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Should the role of political party chairmen end at the steps of the Capitol?

Tony Sutton
Tony Sutton

Should the role of political party chairmen end at the steps of the Capitol?

The question arises from a letter Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton wrote to Republican legislators last month.

In the letter, Sutton urged Republicans to “resist any revenue enhancement proposals like raising taxes, raising fees, expanding gambling, expanding the sales tax or any other such schemes that not only violate our principles, but are also bad politics and bad public policy.”

Ken Martin
Ken Martin

There also were lines like this:

 • “People voted for you because they were looking for a different approach to the big government policies of the DFL”  

• “You remember the environment in which you were elected.”

• “When you cut through all the clutter the voters are expecting you to be true to your principles.”

Where’s the line?
Was Sutton out of line? Was there an implied threat in the letter that anyone who might compromise with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton would lose support of the party?  Was Sutton meddling too much in the business of  a democracy, which often is filled with compromise?

Start with Sutton, who says the media — especially the Star Tribune, which broke the story of the letter — are reading far too much into his letter.

“The newspaper grabbed it and made a bigger deal of it than it is,” he said. “All I was doing was thanking them for what they’ve done and offering a little rah-rah encouragement to stick to their principles. For whatever reason, there are some who are reading more into it. My intention was to encourage and praise. Nothing more. To read more into it is to buy into the bias of those who buy into the Republican stereotypes that we’re inflexible.”

It probably doesn’t help Sutton’s cheerleading argument that his party has been quick to punish those who have strayed from the party line.

In 2008, Republican legislative leaders and party activists came down hard on six members of the Republican House caucus who voted to override a veto of a transportation bill by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

In the last election cycle, the GOP “exiled” a handful of moderate Republicans who came out in support of Independence candidate Tom Horner instead of GOP nominee Tom Emmer.

But Sutton said there’s no correlation between those events and his letter.   

In recent weeks, he said, he’s been to a number of party activities. In each case, he said, he’s repeated the theme of the letter he sent to legislators.

“At every single event, I’ve said, ‘Stand behind your legislator. They need to know you’re behind them.’ My role is to encourage. They do need to know they’re supported because the pressure is going to grow. What’s happening in Wisconsin is going to be happening here. There will be people in the Capitol shouting that taxes need to be raised. There are going to be lobbyists, thick as thieves, with their hands out. There’s going to be tremendous pressure.”

House Speaker Kurt Zellers does not think Sutton’s letter was out of line, or that the party chairman was making implied threats.

“In full disclosure, I endorsed him [for party chair two years ago],” Zellers said. “I consider him a friend.  I don’t think what he did was anything out of the ordinary for any party chair. I don’t think there’s been a [Republican] party chair who hasn’t said, ‘Don’t let them go raising taxes.’ But I don’t think there’s been a DFL chair who hasn’t said, ‘Don’t let them cut the budget.’ ”

Sutton only rarely appears at the Capitol, Zellers said.

“The times I see him are on the weekends at party events,” Zellers said. “I appreciate him reaffirming the party’s planks. But we [Republican legislators] don’t have the party platform sewed into our suit coats.”

(It should be noted, however, that the GOP’s deputy chairman, Michael Brodkorb, is a constant Capitol presence. In his full-time job, he works, in communications,  for the Republican Senate caucus and attends most briefings by Republican Senate leaders.)

DFL GOP chairmen differ in approach
Ken Martin, the DFL’s new party chairman, does believe there is a line separating party business and the work at the Capitol.

“It’s not up to the chair of the party to control what happens at the Legislature,” Martin said. “The chairs of the parties aren’t elected by the people. They’re elected by people in the party. Our job is to help people get elected. When we’re involved in telling them how to vote, we’ve gone too far.”

But Martin wouldn’t say that Sutton’s letter crossed a line.

“I like him as a person,” Martin said of Sutton. “He just views his role much differently than how I view my role. He tends to hold his candidates to the party line. I view my job as helping serving their interests, helping them get elected. Neither has to be wrong.”

