Kelly Fenton found herself right in the middle of one of the most tumultuous times that the State Republican Party has ever seen. In an interview with the Real Capitol View, Fenton talked about her life and background as a mother, party activist, and leader.
Before Minnesota Politics
Prior to entering the political area, Fenton was in the education field, initially earning an undergraduate degree in Elementary Education from Marquette University in Wisconsin.
With her degree in hand, she went back home to teach in Houston, Texas. While teaching, she returned to school for a Masters of Administration and Supervision of Schools degree, which she received from the University of Houston.
After working as a School Administrator in the Alternative Teacher Licensure Program Fenton moved to Minnesota in 1993 and taught for one year before retiring so she could be home with her children.
The rise of a faithful activist
Although she was home with her children, Fenton got involved with politics almost right away.
“I would help on local city races. I also helped Norm Coleman after he switched parties and ran for Governor,” said Fenton.
She’s been an active member of her local BPOU, and has served as a delegate to the State Central Committee and State Convention.
In addition to helping in campaigns and being a delegate, Fenton enrolled in a political training program called Minnesota Excellence in Public Service Series, which today she now leads as its President.
While she was going through that program, Fenton was asked to be a Precinct Chair for the McCain/Palin campaign in the 2008 election, which ultimately led to her becoming Campaign Manager for Ted Lillie, who ran against DFL Senator Kathy Saltzman.
According to Fenton, many labeled Senator Saltzman as “unbeatable,” and that Lillie wouldn’t be able to unseat her.
However, after a lot of parades, door knocking, literature drops, shaking hands, and phone calls Lillie, with the help of Fenton, did exactly that, winning a race with a total of 38,549 votes by 1,151 votes.
The start of many turnovers in Republican leadership
It all started in January of 2011 when both the National Committeeman and Committeewoman to the Republican National Committee announced they were stepping down from their positions.
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson succeeded Brian Sullivan as Committeeman while former Minnesota Auditor Pat Anderson replaced Committeewoman Evie Axdhal at the State Central Committee meeting in Bloomington, Minnesota, on April 16th, 2011.
The next change took place on October 10th, 2011 when Minnesota Republican Party Deputy Chairman Michael Brodkorb announced he was stepping down from his position to advise State Senator Mike Parry’s Congressional Campaign.
While he was stepping down from his Party position, Brodkorb was to remain the Communications Director for the Minnesota State Senate, as well as Executive Assistant to then-Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch.
The resignation triggered an election to replace Brodkorb that was scheduled to take place on December 3rd, 2011, at a State Central Committee meeting in St. Cloud.
Jumping into the Deputy Chair race
Fenton wasted no time jumping in, saying, “As soon as I heard that there would be an election for Deputy Chair, I decided to go for it. I felt that I had some great skills to bring to the Party and that it would be great way to serve the people in the state of Minnesota.”
While she embarrassingly admits that she doesn’t remember cooking a meal over the 7 weeks she was running for Deputy Chair, Fenton looks back at her race with positive memories.
“I met so many wonderful people from one end of the state to another. I had many great phone conversations with those most active from our base. There was one debate and many events. If I could make it, I was there,” she stated.
Fenton points to her family as a key to her being able to run, saying, “My family was so supportive and all chipped in the help so I could be available to the people and events. When you run for a position of Deputy Chair, it is a true grassroots campaign; phone calls, letters, and meeting delegates at events.”
Fenton had a campaign manager, Lisa Belak, kept an active and up-to-date Facebook page, and received several high profile endorsements from 2010 Lt. Governor Candidate Annette Meeks, Radio Show Host Jason Lewis, VOICES of Conservative Women President Jennifer DeJournett, and a handful of state legislators.
The day before the December 3rd State Central Committee meeting was to take place, Minnesota Republican Chairman Tony Sutton announced his resignation effective immediately, amid concerns by many Party activists and leaders about growing debt and spending issues.
“When Tony resigned, I found out at the same time everyone else found out. It was hours before my meeting with the nominating committee [on December 3nd] and before I would be meeting delegates at my hospitality suite. My phone was burning off the wall with calls from members of our legislature, family, friends, and supporters.”
Fenton pressed on and defeated a handful of other candidates to fill out the remainder of Brodkorb’s term, which ends in April of 2013.
Eventually another State Central Committee meeting was set for December 31st, where a new Chairman would be selected.
While Fenton was just elected as Deputy Chair, Party rules dictated that she would also serve as Acting Chairman due to Sutton’s resignation, until a new Chairman could be elected, and Day 1 proved to be just as busy as the next month would be.
