Former Minnesota GOP chairman Tony Sutton declares personal bankruptcy

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 9, 2013 - 6:01 AM

Tony and Bridget Sutton say they owe $2.1 million in filing for Chapter 7.

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Former Minnesota Republican Party State Chairman Tony Sutton

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A hard-charging former state Republican Party chairman whose constant refrain to DFLers and even GOP lawmakers was “live within your means” has declared personal bankruptcy, the latest twist in one of the most dramatic political downfalls in recent state history.

At the height of his power, Tony Sutton demanded that Republican legislators oppose all tax increases and keep state spending strictly in line with revenue. Few realized it at the time, but the GOP’s finances under Sutton’s management were a shambles, and the same scenario was playing out in his personal life.

Sutton and his wife, Bridget Sutton, an Inver Grove Heights school board member and former Republican operative, say they owe $2.1 million, including $70,000 of credit card debt, $20,000 in federal student loans, unpaid state and federal taxes, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in unsecured personal loans to cover business expenses. At the time they filed, the Suttons had no life or health insurance.

Sutton did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

A party insider for 20 years, Sutton, 46, has held virtually every staff position the party has, including field director, treasurer and executive director.

In 2009, he made the leap to party chairman, winning on the first ballot. He told delegates then that “We’ve got to regain credibility with folks for whom fiscal issues are important.”

That message resonated with voters in 2010, with Republicans winning control not only of the House but also the Minnesota Senate, where DFLers had ruled for more than 40 years. Their triumph, however, was tempered by losses of every statewide office, including the governorship, where Sutton had bet heavily that nominee Tom Emmer would best DFLer Mark Dayton.

The losses didn’t end at the ballot box: Sutton had vastly outspent the party’s incoming revenue, including a costly recount battle that Emmer lost. So tight were finances that he stopped paying rent on the party’s headquarters.

At the end of 2011, amid mounting concerns about debt and mismanagement, Sutton abruptly resigned. A bleak picture soon emerged for state Republicans. The GOP was left with a staggering $2 million in bills, a debt load that crippled its 2012 efforts. That year, DFLers regained power, with majorities in the House and Senate, putting them firmly in control of both the executive and legislative branches.

Big donors fled the party and debts continued to stack up, including more than $700,000 in previously undisclosed bills from the recount. Shortly after GOP Chairman Pat Shortridge stepped in to right the mess, the landlord served the party an eviction notice for $111,000 in back rent. Party leaders have since slashed staff, dramatically cut spending and are slowly paying off debt.

‘Desperate need for money’

Sutton hasn’t always worked for the party. In 2003, with a growing family, he went to work for Pat Anderson, then state auditor, as her deputy. In 2006, he left that post to join forces with Republican mega-donor and banker Bill Cooper to buy the Baja Sol Mexican restaurant chain.

With business debts piling up, Cooper — the CEO of TCF Financial Corp. and also a former GOP chairman — and the Suttons parted ways in early 2011 and Sutton returned his focus to party politics.

By that time, the bankruptcy filing shows, he and Bridget Sutton had personally guaranteed loans for more than $1.6 million to various businesses.

Anderson, who serves on the state GOP executive committee, said there was always a sense that Sutton had a “desperate need for money” and that he had “severe personal business problems” after leaving Baja Sol.

But nobody questioned it, at least publicly, as the party seemed more energized and unified under his rule than it had been in years.

“He became a political figure in his own right, and made it very public. He chose this way, and so if you fall, you fall hard,” said Anderson, who led the effort to force out Sutton as chairman after committee members got a fuller look at the party’s growing debt.

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