There is a stereotype about Republicans in Rhode Island: that they are old, white and wealthy. Barbara Ann Fenton doesn’t fit that description. A physical therapist, the 32-year-old is young, energetic and ready to turn that stereotype upsidedown.
As the new president of Rhody Young Republicans, Fenton says her group has countless others who break the conservative mold and will help redefine the party going forward.
“It has been painted as a party of hate. Come in and see the issues and see the candidates, and the mystique of the Republican Party will fall to the wayside,” she said.
Rhody Young Republicans had lost steam for about a year, but in February, Fenton and Vice President Danny Hall decided to resurrect the group. They plan to use the next year as a building year, soliciting members and educating voters about the conservative platform – the truths and the misconceptions.
“It’s not a bad thing to be a Republican,” Hall said.
On their Facebook page, the group explains that they hope to embrace and promote all conservative viewpoints, from Moderates to Tea Party and everything in between. Fenton serves on the Rhode Island GOP board in an advisory role, but the group is not beholden to the state party, and have renewed their independent charter.
“There’s a huge generational shift in the Republican Party,” Fenton said. “There’s more to the Republican Party than just social conservatism.”
The state Senate’s Republican Caucus made that clear when they came forward in unanimous support of same-sex marriage, and Rhody Young Republicans carried that message home, inviting Gregory Angelo to speak to their group. Angelo is the executive director of the national Log Cabin Republicans group.
Every month, Young Republicans bring in a different guest speaker. In addition to the Log Cabin Republicans, Senate Deputy Minority Leader Dawson Tucker Hodgson (R-East Greenwich, North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Narragansett) has spoken to the group, as have inner-city organizations that focus on empowering people to pick themselves up by their bootstraps.
“We can’t be dependent on the government; that was never what this was intended to be,” Fenton said.
Meetings have consistently attracted 50 or more guests, with more than half being women. It is an ethnically diverse group as well, and Fenton has been impressed with the opinions and ideas being shared respectfully among the group.
“Most of us aren’t in politics. We’re all just trying to figure out how to pull this state out of the slump,” she said. “We’re genuine about this.”
Having guest speakers, and offering the chance for members or visitors to socialize, has created a welcoming environment and Hall hopes that translates to more members.
“We’re trying to shoot some energy into the party,” Hall said.
In particular, Rhody Young Republicans understands the importance of engaging young voters by highlighting the issues that are most important to their generation. Students graduate with debt, struggle to find work, are unable to purchase a home and therefore are often not setting up roots in their home state.
“It’s hard to keep young people in this state because there are no jobs,” Fenton said.
Connecting that with the role of state leadership will be crucial, she adds, in the next election.
“We’re completely in the ground. With any other company, if you’re 50th on the list, the bottom of the barrel, you fire the guy at the top. We haven’t done that,” she said, speaking to the consistent control of Democrats in the General Assembly.
Hall, who also serves as second vice chair of the Rhode Island GOP, says that voters too often believe that the problem starts in some other district. They feel a personal connection to their representative and focus on their feel-good community work instead of their stance on major issues like jobs and the economy.
“We’re wooed easily in this state,” he said.
That membership will have the opportunity to be as involved as they want in the campaigns of Republican candidates in 2014. With members from all professions and walks of life, Fenton is hopeful that Rhody Young Republicans will provide a strong grassroots volunteer force for candidates.
“Next year, the potential slate of candidates is phenomenal,” she said.
While Fenton and Hall can’t confirm what candidates they’re working with, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung has not made it a secret that he is seriously considering a run for governor. Fenton sees Fung as the type of conservative candidate who can help reform the party’s image.
“Governing is more than politics; you have to cross that aisle,” she said. “Allan is doing a great job turning around the city.”
Admittedly, 2012 was a bad year for Rhode Island Republicans, which Hall attributes in part to it being a presidential election year. He says Republicans will learn from that election, and come back stronger in the next cycle.
With stronger candidates who are better at defining their message, the pair believes that fundraising – a consistent challenge for the party at the state level – will follow suit.
“Already it’s becoming much, much easier. People will give $50, $100 to people they like, but when they have a candidate they really love, it’s a whole different ballgame,” Fenton said.
Even if members don’t want to volunteer, or aren’t sure if Rhody Young Republicans is for them, Hall encouraged voters under 40 to check out a meeting to learn more.
“If you like it, you keep coming. The meetings are fun to go to. It’s truly a big team effort,” he said.
For more information on Rhody Young Republicans, visit Facebook.com/RhodyYoungRepublicans or e-mail RhodyYoungRepublicans@aol.com.