Editor’s note: This story has been edited to reflect a correction/clarification. See note at end of story for details.
The tension in the room was palpable. In the midst of a $5 billion budget stalemate with Gov. Mark Dayton, Republican legislative leaders stood before microphones at a news conference last week and attempted to brush off comments made by the Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Tony Sutton, who had recently characterized the governor as “privileged,” “erratic” and “Machiavellian.” No one in leadership professed to agree with the remarks.
House Speaker Kurt Zellers told reporters, “I think many times I’ve said in here, Chair Sutton can send us letters and suggestions, and I take them for their face value, but I don’t listen to everything that Tony Sutton says.” Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch said she has tried to keep the “tone and rhetoric down,” adding that “all I can do is be responsible for me.”
Facing a certain special session and the possibility of a government shutdown, GOP leaders and legislators seem to be distancing themselves from the state party chairman’s words. But moves to distinguish themselves now could prove difficult after a session that has seen the state party involved in legislative affairs to an unusual degree, sources say. From Sutton’s strongly worded letters to legislators railing against tax hikes to Michael Brodkorb’s dual role as Senate caucus communications head and deputy party chairman, some Capitol hands point to a level of closeness between the state party and its legislative caucuses that is unprecedented.
“I’ve never heard of a party making promises to activists on what leadership will or will not do,” a former Republican legislator said. “I know this is the first GOP majority in a long time, and Sutton and Brodkorb feel like they were a big part of that, but I’m not sure where they are getting this certainty that Amy Koch and Kurt Zellers are going to do exactly what [the party] is telling people.”
Sutton, for his part, denied that there is anything improper, or even anything new, in his role. “We have been no more active this year than we have in the past,” he said. “The only difference is, the legislators this session really believe in our platform. People are trying to enact the things that they ran on, and I think that has really surprised people like [Senate Minority Leader] Tom Bakk.
“People want to attribute the legislative activities to the Republican Party, when quite frankly I’m a reflection of what the legislators say to me. Legislators say to me no new taxes and not a penny more.”
Front and center
At a news conference last fall to announce the slate of GOP committee chairs, the first person to take the podium was Sutton. The presence of the party chairman at a legislative press event struck Capitol watchers. Within the first two months of the session, Sutton followed up with a strongly worded letter to GOP lawmakers, saying that raising any kind of revenue would go against their principles and the wishes of voters.
“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,” Sutton wrote in a Feb. 14 letter to legislators. “You cannot espouse limited government on one hand while looking to find new sources of revenue on the other.”
Just days after the session ended, Sutton sent out a fundraising appeal in which he promised the party faithful that Republican legislative leaders would not budge on their pledge to hold the line on taxes. Few if any legislators have spoken out about Sutton’s letter writing, but a tiff in late April between Brodkorb, the deputy chairman, and newly elected RNC Committeewoman Pat Anderson provoked criticisms from GOP House Rep. John Kriesel and a number of Capitol watchers.
The conflict stemmed from news that Anderson had landed a job lobbying for a racino at Canterbury Park. Brodkorb wrote that Anderson’s new role put her at odds with the anti-gambling plank in the state party platform and that Anderson would have to choose between her lobbying gig and her committeewoman post. Anderson responded by pointing to a conflict between Brodkorb’s dual roles.
“He is not just a party representative, he is a flak person, and he has to protect his senators, a majority of whom support gaming,” she said. “I don’t know if he was thinking when he said that.” Anderson noted at the time that Senate President Michelle Fischbach chief-authored a bill expanding electronic slots and gambling in bars and restaurants. “Is he going give her an ultimatum?” Anderson asked.
Anderson wasn’t the only one scratching her head over Brodkorb’s firm, party-line stance on gambling. “Who is he talking for: the party delegates or for Amy Koch?” said Dick Day, a RacinoNow lobbyist and a former Senate GOP minority leader. “I was the longest-serving minority leader in the Senate in Minnesota history, and that would have never happened under my watch. If you talk about someone who needs to make a decision, it’s him.”
Brodkorb had this to say at the time: “I’m not an elected official, I am a party officer, and I support the party platform. There are varying opinions internally in the caucus on racino and gambling, and my position is that I support the platform. Everyone knows that I am a volunteer deputy of the party and I work for the Senate. There’s no confusion there.”
On the House side, however, freshman GOP Rep. John Kriesel didn’t hide his disapproval of Brodkorb’s pronouncement. He sent out several defiant tweets defending Anderson and calling lock-step partisan conformity a “large part of what is wrong with politics.”
“When one person strays from the platform, to just go, ‘Yeah, you have to quit your job now,’ I think that’s ridiculous,” Kriesel, of Cottage Grove, told Capitol Report. “If that’s the case… I better start packing up my things.”
’Name calling’ isn’t helpful
In the early days of June, Sutton and Brodkorb held a news conference to announce the party’s launch of a new website — Daytonshutdown.com. Sutton said any shutdown should be blamed on the Democratic governor, who, according to Sutton, likewise ran from his responsibilities in the U.S. Senate when things were difficult.
“It’s an easy to thing to do to laugh off the connection between Mark Dayton closing his U.S. Senate office when things got dicey, and his willingness — even eagerness — to shut down state government over tough budget negotiations,” Sutton said. “The governor’s history of taking a time out when things get tough is well documented.”
Sutton sparked a war of words with DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin, who said the GOP was engaging in a “full-on character assassination” of the governor. While partisan battles between state party leaders are to be expected, GOP legislative leaders distanced themselves more than they had earlier in the session from the GOP message, and legislators are doing the same.
GOP Sen. Carla Nelson said she does not think “name calling is helpful.”
In the view of House Health and Human Services Finance Committee Chairman Jim Abeler, “At this point, it would be better if Mr. Sutton kept to himself.”
GOP Sen. Dave Thompson said he understands that the Legislature and the party serve different functions. “The job of the state party is to promote Republican ideas and principles and message in a way that they feel informs the state about what is going on in Minnesota politics,” he said. “Within the caucuses, we have a very different function to promote our message and principles and also we have to get the work done and deal with the governor. Do I agree with everything Tony Sutton says? Nope, and I doubt Tony Sutton agrees with everything I say.
“Is the level of activity [by the state party] ramped up?” Thompson continued. “I don’t know. And if it is, it’s because of the circumstances. The GOP majorities are butting up against a government shutdown. We are living in different times.”
After this story was published online, Sen. John Howe contacted us to say we had misinterpreted a comment of his that appeared near the end of the piece. As published, the remark was framed to suggest that the state GOP had played a leading role in setting the initial Republican budget target of $34.2 billion. That is “factually inaccurate,” Howe said: In referring to the “party,” he meant legislative caucus leadership, not the Republican Party of Minnesota.
In an email to Capitol Report, Howe wrote, “The reporter in this case was talking about the GOP state party and I was talking about the GOP Senate caucus (I use the words ‘party’ and ‘caucus’ interchangeably)…. I attended the caucus meeting where we decided what numbers to use for the budget. It was a lengthy discussion; I thought starting at $34.2 billion was too high. But to suggest or even imply that Tony Sutton, Michael Brodkorb, or the State Republican Party had any input into the budget numbers is factually inaccurate. It just did not happen.”
PIM/Capitol Report regrets the mistake.