I thought my days of writing about Tim Sutton were over – and thankfully so. But as the oft-repeated line by Michael Corleone from the otherwise forgettable film “The Godfather III” goes: “Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in.”
In fact, one of the best perks of leaving the newspaper business is the silence of my phone when it comes to incessant calls from the one-time, then ousted, and now returned Alamance County commissioner. He stopped with the email, too. Once he got online just a handful of years ago, he became one of those people who sent links to anything that might capture his fancy. I’ll give this to the guy, he has a lot of interests – from NASCAR and football history to politics, local history, government spending, culture and schools. Don’t get him started on ADHD diagnoses unless you have a day or two to kill.
In fact, he kept sending me stuff and calling even during the two years he was no longer a commissioner. After he lost in the 2014 Republican primary, he hinted that he might leave the area and go back to his one-time home in South Carolina. “You’ll miss me when I’m gone,” he said over the years preceding his defeat and after it actually occurred. When he remained in Burlington and ran again for commissioner in 2016, I told him, “Well, you didn’t stay gone long enough to test that theory.”
But needless to say, I’ve enjoyed the break since leaving newspapers in November of 2016, and have ignored his most recent return to the board. Call it a sabbatical.
This week he lurched onto my radar screen. Apparently, on Thursday he tangled on the phone with a Burlington Times-News reporter. Natalie Janicello, who was born and raised in Alamance County, graduated from Western High School and Elon University before coming to work at the Times-News while she was still a senior in college. She was writing a story about an Alamance County organization identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “neo-Confederate” hate group. She called Sutton because he reached out to the group via social media last year, although he maintains he has no affiliation with the organization known by the weirdly repetitive name of “Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, or ACTBAC.” By the way, they deny the hate group allegation. Everyone is free to form their own opinion about that particular issue.
First and foremost, let’s face it, Sutton has been frequently criticized over the years for his sometimes blunt views regarding race, people of color and Hispanic immigration. I say “blunt” because he seems to be keenly aware that there is a line in terms of words and tone that would clearly and loudly sound alarm bells of “racist” or “racism” without question. While some have openly identified him as such over the years anyway, I’ll just say he walks right up the line, bends over it but doesn’t cross it.
What I will say is that like Donald Trump, who had Sutton’s support in November, he’s racially indifferent until it’s something that impacts white males. How something might effect Americans of color is something he couldn’t care less about. And if he could turn the clock back a hundred years or so it probably wouldn’t bother him too much. He doesn’t really care who knows it and states his beliefs forcefully. My suspicion is he’s pretty indifferent to people in general.
What a humanitarian.
Anyway Natalie –- and in the interest of full disclosure I’ll add here that she’s a reporter I hired and have immense respect for in terms of ability, thoroughness, accuracy and professionalism – made a call to Sutton to include him in the story.
Here’s how that section appeared in the print and digital Times-News.
Commissioner Tim Sutton, who posted on ACTBAC’s Facebook page in March 2016 asking someone from the group to contact him regarding his bid to rejoin the Board of Commissioners, told the Times-News on Thursday, as he did in December, that he had no affiliation with the group.
“I don’t know the group,” Sutton said. “I don’t know the people in the group. I’ve never attended a single meeting, but I’ve never seen them do anything that I would create an analysis of them as being a hate group.
“Some people want to put a bad label on people who support that kind of heritage or remembering its place in history.”
Sutton said he did not “have a lot of respect for the Southern Poverty Law Center.”
He also criticized the Times-News’ coverage of ACTBAC, told the reporter never to contact him again, and said the hamburger he was eating was of more importance than she.
That ACTBAC has been characterized as a hate group by progressives isn’t new. It’s come up frequently since it was founded and duly reported as is the newspaper’s responsibility. It is also the newspaper’s responsibility to ask the group for its side of the story. The designation by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors Ku Klux Klan and other hate activity, is new. That made it a topic for further exploration by the Times-News. Natalie is doing her job.
I’ve dealt with Sutton for a long time — more than 30 years including my time in Sports in the 1980s before he got into politics. He has a long history of criticizing reporters for simply pursuing stories he doesn’t like. In that regard, he’s much like the new president. In fact, in many ways Sutton and Trump have a lot in common. They share similar views in terms of immigration, race and women. Both like -– and even occasionally suck up — to the media when they are reporting on things they like but scream and shout when the reporting is about something they disagree with and not necessarily inaccurate or unfair. Both are consummate bullies. About the only two places where the two are truly different are: 1. Trump inherited big bucks and Sutton didn’t. And 2. Sutton is much, much smarter than Trump. Sutton can discuss policy matters all day. He does his homework. Critics might not agree with Sutton, but they can expect a rigorous and well-considered debate.
Sutton’s history of media criticism often involves either attacking or ignoring women. The attacks are often personal – like the hamburger remark this week. That’s his MO. At various times in his dealing with the Times-News he’s either refused to speak to women who are reporters or expressed sharp criticism of them in some way. Over the years, he’s called the newsroom at night asking to speak to a reporter. If the reporter on duty was a female he would often hang up. I won’t even get into the times when our nighttime staff members strongly suspected Sutton was a caller who pretended to be Hispanic or Asian women and ask questions about the newspaper’s operations and policies or make nasty remarks about a reporter.
Weird if true. I have no proof of it but our copyeditors said the impression was a bad one and his distinctive voice easy to detect. And back in my sports days someone who didn’t ID themselves would call when Clemson won football games and play “The Tiger Rag” and hang up. It’s no coincidence that Sutton is a Clemson football fan.
One thing seems clear, though, is that Sutton doesn’t like to be questioned by any reporters but particularly by reporters who are women. He’s treated them all shabbily for many years.
In terms of this recent flap between Sutton and Natalie Janicello, well, reporters develop a thick skin over the years. They’re used to taking criticism. It comes with the job. The reporter in this case doesn’t need me or anyone else to defend her. She’ll do just fine on her own. It’s a badge of honor to get such a reaction from Sutton, who – irony of ironies — doesn’t have a very thick skin at all when it comes to criticism from anyone. No matter who it might be, he’ll lash back harshly – and usually at public meetings involving the commissioners.
And if I know Natalie, she’ll call Sutton again should circumstances arise because it’s her job and she’s a professional. The same can’t be said of Sutton.
NOTE: Members of the community began an effort this week to donate Hamburger Helper to Allied Churches of Alamance County in Tim Sutton’s name. May want to add some hamburger, too!