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Future uncertain for the heads of both DFL and Republican parties

The state’s two major party leaders, Brian Melendez and Tony Sutton, face uncertain futures, for different reasons. 

Brian Melendez
Brian Melendez

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.

Tony Sutton
Tony Sutton

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.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Aaron Klemz on 12/09/2010 - 08:42 am.

    Is Sutton really “going out on top?” Every statewide office was a loss, including a Governor’s seat that the GOP had held since 1990. Neither party chair can declare victory in this election cycle (though it’s certainly true that Melendez can hardly claim credit for Dayton’s election). For Sutton, it might be worse since this was a wave election for Republicans yet they failed to win a statewide election.

  2. Submitted by David Greene on 12/09/2010 - 09:49 am.

    The DFL’s biggest problem is that the leadership doesn’t know how to organize people. Back when Melendez was chosen as party chair, delegates had a choice between him and a candidate who had actually done grassroots organizing. The DFL needs to go back to its roots and that’s why Melendez has got to go.

  3. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 12/09/2010 - 10:07 am.

    “including a Governor’s seat that the GOP had held since 1990…”

    Them’s fightin’ (or rasslin’) words! Do we need a cage match to settle this discrepancy?

  4. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 12/09/2010 - 10:56 am.

    I’m with Alida. I didn’t donate one dime to the DFL and don’t intend to until Melendez is gone and the party comes to its senses. This business of locking Dayton out of the convention is practically the same thing as the Republicans banning some of their finest. We can disagree, but we don’t need to be disagreeable.

    And the attitude that the best candidate is the next one in line who’s earned it through winning previous elections and being “loyal” to the party is what lost us the elections in 2002 and 2006. Wake up folks!! Sometimes the best (winning) candidate is the one who’s had some time to be thoughtful and formulate a plan. Or the one who’s willing to actually state what he/she believes in and go toe-to-toe with the other candidates on that basis.

    The DLF and other Democrats are whinning about the compromise that Obama has had to make. I’m not any happier about it than they are, but were they willing to stand up for what they believed in and push it through BEFORE the election? No. Maybe it would have been more of a slaughter, but at least the American people would have known what we stood for and that we were actually serious about it.

    “If you can’t stand up for your principles then you’ll fall for anything.”

  5. Submitted by Kim Millman on 12/09/2010 - 11:31 am.

    I would warn the party activists not to act so hastily in settling on their sole boogey man to blame for the outcome of the election. The problems are far too complex and diverse for one simple boogey man.

    The first step is admitting you have a problem. For DFLers that is the hardest part. Since the election of Wellstone the party has always come up with misguided excuses for wins and losses. 2006, 2008, 2010 were wave elections where the public was voting against the status quo. In 2006 and 2008, the public continued to get the status quo from Democrats who refused to fight for anything. If you never confront your adversary, you never have debate and if you never have debate, you never communicate with the public on the issues and if you never do that the one that has the most money for a message wins.

    There is a lot of talk of the need for messaging, but you cannot create effective messaging until the party realizes that the most significant problem is the lack of unity of purpose. The subcausing system and all the independent caucuses that have been allowed to be created within the DFL system has resulted in nothing but a fractured party of small interests instead of forcing the delegation to get behind a few of the strongest delegates, candidates and issues. In addition to the subcaucusing system fracturing the party, there is the problem of the big money donor agendas and the House and Senate caucuses fracturing the party even more. Everybody is doing their own thing and refusing to work together as a well oiled unified machine.

    All organizations need a brand and unity of purpose. Yet Democrats haven’t known who they really are since the Democratic Leadership Council stepped in with a corporatist, cheap labor, free-for-all trade and anti-union agenda. Until these problems are addressed, the party will always have problems succeeding in the creation of an appealing and cohesive agenda that will sell to the public. You can’t effectively market small unrelated pieces into a narrative.

    Within the context of a completely fractured party, the culture of its members has never respected the importance demonstrating a narrative with symbolism and branding. As a matter of fact they roll their eyes is disgust as if it is all beneath them. Democrats in general have turned over the symbolic patriotic pomp along with our flag and our founding history to the opposition without so much as a comment. Symbolism is extremely important and so is our history in the ability to make people feel good about the party and its agenda.

    Third, the party members don’t take their role seriously in the vetting or accountability process with either its internal elected leaders or the candidates for public office. There’s a little too much Democracy and not enough tough leadership. You can have a member driven organization, but you still have to have some leadership to actually steer the party.

    There must be party discipline and every member should be taking their responsibility seriously in holding our elected leaders accountable for their actions, or more importantly their inaction. Elected Democrats don’t have to fight anymore, none of them have to side with the masses and none of them has to be afraid of any consequences because we don’t hold them accountable by finding other candidates to run in their stead. Yes, sometimes you have to be willing lose in order to create discipline. But I would ask what is worse, losing even when you win, or just losing out right? Members of the DFL should adopt an old saying as their motto, “I would rather die on my feet that live on my knees.” For the past thirty years Republicans have succeeded in psyching Democrats out by making them believe that they need to move further to the right to the point where our party is unrecognizable in its principles. If the party is going to continue to allow its elected leaders to assist the Republicans in moving the goal posts to the right, you essentially have a two party system in name only.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/09/2010 - 11:48 am.

    I started reading the article until I got to the football part. That the end of that. Enough with the sports, this isn’t a game.

  7. Submitted by greg copeland on 12/09/2010 - 12:31 pm.

    GOP Party Chairman Tony Sutton was clearly the big winner in 2010.
    For your DFL readers let me spell v-i-c-t-o-r-y:

    U.S. Representative-Elect Chip Cravaack R MN-8

    Senate Majority Leader-Elect Senator Amy Koch
    Senate President-Elect Michelle Fischbach

    Speaker-Elect Kurt Zellers

    Further, are there any DFL’ers who have forgotten the advantage of having both House and Senate Majorities during Re-Districting of 201 Legislative Districts?

    Tony, thanks for your had work, and the Victory!

  8. Submitted by steve carlson on 12/09/2010 - 02:05 pm.

    Sutton’s rule (no dissent after the majority decides) is precisely the rule of “democratic centralism” imposed by Lenin on the Bolshevik Party.

  9. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 12/09/2010 - 03:41 pm.

    Thank you Kim for doing what I didn’t have time to do – talk about the fracturing. I think the idea of walking subcaucuses is one of the worst anybody ever came up with. And the games that are played by those “in-the-know” have really discouraged lots of the newcomers from 2008 from becomming active and involved DFLers.

  10. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 12/09/2010 - 05:22 pm.

    To clarify at the convention: Delegates were asked by a Dayton supporter, former state offifcer and a member of the DNC if they would allow candidates not seeking endorsement to be allowed on the floor. Dayton’s name was never mentioned. The main purpose of the convention was edorsement. Adding candidates not seeking endorsement would hve opened the floor to just about anyone who waanted to be on the floor. If the question would have been to allow former senators on the floor, delegates would have voted differently.

  11. Submitted by Hugh Gitlin on 12/09/2010 - 08:19 pm.

    Greg, the House & Senate can draw all the maps they want. If Dayton thinks they are too partisan, he will veto every one of them. The redistricting will be by the court.

  12. Submitted by Kelly O'Brien on 12/09/2010 - 09:41 pm.

    I find it hard to believe that Mark Dayton has supported the DFL for his entire career. Hasn’t he always run against the party’s endorsed candidate? How is that supporting the party?

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