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.”
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.