Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Making the law — Kenai attorney followed mother’s advice to first Alaska Legislature
By Clark Fair
Soldotna’s James Fisher said that his mother’s imploring voice followed him into adulthood and constantly urged him toward public service.
“She used to tell my brother (Bob) and I, ‘You should give back to society. You want to contribute to society.’ Over and over,” Fisher said. “In effect, she programmed us.”
Fisher’s mother, Mary, also practiced what she preached. According to Fisher’s daughter, Sally Tachick, she provided numerous examples of giving to society throughout her long life.
Fisher, who began his public service by joining the Marines just before his 18th birthday in 1945, found it impossible to resist his mother’s advice. After he and his father traveled in June 1955 from Texas to Anchorage — where the first person he met was Seaborn Buckalew, a lawyer who became famous as a Superior Court judge throughout most of the 1970s and ‘80s — it took Fisher little time to find himself embroiled in the politics of his adopted home.
It wasn’t his first venture into the political arena, however. At the age of 23, he had run unsuccessfully for a seat on the Texas Legislature. Despite losing the election, he had enjoyed the political scene, and so, in Alaska, after working with the military’s White Alice communications system and a brief stint as an insurance adjustor, his political aims took on a sharper focus and met with greater fortune.
Fisher, who had earned a law degree in Texas in 1952, took up residence in Anchorage, involved himself in the grassroots “Operation Statehood” efforts of 1958, and became a member of the first Alaska Legislature in 1959.
With his election as an Anchorage delegate to the first state House, Fisher joined a vast majority of other Democrats in the Legislature. As strange as it may seem in today’s Republican-dominated state, in 1959 Alaskans elected Democrats to the U.S. Senate, U.S. House, the governor’s mansion, and to 18 of 20 seats of the state Senate and 33 of 40 seats of the state House.
This majority didn’t always equate to unity, however. Appointed to the Judiciary and Rules committees, Fisher found himself “assigned” an extra duty: Watch Rep. John Hellenthal (D-Anchorage) and make sure he follows the rules.
Speaker of the House Warren Taylor, Rules Committee Chair Richard Greuel and Majority Leader Peter Kalamarides — all Democrats — came to Fisher with this unusual task.
“They were frankly suspicious of John Hellenthal,” Fisher said. “They didn’t think he could be relied upon. They described him as a ‘loose cannon.’ They weren’t sure that they could hold him to his word.”
They weren’t the only ones who believed that Hellenthal was manipulative. Former Gov. Jay Hammond, who was also a member of that first State House, wrote that Hellenthal was “perhaps our most artfully articulate philosophical prostitute.”
Hellenthal, Hammond said, “could argue opposing positions on any issue with equal passion and persuasion” and was “sometimes more intrigued with mind manipulation than meaningful effort to resolve conflicts.”
Fisher said that Hellenthal had a “reputation for always coming up with his version of the truth.
“So they assigned me to the Judiciary Committee — and he was the chair of the Judiciary Committee — and I was there to watch him, to make sure he performed as a committee chairman should.”
In the meantime, Fisher said, Greuel sometimes maneuvered politically in ways he had accused Hellenthal of doing, and Taylor occasionally took liberties himself and “wasn’t very sensitive to the ethical ramifications of his actions.”
Hellenthal, on the other hand, was clever, but he “wasn’t acting as flagrantly as I’d heard him described.”
Despite such machinations, however, Fisher deemed the first state Legislature a success.
“I still remember that day when we were going into Juneau (for the first time), flying into Juneau in one of the old (Lockheed) Constellations,” Fisher said. “It was misty, as it frequently is in Juneau, and we weren’t at all sure then how long it would take to set up and organize the state government.
“There was some speculation it might take six months. Well, actually, it only took 81 days.”
In that first session, from Jan. 26 to April 16, 1959, the new state lawmaking bodies passed legislation that created the organizational framework that has run Alaska’s government now for 50 years.
“We thought we were starting something brand-new that hadn’t been done before, and that we wouldn’t make the same mistakes that had been made before,” Fisher said.
At the end of the Legislature’s second session in late March 1960, Fisher got married, an event that perhaps signaled many more changes to come.
Defeated for a second legislative term later in 1960, Fisher moved on. He and his wife, Helen, and their daughter moved to the Kenai Peninsula, and their son, Bruce, was born the following year. Later in the 1960s, with attorney Jim Hornaday, he opened up one of Kenai’s first law offices.
Fisher stuck close to home, eschewing another try at political office so he could remain close to his family. And even while Fisher & Hornaday was going strong, he never faltered in his dedication to public service.
He was president of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce for three years, worked with the nonprofit Alaska Legal Services, and, with Helen, he became involved in environmental issues and joined the Kenai Conservation Society.
Now 81 and one of only four surviving members of that first State House, Fisher is still active in his community. He is a member of local historical societies, helps out at the Soldotna Senior Citizens Center and is on the board of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank.
As he can be seen frequently riding his bicycle or walking from place to place around town, he never fails to be mindful of the need to give back to society, and to heed the “programming” initiated by his mother’s imploring voice.