“Immediately after being elected on Saturday, I spent Sunday meeting with Congressman John Kline, Congressman Erik Paulsen, and others. I was so thankful to have their support,” said Fenton.
She added that she would often start her day of Party business between 7:30 a.m. – 8:00 a.m., and typically would not be home before 10:00 p.m.
The Party wasn’t out of the woods yet
12 days after Fenton’s election, the state was rocked by then-Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch’s announcement on December 15th that she was immediately stepping down as Majority Leader, and that she would not seek re-election in November, citing a desire to spend time with family.
Only one day later news broke that Koch was confronted by fellow Senators about an “inappropriate relationship” with a male staffer that reported directly to her.
Following the news of the scandal, Michael Brodkorb was fired as Communications Director, and eventually lost his position as adviser to the Parry campaign.
Koch remained in the Senate, filling out her term that expires in January of 2013, but will not seek re-election this November.
New leaders take seats at the table
On December 27th Senator Dave Senjem, who preceded Koch as leader of the Senate Republicans when they were still in the Minority, was elected to lead the caucus, and brought with him a new leadership team, replacing the group of Senators who sat at the leadership table with Koch.
Before the December 31st State Central Committee meeting Fenton announced the resignation of Party Secretary-Treasurer David Sturrock, who ended the leadership changes that took place over the year.
The next day after Sturrock’s resignation, Republican delegates selected Pat Shortridge of Shoreview to be the new Party Chairman. Shoreview managed Mark Kennedy’s unsuccessful Senate bid against now-Senator Amy Klobuchar in 2006.
Fenton thought the selection of Shortridge was right for the Party, and sees it as a good thing for her, too.
“I enjoy working with our Chair. Pat has some experience that I haven’t had, and I look forward to continuing to learn from him. We will have a great year working together in what will be one of the most important election years for Minnesota.”
Following his election, Shortridge appointed Bron Scherer as the new Secretary-Treasurer.
Almost a candidate herself
Before Fenton signed on as Campaign Manager for candidate Ted Lillie, she seriously considered running on her own for a seat in the Minnesota House.
But her kids begged her to hold off on that thought for the time being.
“They were fearful of being treated unfairly because I would have been running against one of the high school teachers,” Fenton said.
With her experience from the local races she’s worked on, as well as heading up Lillie’s campaign, Fenton says she’s come to enjoy the “behind the scenes” aspect of politics.
However, she points out that she hasn’t closed the door on possibly running for public office herself one day, or possibly even Chair.
Fenton said, “Right now, my focus is 110% on the job of Deputy Chair. However, I would not rule out running for future office. Never say never. My goals are to move the Party toward financial health while building our ground game, working with our activists and candidates to win elections in 2012, and filling our coffers to take back the Governor’s office in 2014.
It is important for me to focus on winning elections and seeing where the future leads me.”
Deputy Chair role and the 2012 Elections
While she no longer has the added responsibility of the Chairman’s duties, Fenton’s days are still very full, with everyday bringing a new challenge or task.
Recently the Minnesota Republican Party endorsed state representative Kurt Bills to take on U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar this fall, and Fenton is already digging into the fight.
“Amy Klobuchar is vulnerable in this election. While Senator Klobuchar talks a good game, her vote record is straight in line with President Obama.”
Fenton adds, “As a member of Senate, she has neglected to pass a balanced budget in three years. Kurt Bills has the right message of jobs and economy along with a diverse background to defeat Klobuchar.”
Fenton feels like due to the fact that Representative Bills is a high school economics teacher, and the fact that his wife, Cindy, is a daycare provider, that independents will be more inclined to support his candidacy.
Janet Beihoffer recently elected to serve as Republican National Committeewoman, and Fenton is looking forward to working with her.
“Janet has a proven record of being one of our hardest working activists and building the Voter Integrity program. I credit Janet with saving an election or two by having built the presence of our own election judges and poll watchers on Election Day,” said Fenton.
As for the Minnesota Republican Party financial woes, Fenton can see the light at the end of the tunnel, saying, “As a Party, we are better off financially today then we were 4 months ago. We will be better off 4 months from now than we are today. When something crumbles, you build it back up. When you build something back up, you take the time to build it right. We work every day to build this Party back up in the right way.
Sometimes this process takes time. The result will be a rock solid financially healthy Party in the future. I am glad to be a part of this reconstruction.”