Laughing, Martin said that nobody should be surprised about Sutton’s letter.

“It shouldn’t surprise anyone,” said Martin. “He booted people out of his party. I think I have a different view. It’s my job to advocate and be fiercely loyal to our values, but it’s not our job to kick people out of the party.”

That doesn’t mean DFL legislators haven’t fallen out of favor with party activists. But when that happens, Martin said, it usually happens at the local level.

“A grass-roots process,” he said.

It does often seem that the DFL has a bigger tent than this generation of Republicans. The DFL does seem to offer individual legislators more flexibility. And, of course, Dayton already is talking about budget compromise.

There are a handful of Republican moderates in the Legislature who refuse to call themselves “moderate” for fear of alienating activists back home.

DFL legislators seem to be a little freer to ramble toward at least the middle of the spectrum. There are, for example, a handful of pro-life DFL legislators, and there certainly are DFLers more fiscally conservative than Dayton.

(Aside here: It will be interesting to see, when crunch time comes on big budget issues, whether the DFL minority will vote lockstep in support of Dayton as the Republican minority did — with the one gas-tax exception — in support of Pawlenty.)

“We have some [rural] legislators who couldn’t possibly win endorsement in the metro area,” said Martin. ” … We are fiercely loyal to our values, but we’re respectful of disagreements. It’s not our job to hold their feet to the fire.”

Not surprisingly, Sutton completely disagrees with the notion that the DFL offers a bigger tent than Republicans.  

“In reality,” he said, “the Democrats are far more rigid. They don’t look at fiscal reality. Raise more taxes, raise more revenue. Anything beyond that is outside their comfort zone.”

Sutton does say he’s heard from his spouse that he’s been taking another beating from liberal bloggers about his letter.

He doesn’t read the blogs himself, he said. But he can’t get his wife to stop. Apparently, he said, the newest controversy has led to bloggers harping on two old themes.

“I’ve discovered, because of the bloggers, that I’ve got a weight problem, and the second thing is I’m a puppet master, running the entire operation.”

He admits to the former but scoffs at the latter.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/03/2011 - 10:48 am.

    //Should the role of political party chairmen end at the steps of the Capitol?

    Uh, yeah. And if Republicans are smart they’ll keep it that way. This chairman has lost two big elections to what were supposed to be “dream” candidates for the Republicans. They didn’t lose by much, but Sutton thought they were slam dunks for his candidates. He’s clearly not the go-to guy when it comes to describing MN constituents.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/03/2011 - 11:06 am.

    Regarding Mr. Sutton’s claims that the Republican Party has a “big tent.”

    It, may, indeed, be a “big tent,” it’s just that there’s a lot of empty space in it because Grover Norquist, et al, control the bouncers (among them Mr. Sutton) who decide who’s allowed to enter that tent and who gets thrown out.

    The Democrats, on the other hand, have an even larger tent and don’t seem to have bouncers at all, only ushers handing out programs which attempt to help those who enter figure out how to make sense of the three (or more) ring circus that’s usually running.

    Regarding Republican Math: if Mr. Sutton and his “acceptable” and “accepted” brand of Republicans could just realize that, when it comes to the taxes necessary to support the government Minnesotans want and need in order to support the quality of life they expect, 2-2 does not equal 6, and…

    When it comes to the quality of life of the average citizen, it hasn’t helped those average folks that the income of state’s wealthiest folks has done a $6 dollars + $6 million in the past few decades, an increase made possible only because of the dinging of the income of the average person to the tune of $2 + 0 = $2 even thought that average worker is working far harder, far more hours, and producing far more than in previous decades, while having to pay far more of their health insurance costs and completely fund their own pensions (and that’s for those who are still employed).

    When it comes to the income and quality of life of the average citizen, it is the Republicans who CAN’T or WON’T do math. Their balance sheet only allows them to continuously subtract dollars from the life of the average citizen in order to add dollars to the wealth of the already fabulously wealthy.

