AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is a column I wrote for the Burlington Times-News in 2014, when Tim Sutton attended what was then thought to be his last meeting as an Alamance County commissioner. He was defeated in the 2014 primary after 20 often controversial years on the board. He told me then he was likely through running for office — then he up and ran and won in 2016. He did not seek re-election in 2020 and this month once again attended what is thought to be his final meeting. I think he means it this time, something I wrote about in a post earlier this year (Actually October 2019). Here’s the column from 2014.
“You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.”
If Tim Sutton said that to me once, he said it a hundred times. Maybe a couple hundred. You lose track after a while. And there was a lot of time when it came to Sutton, who served on the Alamance County Board of Commissioners for the past 20 years, a streak halted when he attended his last meeting this past week. He was telling me so years before he lost his reelection bid in the May Republican primary.
“You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone,” he would chirp into the telephone, usually at the close of a conversation in which he offered criticism, advice, faint-to-light praise, random trivia and more than a few valuable news nuggets that might otherwise be hidden under layers of government secrecy. He phoned our office multiple times a week, asking for me, our reporter Chris Lavender, lifestyles editor Charity Apple or whoever our nighttime reporter or desk person might be. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for him to dial me three or more times in a given day. And this habit predated my arrival back here in 2007. Indeed, over the years Sutton called Jim Wicker, Mike Wilder, James Moffat, Drew Long, Lee Barnes . . . the list goes on and on.
The Times-News wasn’t special in this regard. He did the same to the Greensboro News & Record and Raleigh News & Observer. He even contacted reporters at the New York Times.
He likes talking to journalists.
THESE ENCOUNTERS weren’t always pleasant. In fact, they might often be the opposite if he didn’t like something or thought our reporting incorrect or unfair. He could be critical, some thought caustic and even obnoxious. He angered his share of reporters and editors to distraction here and elsewhere and probably enjoyed doing so. But when we did something he thought was OK, he said so as well.
The calls were memorable. One or two were troubling. But make no mistake, when he called he had done his homework. He studied issues like few others in politics and was ready for an argument, equally prepared to win it and perhaps gloat a little afterward.
When I compare notes with newspaper editors and reporters elsewhere every single one remembers talking to Tim Sutton. Usually they recall not liking it much.
The calls, at least to me anyway, sometimes begin with a declarative: “You won’t believe this one.” Then proceed down almost any path imaginable — some actually related to county issues. But he also liked to chat and share funny tales about political history, sports, and historic landmarks noting everything from sites dating to the Civil War or Civil Rights eras to the grave of a long-deceased Negro Leagues baseball player.
It wasn’t just a habit he picked up as a politician, either. His first phone calls to me came in the 1980s when I was a Times-News sports writer and he worked at a bank just down the street. He liked to talk about high school sports, ACC history, Clemson football and NASCAR. During our conversations he would casually mention talking to sports writers Wilt Browning or Larry Keech in Greensboro, too.
“What do you talk to those guys about?” I asked.
“Oh, anything of interest,” he answered.
POLITICIANS CALLING newspapers hardly constitutes a new phenomenon. At my first newspaper job out of college a Rockingham County commissioner by the name of Watson Rakestraw used to call me at the Reidsville Review with tips and observations. In Jacksonville, it was Onslow County Commissioner Joe McLaughlin. McLaughlin used to call while ordering from drive-thru windows at any number of Jacksonville fast food joints. I also used to get frequent calls from Cary Allred, the late and usually contrary Alamance County commissioner who became a state legislator. Those were almost unfailingly unpleasant.
But Tim Sutton was and is the most consistently persistent.
That will be just one thing I remember most about him. Here are a few others.
He speaks his mind and doesn’t much care what anyone might think about it.
He ran bare-bones campaigns for election. Few signs, bumper stickers or election doo-dads.
He didn’t accept money from donors, at least not much of it anyway. He seldom got enough to fill out a campaign finance report.
He didn’t cozy up to businesses, industrial and development interests.
Didn’t hang out with civic or chamber leaders either.
He didn’t curry favor with many special interests to speak of, at least not publicly.
Or anyone else, including county employees who will never likely forgive him for any number of decisions regarding pay and benefits.
Never told anyone what they wanted to hear, particularly political opponents.
He stirred the pot on the radio and in print.
He didn’t take criticism from constituents very well.
What he did mostly, was exactly what he said he would.
Yes, over the years we disagreed about many things, some with rancor. I don’t hold grudges. I don’t believe Sutton does either. He likes to break eggs. It’s the cost of doing business in his eyes. Usually we clashed over hot-button issues like racism, immigration, education or crime. We have common ground when it comes to government spending. We both think there should be less of it. We do hold different views on what government’s fiscal priorities should be. Then he might make me laugh, believe it or not.
But where we agree mostly is about open government. He doesn’t cotton to keeping secrets and neither do I.
So will I miss Sutton now that he’s gone?