There are politicians who want to be all things to all people. Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, the freshman Republican state representative from Cranston, is not one of them.
When she burst on to the scene a few years ago to help her husband, then-Cranston mayor Allan Fung, run for governor, Democrats painted her as a Donald Trump-loving pro-lifer who was going to help turn the State House bright red. Even some of her husband’s diehard supporters worried she might be too conservative, and they quietly blamed her for a picture that circulated on social media in 2018 of him wearing a Trump hat at the former president’s inauguration.
Since she was sworn in in January, Fenton-Fung has been facing pushback from the right for not auto-rejecting every piece of legislation put in front of her by the Democrats, who overwhelmingly control both the House and Senate. She’s already preparing for a Republican primary next year against Suzanne Michelle Downing, who opened a campaign account in April.
But if she learned anything in her first year in the General Assembly, it’s to put progress ahead of party affiliation. And her willingness to partner with Democrats has helped her score some early victories while also maintaining the same independence that made her husband such a popular mayor.
“The Republican Party is so small that it could use some new faces,” veteran Rhode Island pollster Joe Fleming told me. “She could be that person.”
Fenton-Fung broke from her party earlier this year to vote for a Democrat-led climate change bill that one conservative group said was supported by “political tyrants.” She did so, she said, in part because she doesn’t believe that it actually imposes new mandates on businesses, and also because the Republicans need to show younger voters that they care about the environment.
But just when some of her Republican allies wanted to label her a traitor, she voted against the $13.1 billion state budget, in part because it included a tax on certain companies that received federal Payroll Protection Program loans.
Those might be the high-profile votes, but Fenton-Fung points to her support for a bill that capped insulin costs at $40 a month and another bill that requires the secretary of state to conduct a cybersecurity assessment of election systems and facilities as examples of her working across the aisle to pass legislation that matters to everyday Rhode Islanders.
“Outside of the polarizing social issues, so many of these Democrats here really do want to work bipartisan,” Fenton-Fung said during an interview on the House floor this week. “They want to have a more coherent approach. If you look at it from reforming the system instead of trying to tear it down, you’re probably going to get a little bit further in a state like this.”
Despite her willingness to buck her own party, there is one person Fenton-Fung doesn’t want to be compared with: US Representative Liz Cheney, the Wyoming congresswoman who lost her spot at the chair of the House Republican Conference earlier this year for speaking out against the former president.
“That’ll get me voted out,” Fenton-Fung, 40, joked when we spoke for an hour on the House floor on Tuesday.
Ever the pragmatist now, Fenton-Fung had every reason to come to the State House thinking highly of herself.
She easily defeated House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello in House District 15 last November in what might have been the most significant victory for a Republican in Rhode Island since Donald Carcieri was reelected governor in 2006.
While she ran for office promising to shake things up, she didn’t come in pretending that she had the answer to every problem. She said that she looks up to her Republican colleagues Representatives Brian Newberry and Michael Chippendale, but she’s also forged relationships with Democratic Representatives like Julie Casimiro and Bernard Hawkins.
And yes, she’s even taken some sage advice from House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi, who urged her to get out of her comfort zone. She’s a physical therapist at Rhode Island Hospital, so she didn’t join the Health and Human Services committee. Instead, she’s on committees that focus on education, small businesses, and the environment.
“He said for however long you decide to be here, I want you to learn,” Fenton-Fung said.
Which begs the question: How long does she want to be there?
She said that she’d like to serve a few terms in the House – she’s a supporter of term limits – but for now, Fenton-Fung is trying to process everything that happened over the last year.
In her work at the hospital, she said she’ll never forget having to hold up an iPad for patients with COVID-19 who were saying their final goodbyes to family and friends. She said there are so many hospital workers who have similar stories, and she fears that the industry is about to face a mass exodus as employees begin to cope with everything they’ve seen.
She said that she can’t see herself leaving her job.
At least, not yet.
She supports current Cranston Mayor Ken Hopkins, who turns 67 in August. But if he doesn’t seek a second term, she says, she’d consider jumping in the race.