GOP deputy chair brings long politics resume to Woodbury House race
Kelly Fenton brought two distinct abilities to the table in Ted Lillie’s 2010 successful state senate campaign against incumbent DFLer Kathy Saltzman — a connection to the Woodbury community and the ability to craft a winning message, he said.
“She helped frame the central question of the campaign as one of how do you build jobs, and it was a winning message,” said Lillie, publisher of Lillie Suburban Newspapers and the new president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.
Following that campaign and two-plus years as deputy chairwoman of the Republican Party of Minnesota, Fenton now has her sights set on the House District 53B seat being vacated by GOP Rep. Andrea Kieffer, who recently announced she would not seek re-election next year.
“[As deputy chair,] I had the opportunity to hear from Minnesotans on a daily basis about the issues important to them,” she said. “Furthermore, I understand deeply the challenges of a tight budget.”
Fenton, a mother of three who raised her children in Woodbury, said managing Lillie’s campaign and her work helping rebuild the Republican Party taught her important skills she wants to bring to bear in the Minnesota Legislature.
Just as she assumed her deputy chair role in 2011, then-Chairman Tony Sutton suddenly resigned, leaving more than $2 million in unreported debts the party owed. Fenton briefly served as interim chair and was part of the team that worked to rebuild the party following Sutton’s resignation.
Today, Fenton said she’s proud that the party has reduced its debt to under $1.4 million and has stabilized. She was re-elected earlier this year but will step down on Jan. 1 to pursue her campaign, after originally intending to continue on in her party role.
“I recognized that I likely would not have been able to give both duties my full and complete attention,” she said. “I also did not want to see the Republican Party suffer in any way because I was preoccupied with other activities.”
Though she lived and worked as a teacher and administrator in Houston, Texas, before moving to Minnesota, Fenton said she raised her children in Woodbury and is strongly tied to the district she hopes to represent.
Fenton attended Marquette University, where she served in student government alongside Scott Walker, the future Republican governor of Wisconsin. Her mother was a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush when he was running for the U.S. Senate in Texas.
The House seat Fenton seeks lies in the more conservative half of a state Senate swing district, and it rewards politicians who know how to efficiently use people’s tax dollars, said Brian Johnson, Fenton’s campaign manager and former local Republican Party chair.
“Taxes boils down to fiscal responsibility,” he said. “People here will pay taxes, but only if those taxes are used efficiently and effectively.”
The local party is more conservative than the general electorate and will respect Fenton’s involvement at the local and state party levels, Johnson said.
So far, Fenton faces no formal opposition to the Republican endorsement. A DFL challenger, Kay Hendrikson, who works in the State Ombudsman’s Office and serves on the Woodbury Planning Commission, has been campaigning since before Kieffer announced her decision not to seek re-election.
Fenton said she aligns with Kieffer on several issues, including her views on education, private sector job growth and dealing with repeat sex offenders. However, Fenton publicly supported putting a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the ballot, while Kieffer was one of only five Republican legislators to support legalizing gay marriage.
Kieffer did not respond to requests for comment on Fenton’s candidacy.
Fenton said her top priorities would be focusing on “effective and efficient government policies that promote a pro-business agenda, quality, affordable health care and provide the tools necessary for students to succeed now and in the future.”
Woodbury is an affluent suburb with a lower unemployment rate than the state as a whole and has seen good economic growth coming out of the recession. It boasts high-performing schools, a relatively low property tax rate, and a mix of small and large employers.
Transportation is also a vital issue for the east Metro, Johnson said, including the proposed Gateway Corridor connecting St. Paul with Stillwater.
“The number of cars rivals those on the west side of the Twin Cities,” he said. “There is a lot of discussion right now on the right way to manage traffic now and in the future.”
Lillie, whose organization does not endorse candidates, said she has his personal support.
“She’s a fiscal conservative who believes families succeed best when allowed to retain as much of their income as possible,” he said. “She did a great job providing a framework and organization to let a very dysfunctional state party get itself back on track and start building again.”
Fenton pledged to abide by the local Republican Party’s endorsement process, and said she believes the party is pursuing a “big tent” of conservatives, libertarians and tea partiers who share core values like sound fiscal management, individual responsibility and freedom.
However, during Fenton’s tenure as deputy party chair, the tension between those differing groups has been notable, especially as the Ron Paul-affiliated libertarian elements of the party have assumed control of many local party units. Paul supporters denied Fenton and other party officials delegate slots at the 2012 Republican National Convention.
“Grassroots activism is the core of what makes our political process great, and that’s the type of campaign I intend to run,” she said.
Fenton’s political resume also includes being president of the Minnesota Excellence in Public Service Series, a women’s leadership and political training program that spurred five successful candidacies, including Kieffer’s.
Fenton has advocated for the Republican Party to work harder at targeting women voters, including ones who are independent or lean Democratic.
“Like Andrea, I understand the importance of listening to the concerns of all your constituents, regardless of political affiliation,” she said.