How Sutter Brown saved California

Hustling ballot measures, soothing political stresses, finessing negotiations—the state's affable first dog is changing Sacramento's Capitol culture

Sutter Brown turned 10 this week.

Sutter Brown turned 10 this week.

photo by nick miller

The final weeks of the legislative session are high-stakes, long-hour grinds. The building brims with lobbyists, staffers and media. It’s a stressful, possibly hellish time—but then an elongated, beamish canine named Sutter Brown might bounce into the room.

When Gov. Jerry Brown and first lady Anne Gust’s Pembroke Welsh corgi recently entered a Democratic state senator’s office, for instance, staffers elicited yelps of delight unlike anything I’d ever seen in the building. They grasped for their smartphones, and Sutter made a run for food scraps underneath desks. In no time, everyone was taking photos.

“Can I pick him up?” a woman inquired. A selfie with Sutter is currency among politicos. A small crowd quickly formed in the office’s lobby. Sutter barked—corgis are herders—and attempted to roust the gathering. This prompted a half-dozen more staffers to poke their heads in the front door. “Is that Sutter?”

So goes the celebrity of California’s first dog, a veritable Justin Bieber-like phenomena.

But with teeth: Recent national-media stories argue that the dog, who turned 10 this week, is the a big part of the secret to the governor’s success. That Sutter’s disarming charm and surrogate prowess make for an administrative spokesperson unequaled.

BuzzFeed recently christened Sutter a “Force in California Politics.” The New Republic published a feature titled “Meet the Corgi Who Helped California Raise Taxes.” Which is true. Sort of.

“I had this kind of random idea to take him out on the road for [Proposition] 30,” explains Jennifer Fearing, the Sacramento-based California senior state director of the Humane Society of the United States. Fearing had dog-sat Sutter often, and even escorted him to Los Angeles once for a spay-neuter advocacy event. So last fall, when she wanted the governor’s tax-increase measure to pass, both personally and for her organization, she suggested bringing Sutter into the spotlight.

“I’ve got one trick: Me and that corgi on the road,” she told Brown’s staff.

It worked. Thirty stops in 30 days at Democratic phone-bank offices throughout California. If people made an hour worth of calls, they got their picture taken with Sutter. “It was a total hit,” Fearing says. Sutter even met with the Los Angeles Times editorial board. The mayor of Chico gave the corgi a key to the city.

Prop. 30’s unanticipated victory revitalized Brown’s governorship. Was Sutter partly to thank? “It would be a … stretch to suggest that Sutter was responsible for Prop 30’s passage,” Marc Tracy wrote in the New Republic. “But Sutter actually did fit uncannily into the overall strategy.”

Canine as political asset is at once an old-dog and new trick. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used his Scottish terrier, Fala, in a campaign speech to describe how Republicans were “not content” simply attacking his family and, moreover, were targeting his dog. But Fala never had more than 10,000 likes on Facebook, or 5,000-plus Twitter followers like Sutter.

President Barack Obama’s Portuguese water dogs, Bo and Sunny, do the media rounds infrequently. Gov. George Deukmejian owned three beagles, but none were a formidable presence inside the Capitol’s “horseshoe,” a.k.a. the nickname for the governor’s executive wing.

“Whenever the governor and Anne are in Sacto, Sutter is there, too. He’s a fixture,” says Fearing. Insiders say he’s known for rummaging through garbage cans for eats, and that no trash bin is safe. And that, of Jerry and Anne, he’s more of a “mama’s boy.” Some media members even told SN&R of their surprise when bumping into the low-riding, chestnut-and-white tuxedoed dog in the governor’s offices, calling it “surreal.” Others say Sutter helps the governor with diplomacy and negotiation.

“[Brown] can be very cerebral, very philosophical about policy and the direction where he wants to take the state,” explains Roger Salazar, a local political consultant. “I think what Sutter Brown does, it warms him up a bit. It shows that he’s got that warm side.”

Salazar is no stranger to political pets. During a stint at the Clinton White House, he witnessed how the president and first lady’s cat changed the culture. “Socks did sort of the same thing for Hillary Clinton” as Sutter does for the governor, he says.

The corgi is also an ambassador. One anonymous source told SN&R that they bumped into staffers and Sutter in the elevator earlier this month. The group was taking the pooch to visit another senator, because their boss was “kind of depressed” and “wanted to spend some time with Sutter as therapy.”

“Everybody in the Capitol has a crush, an absolute crush, on Sutter,” says Fearing, who co-authored Dogs at Work: A Practical Guide to Creating Dog-Friendly Workplaces, which champions the value of pets at the office. She hopes to hold a “Bring Your Dog to the Capitol” day next year.

Sutter’s magnetism cannot be understated. When the governor’s sister and original Sutter owner, Kathleen Brown, returned to reside in the state last month, fears that the dog might leave Sacramento caused near-panic. Reporters quickly contacted Kathleen for comment, to which she assured she would not “disintermediate” Sutter from the governor’s care.

Others commented how reporters, often poised to bombard the governor and staff with tough questions, will “melt” when Sutter appears. Media members retweeting Sutter’s Twitter posts is a common practice (no one knows who manages the dog’s online presence, and the governor’s office declined to speak with SN&R for this story).

Ben Adler, statehouse bureau chief with Capital Public Radio, says that while reporters are human and “everyone loves dogs,” Sutter’s presence “adds another dimension” to the challenges of reporting on Brown.

“I’ve definitely seen him used politically,” Adler says.

On a recent afternoon walk in Capitol Park, SN&R joined Sutter and Fearing to witness firsthand the dog’s political charm. Near the west steps, a group of lobbyists approach Sutter, cackling with joy as they reach down to rub his scruff. The dog flips onto his back, begging for a belly rub. Everyone laughs.

And then the photo op begins, again.