Barbara Ann Fenton, the new face of the Rhode Island Young Republicans. Submitted photo.
By Kim Kalunian, WPRO News
With just 10 Republican legislators elected to the General Assembly last fall, the 2012 election cycle proved a big loss for the RIGOP. Now, infighting in the party has elicited some negative publicity for the party, which doesn’t help with the paucity of new, young members eager to pledge allegiance to the almighty elephant.
One woman looking to change that is Barbara Ann Fenton, a physical therapist from Newport. At 32, Fenton is hoping to bring new blood to the party that she thinks could have a major national resurgence.
Fenton’s a lifelong Rhode Islander and still lives in her hometown in the city by the sea. Her parents were split when it came to politics: Dad's a Democrat and Mom's a Republican.
Fenton said she’s always been a bit more conservative and holds tight to the belief that the state government knows what’s better for the state than the federal government does.
“In Rhode Island a lot more people are more socially conservative than they openly admit to,” she said.
But being “openly Republican” in a deep blue state isn’t always easy – in fact Fenton said sometimes it’s downright scary – especially at her young age.
“You’re always going to get people making personal attacks,” said Fenton. “But I’m fine with that because it means they don’t have a single political argument to make.”
Fenton was catapulted into the spotlight last year when she traveled to Tampa for the Republican National Convention and suggested the party recognize civil unions for all couples regardless of sexual orientation. CNN picked up on Fenton’s idea and the resulting debate. Overnight, Fenton turned from a first-time delegate with no political experience to an outspoken pundit that put Rhody in the spotlight.
Fenton said the response to her idea was “80-percent positive,” but there was still plenty of negative backlash. Still, Fenton said her express journey from political novice to headline-maker has “been a great ride.”
Besides supporting across-the-board civil unions, Fenton is pro-life, except in cases of rape or when the pregnancy would jeopardize the health of the mother. She cites her heavily Catholic upbringing as the source for her stance on abortion and same-sex marriage.
Fenton said a lot of younger Republicans feel the same way she does about social issues, which is why she’d like to see the reemergence of a local, Young Republican group.
“The movement of Young Republicans breaks the stereotypes that we’re angry, old, white men,” she said. “We have to slowly break the stereotypes.”
The group was formerly lead by Travis Rowley, but crumbled after his exit. Now Fenton said she plans to use the Young Republican group to educate people who are interested.
Fenton’s not surprised with the backlash she gets when national Republican figures are splashed on television screens spewing venom about women and minorities day after day.
But, she says, “us young ones tend to be more accepting and tolerant, not just saying that, but walking the walk.”
For her, ensuring that the local Young Republican movement stands apart from such extremist viewpoints is critical for many reasons, including getting more young people to join the party.
Fenton said she believes bigotry within the national party and RIGOP will slowly fade out. She said she doesn’t blame the media from latching on to the stories of sexism and racism that sprout from the Republican Party, but is upset that those few extremists have become the face of the party.
“One or two percent of the party is casting a very negative shadow on the other 98 percent,” she said.
In an attempt to breathe new life into the RIGOP and dispel those notions (at least in part) by the next round of elections, Fenton is getting a jump start on rebuilding the local Young Republicans group now.
As far as recruiting young Rhode Islanders to join in the YR movement, Fenton uses this reasoning: no matter how liberal someone’s beliefs are, they have to recognize that the Democrats have had control of Rhode Island for decades, and “we haven’t seen any meaningful change.”
With heavy hitters like Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung rumored to be considering runs for higher office, it’s possible Fenton will get the change she’s looking for.
Besides Avedisian and Fung, Republicans that have already made names for themselves, Fenton says she sees State Senator Dawson Hodgson and former State Rep. Dan Patrick Reilly as major RIGOP up-and-comers.
For Fenton, making the Republican Party stronger is about reclaiming their identity.
“We’ve been letting the Democrats tell our story,” she said. And she’s looking to put an end to that.
For more information on the local Young Republican group, visit https://www.facebook.com/RhodyYoungRepublicans.