Minnesota GOP elects interim leader, ponders debt

Despite the resignation of party chair Tony Sutton and $581,000 in debt, the state Republican Party says there's no cause for panic.

Facing turmoil in their ranks, Minnesota GOP Party activists met Saturday amid calls for unity.

"Let's all take a big, deep breath," said state Sen. Dan Hall as he opened the party's central committee convention at a Bloomington hotel with an invocation.

The instruction may have been needed. Party chair Tony Sutton quit Friday and the party is $581,000 in debt. In 2012, it must defend its legislative majorities, work to unseat U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and put Minnesota in the red column in the presidential race.

Most party leaders said the troubles were cause to reflect but that, in the words of U.S. Rep. John Kline, "there's no panic here."

Those gathered delayed approval of the 2012 budget Sutton constructed, but did elect a deputy chair for the next month. Woodbury activist Kelly Fenton won a five-way race.

"We need to remember that our main targets are the liberals and their failed policies, not one another," she said. She replaces Michael Brodkorb, who stepped down in October, and will be acting chair until Sutton's replacement is chosen.

Fenton faces immediate challenges. The party has not yet picked an election date to replace Sutton, although one may be decided this week. She and the executive committee will immediately have to step up in fundraising meetings.

Several leaders said they hope Sutton's replacement is a business person with instant credibility who can quickly raise money.

High-ranking Republicans mentioned businessman and turn-around specialist Mike Vekich as a possibility. Vekich worked on 2010 gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer's would-be transition team and was appointed by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty to seven positions.

The next leader will take over a thinned-down organization. It laid off about a third of its staff, including its executive director.

Party treasurer David Sturrock said voter identification, a key party function, was "one of the biggest victims" of the budget crunch.

Activists were unsettled about budget problems. "You guys are spending money like the Congress. ... If you don't have the money, don't spend it," Matt Anderson said.

Meanwhile, sour feelings from the 2010 election bubbled over.

Some activists distributed buttons with a photo of 2010 gubernatorial endorsement loser Marty Seifert and the phrase "Miss me yet?" Separately, Brodkorb said he confronted Emmer at the meeting.

"What's occurring today in the party is a cleanup effort from his gubernatorial campaign," Brodkorb told reporters. "What I told him directly was that he needs to take a lot of responsibility for what's going on here today."

On top of the $581,000 debt, Republicans owe about $500,000 in a special recount fund, started up to fight Emmer's 9,000-vote loss to DFLer Mark Dayton.

Brodkorb said that after Emmer was endorsed by the Republicans in spring 2010, he did little to rework his campaign for the general election.

Emmer was not immediately available to react. His former campaign manager David FitzSimmons, whom Brodkorb also fingered with blame, said Brodkorb can have his own opinion but that he has no position in the party now.

He said Brodkorb is "a person who is not really looking at building any unity. ... It's someone that's looking to take their shots and leave. All I can say is, I'm still standing here."

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @rachelsb

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