ST. CLOUD - Minnesota Republican activists ended a disastrous month on Saturday by electing political pro Pat Shortridge as party chairman, hoping he can restore trust among donors and straighten out the party's finances in time for a critical election in 10 months.

Shortridge, 44, a political consultant from Lino Lakes who has worked for elected officials and candidates throughout the country, said his mission is to ensure that Republican candidates compete vigorously while the party begins to chip away at debts that could run as high as $2 million.

"Our values and principles and beliefs are solid and strong and they're working, and we don't need to re-evaluate those," Shortridge said. "We do need to re-evaluate almost everything else in terms of how we operate the party, how it functions, and what we're doing."

Shortridge replaces Tony Sutton, who retired Dec. 2 as reviews of the party's finances were underway. Shortridge was overwhelmingly elected by about 350 members of the party's central committee at the St. Cloud Civic Center, garnering two-thirds of the vote in a three-way race. Burnsville activist Terry McCall finished second with 31 percent, while entrepreneur Todd McIntyre of Plymouth received less than 3 percent.

Activists began the meeting by hearing a sobering report on the party's obligations -- roughly $1.3 million in debt and another $719,000 in legal fees from the 2010 gubernatorial recount. Members lined up at microphones to inquire whether Sutton and other former leaders could be held liable, how so much of the debt had gone unreported and what further penalties the party is likely to face if it is accused of campaign-finance reporting violations.

"I know we have a trust issue right now," said Jeff Johnson, Republican National Committee member and chairman of the party's internal review committee. "Many people feel they were burned. They feel they were lied to. We understand that. We will not succeed if we don't trust each other."

Deputy Chairwoman Kelly Fenton, who has headed the party since Sutton left, said, "Let's use these lessons to build a whole new chapter for the Republican Party of Minnesota."

Between Sutton's resignation and Saturday's New Year's Eve conclave, another bombshell hit the party. On Dec. 14, Sen. Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, stepped down as Senate majority leader, later admitting to a personal relationship with a staffer. The GOP caucus' communications chief, Michael Brodkorb, also left the Senate. He previously had served as Sutton's deputy chairman.

Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, who succeeded Koch as majority leader, appeared at the St. Cloud meeting and praised Koch's work in fighting tax hikes at the Legislature. He added, "To err is human; forgiveness is what God taught us."

Shortridge, who takes over immediately, said he will work without pay and finish Sutton's term, which extends to the spring of 2013. He said he will not seek another term and will continue his consulting, which includes work for the Heritage Foundation, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and U.S. Senate candidates in Florida and Nebraska.

Delegates' questions linger

Fenton will remain deputy chairwoman. Secretary-Treasurer David Sturrock is leaving by Jan. 19. He said Friday that having a new secretary-treasurer "will send a powerful message" that the party is rebuilding. Shortridge will appoint Sturrock's successor.

The financial information given to delegates included some good news. Fenton said the party is not responsible for any debt incurred by a friendly redistricting group, Minnesotans for Fair Redistricting.

But Republicans at the meeting were at times incredulous. "Where was that $475,000 found and how did you find it?" one delegate asked, referring to unreported debt.

Johnson and Mike Vekich, who helped investigate party finances, said they have found no evidence of illegal activity and are not sure about the responsibility of former party leaders for the mess. They said they believe all of the party's financials have been thoroughly reported, but some activists suggested that a fuller audit might be in order. Delegates gave the leaders an ovation for their report before they turned to electing a new leader.

'Walk and chew gum'

Shortridge spent 11 years working for former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas and five years with U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy of Minnesota. He managed Kennedy's campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2006, when Kennedy lost to Democrat Amy Klobuchar by 20 percentage points.

He lobbied for Enron for six months about the time the company was collapsing. "I feel like I was the last guy that got into the Ponzi scheme," he joked last week.

Shortridge said fixing the debt is "pretty simple -- raise more, spend less." He said the party must "walk and chew gum," meaning it must begin to retire its debt while raising money for the 2012 election cycle.

He was asked if he believes party members want him to take action against Sutton and other former party leaders.

"Most of our party is not interested in trying to drive ahead looking in the rearview mirror," he said. "I think we've got to learn what happened. I think we've got to take a very careful and thorough look at the facts, and at how did we arrive where we arrived at. Follow that trail where it goes."

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042