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Woodbury's Fenton optimistic despite state GOP financial concerns

Woodbury resident Kelly Fenton will lead the Minnesota Republican Party as interim chairwoman through the end of the year until the party elects a permanent person for the role. Bulletin photo by Mike Longaecker

ST. PAUL - Kelly Fenton's new office affords a clear view of the Minnesota Capitol building.

The future of all she oversees from that perch isn't quite as clear. The interim chairwoman for the Minnesota Republican Party settled into to her quarters last week and took the helm - temporarily, at least - of an organization fraught with financial difficulties and uncertain leadership.

Fenton, a Woodbury resident, assumed the post Dec. 3 - one day after then-Chairman Tony Sutton abruptly resigned. Sutton's resignation came in the wake of revelations that the party was approximately $500,000 in debt after capturing majorities in both houses of the Legislature during the 2010 elections.

Despite the upheaval, Fenton remains optimistic the party will come through with enough momentum to hold those majorities during next year's elections.

"I am very confident going into 2012," she said in an interview with the Woodbury Bulletin. "We are a party of great strength and can overcome even the greatest challenges."

Fenton takes the reins in a dual leadership position: she was elected as the state GOP's deputy chair and is filling in as chairwoman until the party elects someone for the permanent position. Fenton last week called for the state's central party to convene Dec. 31 for the election.

Her predecessor in the deputy chair, Michael Brodkorb - who left the role to run state Sen. Mike Parry's congressional campaign - said he believes Fenton brings "a tremendous calming presence" to the party at a critical time.

"She has been thrust into potentially the most difficult political situation our party has faced in quite some time and she has handled it with incredible grace and has been incredibly strong," Brodkorb said.

Fenton came to Minnesota 18 years ago after working as a teacher and school administrator in Texas. After arriving here, she sought out her local party unit and became a precinct caucus leader shortly after.

In addition to working as a precinct captain for the McCain-Palin presidential campaign, Fenton enrolled in political leadership training through the Minnesota Excellence in Public Service Series - a program aimed at increasing women's roles in political positions.

Most recently, Fenton managed Lake Elmo Republican Ted Lillie's successful state senatorial campaign, a role she recently turned over following her election to party leadership.

She now turns her attention to leading the state party, which will mean navigating rough seas as members look to solve the debt crisis.

"My role right now is just to keep the party moving forward," Fenton said.

She declined to comment on the debt issue, only saying the party is "working to gain a full and accurate understanding of the financial obligations." She noted that the party has assembled a special committee to provide financial controls.

Brodkorb admitted that the debt situation "raises concerns," and alluded to the possibility that more distress could be on the horizon.

"Whatever else is to come out, there's a strong chair in Kelly right now who's leading the party," he said. "The seas may be rough, but there's a strong captain at the helm of the ship."

Fenton said that while she is focused on leading the party through the next month, she expects someone else to grab the reins permanently. Fenton demurred as to whether she would accept a nomination to run for the chairman position, saying she hopes others will emerge.

"I think it's best that someone else run for that and I provide stability and leadership here," she said, adding that when she ran for party leadership, it was for the deputy chairman's post. "I am very content with that position."

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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