California Forum

Sutter proves to be a welcome, whimsical distraction

Steven Glazer takes Sutter for a walk before his first meeting with the press as California’s first dog at the State Capitol Feb. 14, 2011.
Steven Glazer takes Sutter for a walk before his first meeting with the press as California’s first dog at the State Capitol Feb. 14, 2011. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Four years ago, I logged more than 2,500 miles driving to more than 30 cities with California’s first dog Sutter Brown in tow.

Sutter didn’t ride up front and shunned the back-seat nest I’d made. He preferred the floor behind my seat, hunkered down to avoid jostling, head resting on the hump. Who knew cars come equipped with a perfect corgi storage spot?

Sutter was on the campaign trail because it was the only thing I could think of to help Gov. Jerry Brown pass Proposition 30, a much-needed revenue boost for schools and other critical services.

As the Capitol’s chief animal advocate, I was there on the east steps on Valentine’s Day 2011 when Anne Gust Brown introduced California’s new “first dog.” Sutter was 7 years old and had belonged to the governor’s sister Kathleen, who’d recently pawned the adorable – but mercurial and very busy – Sutter off on Jerry and Anne.

The governor wasn’t immediately charmed. He called Sutter a rat. And murmurs suggested some workplace frustration with needing to constantly protect lunches and trash cans.

The word “distraction” was overheard. But Sutter became a natural and prolific tweeter – 140 characters are short and sweet; corgi-like, you might say. His @SutterBrown handle racked up followers eager for his clever, cute and often incisive quips. It remains a mystery who “speaks” for him.

I suspect my relationship with Sutter is owed to the Browns’ well-known frugality. They asked me to watch him while they traveled. I’m the Humane Society’s lobbyist. Who has more riding on keeping California’s first dog happy and safe?

So began a chapter that I’ll never forget or replicate – and a scandal of no proportion. The NRA tried to suggest untowardness about a lobbyist walking the governor’s dog. It never stuck because everyone could tell it was a genuine friendship.

I can’t count the number of iPhones I’ve been handed over the years as fans scrunched down to pose with the low-riding star of what the internet has dubbed “the most meme-able” dog breed. Corgis’ funny shapes combined with their inquisitive and transactional demeanors are irresistible.

A mayor gave Sutter a key to her city. Newspaper editors and serious-minded journalists gushed and snapped selfies. Elected officials clamored for photos to share on social media. Two dozen canine members of a corgi Meetup group arrived unannounced at an event. More news teams covered Sutter’s visit to San Diego than greeted Michelle Obama the week before. A friend who tracks such things estimated the earned media value of Sutter’s Prop. 30 tour at $750,000. Legislative strategists created “Ask Sutter to tell Governor Brown” appeals for their campaigns.

The governor – who proved unable to resist Sutter’s charms – enlisted him too. He handed out playing cards – Sutter as the Joker, of course – at a 2014 budget press conference. The cards include quotes about fiscal prudence like “always keep a bone buried in the backyard.” Brown proposed sending Sutter to debate anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist.

With Sutter now battling cancer, dozens of politicos have taken campaign timeouts to replace their Facebook profile photos with their Sutter selfies tagged with #suttercomehome.

You see, we’re all equal with Sutter. There is no pretense; your office rank and social status don’t matter to him. If you have a smile, a treat and a willingness to crouch down, you’ve got a friend in the governor’s office.

Sutter is the rare celebrity who doesn’t make you feel nervous or tongue-tied. His bipartisan appeal reminds us that politics doesn’t have to be polarizing, bitter or crude. Whimsy may be distracting, but it’s welcome.

The littlest member of California’s political elite teaches us a big lesson: that politics can be kind, clever and authentic.

It’s a chaotic election season, but as we pull for him to heal and recover, Sutter is distracting us again.

Sutter, come home.

Jennifer Fearing of Elmhurst runs Fearless Advocacy, a lobbying and consulting firm that represents numerous nonprofits, including the Humane Society of the United States. Contact her at jennifer@fearlessadvocacy.com.

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