Nearly 250 friends and family of former state Rep. Ronnie Sutton gathered on January 6 to honor a man who was a fixture of Robeson County politics.
Sutton, who just finished serving 18 years in the state House of Representatives, said he would not run for elected office in the future. With a reputation for straight talk, Rep. Sutton made a mark, supporting education, American Indians and his local constituency.
“He’s told me many times there were things he could not do, but when he told me he could do it, it got done,” said Paul Brooks, chair of the N.C. Commission on Indian Affairs. “Ronnie Sutton had a reputation for doing what’s right.”
Brooks was among many who offered tributes to the former representative during a three-hour dinner and program at UNC Pembroke. Sutton was surrounded by family and relatives, as well as a large contingent of current and former state and local elected officials.
During his tribute, Noah Woods, chair of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners, offered evidence of Rep. Sutton’s effectiveness in Raleigh.
“Ron Sutton saved Robeson County about $17 million this year alone,” Woods said. “He had the courage to stand up and get counties removed from paying into the Medicaid program.”
During a recent budget caucus, indeed, Rep. Sutton lead a challenge to the policy, which was mandated by only one other state in the U.S. Sutton responded by giving credit to Rep. Doug Yongue, another former member of the local delegation.
In his tribute, long-time colleague and friend Yongue called Sutton “one of a kind.”
“Every day for two years, he mentioned getting a fire truck for UNCP,” Yongue laughed. “My committee got tired of me, and I got tired of him.”
In the end, Pembroke’s Volunteer Fire Department got a state-of-the-art fire truck capable of fighting a fire in UNCP’s high-rise residence halls.
Other tributes came from former state representatives Donald Bonner and Dan DeVane and Rep. Garland Pierce and Sen. Michael Walters. Resolutions came from the Lumbee Tribe, Town of Pembroke and City of Lumberton.
Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton awarded Sutton the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state’s highest award for service.
“It’s an honor to be here to pay tribute to a great public servant and a wonderful friend,” Lt. Gov. Dalton said. “He was passionate, a fighter, and he always knew what he was talking about.”
UNCP Chancellor Kyle R. Carter called Sutton a “straight shooter who works from the heart and who is dedicated to the place where he lives.”
Being a legislator was Sutton’s third career. A Pembroke native, he served 22 years in the Air Force and Navy as a pilot in the Vietnam era. He rose to the rank of commander and earned two Air Medals.
After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Law, Sutton began a career in law in Robeson County. In 1993, he was elected to the General Assembly.
In his farewell speech, the former state representative thanked his family, his former colleagues and the people of Robeson County. He pledged to continue to be a local leader.
“Although my tenure as an elected official came to an end last week, my role as a community leader continues,” he said. “I wish to thank all the citizens of this district for their support. It was an honor.”