Tim Sutton says he’s finished with running for political office. He’s said it before, now he’s saying it again. I once observed — well more than once — that I would believe it when I see it. But after talking to him for more than 30 minutes on Tuesday I believe it.
He’s done – at least after the 2020 election. Sutton told the Burlington Times-News last week that he will not seek re-election in 2020, which will unofficially close 24 sometimes contentious and often controversial years in elected office on the Alamance County Board of Commissioners. I say “unofficially” because he could still change his mind. After all, he was leaving politics following a defeat in the Republican primary in 2014. But that election left a bad taste in his mouth so he filed to run in 2016 and won a sixth term in office.
So last week when I saw the story in the Times-News I sent Sutton an email with the subject line that stated “Really?” He and I sparred for years — he as an elected office-holder, me as an exasperated newspaper editor. He took a day or so to respond and agreed to talk about it with me over the phone. Even though we had our differences over the years, we could always find our way back to speaking terms. As I’ve said before, Sutton likes talking to newspaper people, even if he doesn’t always like some newspaper people.
That’s part of the game, too.
So after talking to him for a few minutes on Tuesday I get the idea that this time, at age 69, he really means it.
“Let’s face it, I’m not going to live forever. My wife Susan died 15 years ago. We never know what’s going to happen. I feel like I have to dedicate the rest of my life to my family,” Sutton says. “There have been ups and downs but mostly ups for me. It’s time for somebody else to take the lead and shore up that conservative end.”
Sutton says he’s spending more time with his grandchildren — Caleb, 17; John Jr., 2; and Addie, 3 months — and less time on politics already and he looks forward to more of it.
“1 had more fun with my grandchildren this summer than you can shake a stick at. We went to the beach several times and had a great time,” he says. “You know your political days are numbered when you look around your house and you have 12 newspapers you haven’t opened and you don’t watch the news anymore.”
I told Sutton he sounded a little like me when I was ready to leave the newspaper business. You know when it’s time to go. For Sutton it’s a need to change, too, even though he still loves to debate issues. What he does read these days are things online like The Drudge Report or studies about various issues. But the politics of it, not to mention the time it takes? It’s not as much fun as it used to be.
“I’m not trying to get Biblical but it’s like the turn, turn, turn passage in Ecclesiastes 3. There is a time for everything and the time is for me to come home,” Sutton says, combining The Bible and a song by the Byrds. “I did it my way, not that I’m quoting the Frank Sinatra song — he is the one who did that song, right?”
Sutton admits that 24 years serving in a highly charged political atmosphere where he wasn’t afraid to make enemies — and created a slew of them with his direct style of interaction and sometimes divisive views and rhetoric — came easier for him than it did for his family. His wife Susan, who died of cancer 15 years ago, “didn’t have a political bone in her whole body, not a single one,” Sutton says, recalling that when he won his first election she was ecstatic. “The second time she was a little cooler and the third time it was like she was mad.”
She heard the angry and obscenity-laced messages left on the family’s answering machine. She expressed concerns that something might happen to him as a result of his politics and the atmosphere that surrounded it. “I probably would have gotten out earlier had she lived,” he says.
Political acrimony is also a part of the game, sadly, and it grows daily these days. But Sutton was and still is part of that boiling stew of opinion. He’s often caustic toward his opponents, like most of us doesn’t respond well to criticism but can certainly dish it out in heaps, and holds strong views on the hot-button issues that have split the nation for years. He has as many admirers for his Trump-like stance on immigration as he does vocal detractors. He is often labeled a racist by many in the community — and his calling slaves “workers” a couple of years ago didn’t help his denials. But my view there is that I can’t read a person’s mind. I only know he’s seems actively indifferent to the needs or interests of anyone outside of white Americans. And in terms of language, he understands there is a line and walks right up to it.
I first met Tim Sutton by phone when I was a sports writer in the 1980s. He often called us to talk about football, basketball or auto racing. This was before his life in elected politics began. I later learned that he called sports departments in other cities and our newsroom, too. He called day and night. I sometimes spoke to him three or more times in a day depending on what might be going on.
I have written about Sutton’s politics, quirks, interests and his combative interactions with reporters a few times in the Times-News and on this site, which I activated when I left newspapers in January of 2017. Here are a few posts of interest.
As Sutton likes to say, we’ve had our clashes over the years. Even though we disagree, he likes that I usually hear him out and was willing as the newspaper editor to make sure his views were as accurately portrayed as possible. And I will note that it wasn’t unusual for Sutton to call me with tips about stories the newspaper needed to do — sometimes things cloaked behind closed-door meetings, occasionally things that had no benefit for him, the Republican Party or conservatives. He just thought the news needed to be out there for the public to see. He used to tell me “you’ll miss me when I’m gone.” And later I responded, “You never stay gone long enough for me to find out.”
Sutton says when he decided not to run again after his defeat in 2014, a few factors changed his mind that aren’t in place now. The biggest being the primary loss. His longtime board and conservative colleague Bill Lashley was also defeated in a race in which education spending was the major issue.
“I felt like Bill and I both lost as the result of an unfair campaign to get us off the board,” he says pointing to a series of full-page ads published in the Times-News and signed by a large group of community business, civic and government leaders that criticized education funding by the board of commissioners. He believes the statistics used didn’t accurately portray Alamance County’s rank among other counties and that the signers of the ad, including then-Times-News publisher Paul Mauney, didn’t understand what they were trying to say. “If you don’t understand what you’re signing it’s obvious you have a goal here,” Sutton says.
He still had no plan to run again until Lashley called him just before the filing period was to end and said he had to run. “I said I’d sleep on it and I had a dream, and I dreamed I was with my wife in Chatham County. She said to go ahead and do it (run again), you know you love it.”
He filed at the Board of Elections the next day and won with the Trump North Carolina rollercoaster in November. “My philosophy was in all honesty that I didn’t like the alignments of people getting certain other people elected and wanted to see what I could do to stop it. I wanted to go back on and show we could do it again.”
Things are different today.
“Now I want to go off the board my own way,” he says. “When I think back on it, I’ve done all I can do.”
Sutton says he’s leaving without rancor and holds no ill will, although he does recall a meeting he had with me in 2007 shortly after I returned to Burlington. We met at May Memorial Library and he laid out in detail every occasion he felt mistreated by either a reporter or editor at the Times-News — and other publications. It took a couple of hours. He had a written list.
But that’s behind him.
“If you look back at a photo of me when I was sworn in years ago by Judge (J.B.) Allen and look now and obviously it has taken a toll. Half my adult life has been spent on the board and in politics. One of my kids was in the first grade and he’s in his 30s now,” Sutton says. “That’s going a long distance. Some didn’t think it would go on so long.
“So it’s time to go. There are good people in the wings, I assume,” he adds. “I doubt I’ll be very vocal supporting anybody or any particular cause.”
I remind him that the 2020 election is still 13 months away. That’s still a lot of time to put his conservative stamp on county issues. He mulls that for a second.
“I’m going to create some more havoc, probably, but not much,” he says.