The state’s two major party leaders, Brian Melendez and Tony Sutton, face uncertain futures, for different reasons.
Melendez, chairman of the DFL, is dealing with some – perhaps a lot – of internal pressure to step down in the wake of the huge legislative election losses.
Sutton, chairman of the Republican Party, might choose to leave the position on a triumphant note. He’d go only because the voluntary post is so time-consuming. He’ll make his decision on his political future by the end of the year.
It should be noted that Jack Uldrich, chairman and keeper of the Independence Party flame for years, also might step down. After the disappointment of this year’s governor’s race, he’s indicated it’s probably going to be time for a break from politics.
Only Sutton would go out on top.
Lots of similarities to plight of NFL coach
Being a party chairman, he said, is not much different from being an NFL coach.
“Everybody has an opinion of how they could do it,” he said. “Politics is just like football. There are people who observe it on TV a little and all of a sudden, they think they could operate a game or a campaign more successfully.”
Carry that football analogy further.
Sutton’s critics can’t hurt him — they’re outsiders. Those on the team, meanwhile, think he’s done a grand job.
Melendez, on the other hand, is dealing with a locker room full of bruised egos looking for someone to blame. The easiest target: The guy at the top.
Melendez was not available for comment for this article. But in an email he sent recently to members of the party’s Central Committee, he didn’t sound like a guy who was going to simply give up.
“Change for the sake of change isn’t a strategy,” Melendez wrote. He wrote that “losing the legislature was a shock. We were surprised and stunned.” But he noted that the party is “10 seats away” from regaining control of the Legislature in 2012. He also suggested that the success of 2006 and 2008 shouldn’t be forgotten.
One more football analogy: Brad Childress may have been saying the same sorts of things as he was being fired as coach of the Vikings: “Look what we did last year. … Look at how close we were to winning a bunch of games this year.”
It’s bad enough for Melendez that the party was so badly beaten in legislative races. But he’s not likely to get much credit for the party almost certainly ending its quarter-century losing streak in gubernatorial races, not at least from Mark Dayton.
Go back to the DFL’s convention in Duluth.
The party hierarchy — with Melendez at the top — opted not to even allow Dayton to enter the convention hall to shake hands with old DFL friends because Dayton had decided to bypass the convention’s endorsing process and go directly to a primary. Dayton was angry about the closed-door treatment he received from a party he’s supported his entire career. The presumptive governor has a good memory.
Adding weight to the idea that there’s a cool relationship between Dayton and Melendez is a report in Politics in Minnesota, which cities a source saying that Alida Messinger, a major contributor to the DFL, no longer will contribute to the party if Melendez stays. Messinger is Dayton’s former wife. The two are parents of two grown sons, and they remain close friends. Messinger was a major contributor to the PAC Win Minnesota, which ran negative ads about Emmer throughout the campaign.
Rick Stafford, a former party chair, doesn’t dispute that there’s grumbling about Melendez, but he said there’s always grumbling about a party chair. In this case, he thinks the grumblers represent a minority view in the party. He says that “if Brian wants the job again, I believe he would be re-elected.”
Melendez may indicate whether he’s interested in standing for re-election as soon as this weekend, when the DFL executive committee meets. The party election is in February.
Sutton, ‘the brawler’; Melendez, ‘the chess player’
Certainly, the criticism of Sutton has been much rowdier than the criticism of Melendez. Part of that is the character of these two characters. Sutton sees politics as a brawl; Melendez looks at politics as a chess match.
Sutton relishes making DFLers gnash their teeth. He laughs at the criticism he receives “from all those Republican editorial writers at the Star Tribune.”
He’s set himself up for criticism by attacking the integrity of the results of the governor’s race and by defending the so-called purge of such old Republican warhorses as Arne Carlson, Al Quie and Dave Durenberger after they actively supported the Independence Party candidacy of Tom Horner in the governor’s race.
Sutton was not a direct participant in the decision to ban the group of 18 longtime party members from participating in party activities for two years. He presided over the Saturday meeting of the party’s central committee meeting at which the decision was made and he does defend the move.
“People are upset,” he said. “Many believe those people (The Unclean 18) are responsible for the outcome of the governor’s race.”
The “purge,” he said, is not about silencing dissent. It’s about party discipline and team-building.
“Dissent and debate are good things,” Sutton said. “They make you stronger. But once the party picks a candidate, then you shouldn’t decide to suddenly to move to a different team.”
Sutton noted that many of those who called themselves Republicans but endorsed Horner once had benefited from Republican Party endorsement themselves. Even Carlson, who was never liked by conservatives in his own party, twice was endorsed, albeit grudgingly, by the party. (Carlson won endorsement in 1990 only after the party’s first choice, Jon Grunseth, was forced, by scandal, to drop from the race. Carlson won endorsement again in 1994, only after defeating the party’s convention-endorsed candidate, Allen Quist, in a primary race.)
Those who want to change the party should change it from within, Sutton said. In his view, those who want to call themselves members of the party should remain silent if they don’t like the party’s candidate.
In a statement, Melendez shook his finger at the Republicans for their action against the 18.
“The foundation of a solid democracy is in the free market place of ideas — and strong leadership means listening to good ideas even if they come from those who don’t always toe the party line,” Melendez wrote.
This might have been more convincing had it not been for the DFL’s slamming its convention door on those who weren’t willing to play by the party’s endorsement rules.
Sutton is also unapologetic for his strident attacks on the legitimacy of the gubernatorial race.
“The head of the party must aggressively fight for the interest of the party,” he said. “It’s OK to be skeptical of [Secretary of State] Mark Ritchie. It makes him more accountable.”
The big question is why anyone would want to head a political party. The hours are long. There is no pay. The bickering, even in winning years, is a constant. At least elected officials get treated with a modicum of respect.
What do party leaders get?
“It’s our form of public service,” Sutton said. “Some people volunteer with the Salvation Army, others may have something else. This is our way of trying to make the community better through political power. It is time-consuming. It is exhausting. But you’re fighting for a cause you believe in. There’s camaraderie with those who are with you. It’s almost like a big family. You get into the contest and you work together. That part is very rewarding.”
Especially when you win.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.