    Despite what they promise, making the rich richer NEVER helps the average citizen. Average citizens are only helped when we go to bat for each other and realize that the rich have been making “class warfare” against the rest of us, against the middle and lower classes of this nation since Ronald Reagan took office.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/03/2011 - 11:12 am.

    Slow story day?

    Tony Sutton’s actions are only governed by his grasp of reality and the acceptance of the people who elected him.

    In honor of his restaurant, instead of calling this a big “nothing-burger”, I’d call it an “empty-taco”.

  4. Submitted by Mark Jenkins on 03/03/2011 - 11:14 am.

    There should absolutely be a line between politics and governance. As Ken Martin pointed out, a political party can help elect a legislator, but should not get involved with the way that person serves their constituents after the election.

    After reading Mr. Sutton’s letter, there are two paragraphs that concern me.

    “As such, please resist any “revenue enhancement” proposals like raising taxes, raising fees, expanding gambling, expanding the sales tax, or any other such schemes that not only violate our principles, but are also bad politics and bad public policy. “

    In this paragraph, Mr. Sutton blatantly refers to certain issues facing the legislators as “bad public policy.” That’s not “rah-rah”, that’s dictating a policy position.

    “By following those principles not only will we be doing the right thing from a public policy perspective, we will be doing the right thing for the next election.”

    Again, Mr. Sutton tells Republican legislators what “the right thing from a public policy perspective” is. He then wraps up this paragraph with a thinly veiled reminder that their re-election is riding on their policy choices at the Capitol.

    Is it a “threat”? Yes. Is he saying the consequences of their not “doing the right thing” will come from the party or the voters? Well, you’ll have to talk to someone who can see under the veil to know for sure. As the article points out, there are at least a couple dozen Republicans and former Republicans who have seen under the veil in the recent past.

    As for me, I look forward to meeting yet another class of Republican “exiles”.

  5. Submitted by Shawn Otto on 03/03/2011 - 11:17 am.

    Sutton has never understood the ethical line between party work and work for the taxpayers. As Deputy State Auditor under Pat Anderson, while he was pulling down a full-time taxpayer salary, he was also working as the paid secretary-treasurer of the MN Republican Party. It was convenient, as the GOP was just 3 floors down in the same building. But it was an enormous conflict of interest.

  6. Submitted by Luke Soiseth on 03/03/2011 - 11:33 am.

    No surprises here. The Republicans have been marching in lockstep since Gingrich and his ilk. They’ve done a stellar job of acting as one, staying on soundbites, punishing free thinkers within the ranks and so on. What’s good for the party has been trumping what’s good for the state or nation all that time – much to the detriment of both.

  7. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 03/03/2011 - 11:52 am.

    Sutton isn’t party chair as much as he is a party boss. All of his actions, such as calling some in his own party Quislings, keeping them on message and his effort to keep elected officials in line – many of whom received zero party support – all speak to the concept of party boss.

    Actually, to me, what really crosses the line is Michael Brodkorb, the mean-spirited blogging Republican hit man and associate party chair is actually employed by the Minnesota Republican Senate caucus. He is essentially running the senate these days. One senator talks about a tiny crack in the hard-core “no new taxes” fallacy and three days later there is another letter signed by all that they will not raise one iota of revenue.

    As a Democrat, the best part is if they actually go through with an all-cuts budget, Democrats will sweep the 2012 election, even in some Republican strongholds. When tuition doubles, when people are forced to ship their parents to nursing homes in other states (and not Wisconsin), when their children are going to school four days a week in a class of 45, it won’t even be close in competitive district. I am already referring to our newly minted do-nothing senator as a future one-term senator.

  8. Submitted by David Mindeman on 03/03/2011 - 11:54 am.

    The point is a bit moot when the Deputy Chair of the Party, Michael Brodkorb, works in the Senate and has direct access to the leadership. The idea that Brodkorb “separates” his dual roles is laughable.

  9. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 03/03/2011 - 01:10 pm.

