. Unoccupied seats provide Twins fans an opportunity to stretch out and hang their legs on the seats below.
As a bag of baby-blue cotton candy floats over a row of fans, Sutton leans over and says, "You want to see someone who works? Watch those vendors. Up and down the entire game. That's work, man."
For being the head of the GOP, Sutton remains an anonymous face. No one at the game recognizes him, which Sutton doesn't seem to mind, as he's always been a behind-the-scenes player. He's even forgoing the standard three-figure salary his position pays. Instead, he's using the money to hire more staff.
"It's never been about the job," he says. "Always about the principles."
As the game stretches into the late innings, Sutton tells tales about his passion for Minnesota and its politics. But of the many stats, anecdotes, and historic asides, there is one he seems to love the most: There hasn't been a Democrat elected as governor of Minnesota since 1986.
"I think it says a lot about our state."
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