Rev. Aubrey Fenton was as shocked as any other Republican to hear that 12-term Rep. Jim Saxton's would not seek re-election. But after getting the news on Friday, Fenton shut himself off from the political world as he typically does on weekends, taking sanctuary in his church to focus on his Sunday sermon.
So it wasn't until Monday that the 37-year-old Burlington County Freeholder saw published reports that Burlington County GOP leader Glenn Paulsen, who's feuding with potential congressional candidate state Sen. Diane Allen — the early favorite for the Republican nomination – was talking up a potential Fenton run.
Paulsen later told PolitickerNJ.com that Republicans ought to look into supporting the candidacy of Fenton, an African-American, as an opportunity for the national party to reach out to minority voters. Plus, he said, Fenton is more socially conservative than Allen, meshing with the national party's stance on issues like abortion and gay marriage more than the moderate Allen.
"Aubrey Fenton is someone who's young, energetic and a tremendously respected reverend in this area," said Paulsen. "He would be someone who the national party, which does not have a good reputation with people of color, should seriously consider."
By the time Fenton checked his cell phone's voice mail on Monday, he had more messages than he could count.
"I must have had 100 messages about this one particular issue," said Fenton. "I'm still trying to digest it, to be honest with you."
Fenton, like all the potential Republican Saxton successors, hasn't said whether or not he will run. But unlike other potential candidates from Burlington — County Clerk and State Senator-elect Phil Haines, Sheriff Jean Stanfield, or fellow Freeholder Bill Haines — he hasn't removed his name from consideration. Some political insiders think that Paulsen brought up Fenton more to put a damper on the buzz surrounding Allen than as a serious challenge to her. Paulsen denies it.
(Another possible candidate from Burlington, former GOP State Chairman David Norcross, has refused to rule out a bid for Saxton's seat.)
Fenton, for his part, appears to be mulling the prospect of a congressional run seriously.
"To everyone putting my name in contention and leaving messages – I say thank you and I'm honored. I'll explore it. That's all I'm promising," said Fenton.
If elected, Fenton would become the first Black Republican to serve in Congress since J.C. Watts left the House in 2003. But if he decides to run, he said that his racial identity will have nothing to do with it.
"I think for a person to say ‘This is an African-American, let me cast my ballot for him,' you'd really be shortchanging the intelligence of a lot of voters . I've never looked at it that way never voted that way, and the overwhelming majority of people don't," said Fenton.
Running for congress would be a big leap for Fenton, who's the most junior member of the county's all-Republican freeholder board — the first elected office he's ever held. Prior to that, he ran for Assembly in the seventh district in 2001 against incumbents Herb Conaway and Jack Connors, losing by 10,000 votes.
But Fenton notes that he's been involved in politics since 1994, when he volunteered for the ticket of then 7th district Republican legislators Priscilla Anderson, Jose Sosa and Bradford Smith. Next he worked on the freeholder campaigns of Bill Haines and future Assemblyman Larry Chatzidakis, and eventually was hired as a legislative aide to Diane Allen, who he describes as a "great friend."
That makes Fenton, who acknowledges that he's well to the right of Allen on social issues, think hard about the possibility of running against her in a primary.
"Her name recognition is great, and she's also a very, very good friend of mine," said Fenton. "That's a relationship that I protect…. I think Diane is great"
Fenton has tried to stay out of the political war between Paulsen and Allen. He didn't sign onto the letter in support of Acting County Chairwoman Dawn Lacy, which criticized Paulsen. But he won't criticize Allen or Lacy either, and said he hasn't made up his mind as to whether to support Lacy to stay as county chair or Paulsen pick Bill Layton.
"Depending on who you speak to they might say ‘Aubrey is on this side here or on that side there,' it's not because I'm wishy washy… it's always based on principal."
But what Fenton doesn't have a lot of is name recognition. Although he's well-known from his church work and in his heavily black, Democratic hometown of Willingboro, his celebrity doesn't approach that of Allen, a former Philadelphia television news anchor.
"Everyone knows who Jim Saxton is, but his successors are much less well-known," said Rutgers University Political Science Professor Ross K. Baker. "The one person who has a name that can be traded on is Diane Allen."