    I agree that Sutton appears to be functioning as a “Boss” while Ken Martin functions as a “Chair” for their respective parties.

    Not all party members appreciate the “Bosses” being authoritarian about positions and voting on policies and legislation. GOP “Deputy Dot” driving to SW MN to tell Rep. Rod Hamilton’s party delegates that they shouldn’t endorse him to run for re-election in SD22 a few years ago comes to mind. Hamilton had been a “disloyal” Republican when he voted to raise the gas tax so Highway 60 going through his district could have construction to eliminate the trouble spots that seem to claim traffic fatalities every year.

    The delegates of SD22 defied “Deputy Dot” and endorsed Hamilton anyway. Hamilton and Abeler are the only 2 of the 6 “Defiant” House members that are still in the Legislature after voting to Veto Pawlenty. Hamilton is now a Committee Chair.

    Bullies seem to be losing in the public relations arena these days. At least that’s how it’s going in Africa, the Mid-East, and Wisconsin. And Deputy GOP Party Boss Brodkorb working in the Capitol, that’s just too cozy for comfort. Conflict of Interest is out of fashion, and people are losing tolerance for it.

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/03/2011 - 04:24 pm.

    Not being a member of the GOP, I don’t really have standing to tell the friends I have in that party how to organize their affairs. The parties aren’t mirror images of each other and the respective roles of the party chairmen of the two parties can be quite different. I can tell you, however, that if Martin issued such a letter, I would be quite critical. I would tell him that it isn’t his job, as unelected chairman to tell any legislator other than those whose district he lives, how to represent their constituents. At least not in a way that risks being caught.

  11. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/03/2011 - 04:57 pm.

    The current situation in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and New Jersey cannot help but impress upon ordinary Republicans that the anti-tax rhetoric is based upon a MYTH that shrinking government means government will get better (what????) and their states will become more prosperous (as in under Pawlenty????).

    Indiana’s legislature is busy stripping all workers’ rights from its public employee unions –even those of police and fire fighters.

    In Detroit, the education system is so underfunded that it plans to close half that city’s public schools and replacing them with charters that will have class sizes as big as 60. As I recall reading, these schools are to be managed by private “foundations” whose agendae may not be what parents want their kids to learn.

    Wisconsin’s fight to protect workers’ legal right to negotiate gets much more publicity. It may be enough to cause moderate, ordinary Republican citizens to renounce Grover Norquist and All His Works.

  12. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/03/2011 - 05:11 pm.

    I have no use for Tony Sutton or the current crop of Republicans in Minnesota, but I don’t think his letter was out of line. A party chair may certainbly take it upon himself to remind legislators of the party line on certain issues. Even if there were some implied threat of “discipline,” I don’t see anything unethical. If Republican legislators want to be bossed aroud by a small cadre of simple-minded tinhorns, so be it. Let the voters sort that out.

  13. Submitted by William Pappas on 03/03/2011 - 05:43 pm.

    The Republican Party has always been a top down party. The national party frequently dictates who runs for state office (Pawlenty/Coleman Senate intrusion) while the state party dictates the ideology and philosophy of every state legislator through intimidation and fear. Tony Sutton is a perfect party boss, as Jeremy described, and wields his power without discretion. Democrats are ready to be titled moderates as they tend to seek comprimise and always have to bend right. Meanwhile, those republicans who have the audacity to call themselves moderates are bullied out of the party or forced to become zealots like the others. No comprimise is allowed or presto, your career in republican politics is finished. The impasse in politics today is a result of this party purity demanded of republicans. It is incredibly undemocratic, autocratic and ends up in disfunctional government (which is what they are trying to achieve so they can point to it and say “you see!”). Tony Sutton is the designated autocrat to lead the Republican Party. His rehtoric will have to fill the vitriolic gap left by the former governor.

  14. Submitted by Ann Richards on 03/04/2011 - 06:14 am.

    Wow- a Republican boss used the word ‘environment’

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