Pioneering Arkansas politician Jimmie Lou Fisher dies; served as state treasurer for 22 years
Jimmie Lou Fisher, Arkansas’ longest-serving state treasurer and a pioneering politician, died Monday night. Fisher, who was 80, died at Arkansas Methodist Medical Center in Paragould.
The Arkansas Democratic Party tweeted on Tuesday that the state had lost a “true legend.”
“His grace, kindness and passion have made our party and our state a better place to live,” the tweet read. “Thank you Jimmie Lou.”
Fisher got his start in politics after being elected treasurer of Greene County in 1970 and serving four two-year terms in that position. However, according to the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas, his friendship with a young Bill Clinton while campaigning for Congress launched his political career in the state.
In 1979, newly elected Governor Clinton appointed Fisher State’s Auditor to replace Jimmie “Red” Jones, who became the adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard. Before that, Fisher led Clinton’s 1978 campaign for governor in the First Congressional District.
In 1980, Fisher ran for Arkansas State Treasurer and won. As the second woman from Arkansas to be elected to a state constitutional office, she served in that office for 22 years.
Fisher remained popular during her tenure as state treasurer, according to an article by journalist Ernest Dumas in the Arkansas Encyclopedia. In 1997, Easterseals Arkansas recognized her as the Arkansan of the Year and she appeared on the organization’s list of Arkansas’ Top 100 Women in 1997, 1998 and 1999.
She also received the Arkansas Democratic Party’s “Gressie Carnes Award” in 1979, the George C. Douthit “Freedom of Information Award” in 1989, and the Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership “Lindy Boggs Award” in 2009.
Whether she had an adversary or ran unopposed, Fisher regularly visited communities across the state. In 1989, Fisher told the Democrat of Arkansas that she didn’t believe she could serve the people of Arkansas if she stayed in the Capitol building all the time.
“I love shaking everyone’s hand,” she said. “If it stops giving me a good feeling to visit my friends in Jasper, Ark., then I’ll know it’s time, and I’ll do something else, but I don’t see that happening.”
President Clinton said in a statement that Fisher loved Arkansas and Arkansas loved him back. He said he would always be grateful for her kindness and generous heart.
“I will always remember that morning in early October 1991, when Jimmie Lou introduced me as I launched my presidential campaign on the steps of the Old State House,” Clinton said. “As always, she was enthusiastic, caring and kind, saying just the words we all needed to hear.”
The state constitution’s term limits were the only thing barring Fisher from another re-election in 2002.
That year, Democratic Party leaders persuaded Fisher to run against popular Republican incumbent Governor Mike Huckabee. According to the Arkansas Encyclopedia, they saw her as the serious contender they needed in the race.
According to Dumas’ article, she easily defeated two unknown Democrats in the primary and continued to campaign against Huckabee.
During the race, Fisher became known for his strong words. Fisher’s campaign criticized Gov. Huckabee for what they saw as an inattention to education and promised a $4,000 raise for state teachers and bonuses for new teachers, according to the encyclopedia. .
During a televised debate, Fisher said that if Huckabee were the CEO of a big company, he would be fired for his incompetence.
But when Huckabee’s campaign ran an ad depicting a person in a red dress and gray wig riding a four-wheeled vehicle and splashing mud on Huckabee’s campaign signs, Fisher responded by saying that she didn’t throw mud at her opponent.
“I tell it like it is,” she said.
Fisher also campaigned for part of the race on crutches after undergoing surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back.
In November 2002, she told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that she believed she had proven her commitment to her campaign.
“People take me seriously. People like that I have a plan and we’re working towards the goal,” Fisher said. “My heart is really in this.”
Ultimately, however, Fisher lost with 47% of the vote. Huckabee’s campaign had spent more than $1 million on him, the Democrat-Gazette reported in 2002.
According to the encyclopedia, during his next term, Huckabee continued school reform, pushing major tax increases and school consolidations through the legislature.
Huckabee said Tuesday that he offered his sincere respect for Fisher’s service to the state of Arkansas as auditor and state treasurer.
“She was one of the last elected Democrats to serve in what was a one-party state since Reconstruction, and her campaign in 2002 was vigorous and spirited,” Huckabee said in a statement. “She loved politics and was a stalwart and fierce warrior for her party throughout her adult life.”
Huckabee also acknowledged Fisher’s longstanding and unwavering support of Bill Clinton. He called Fisher “an icon” both in his administration and in the state Democratic Party.
Before Clinton became governor, Fisher was a Democratic Party leader who served as Vice Chairman of the Arkansas Democratic State Committee, member of the Democratic National Committee, and member of the National Convention Credentials Committee, according to the encyclopedia.
Fisher served as a delegate to national party conventions in 1988, 1992, 1996, and 2000. During Clinton’s presidency, she served on the Federal Rural Telephone Commission and the White House Conference on Aging.
After her loss in the gubernatorial race, Fisher remained active in the Democratic Party and advised former U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and former U.S. Representative Marion Berry, according to The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
In 2006, she chaired State Rep. Dustin McDaniel’s successful campaign for Arkansas Attorney General. During the same year, Fisher spent time in the hospital after suffering a mild stroke, but quickly regained movement and speech.
McDaniel told the Democrat-Gazette on Tuesday that Fisher has spent his entire career breaking down barriers for others. He said she ran a strong run for governor, and when she lost, she never held a grudge. Instead, McDaniel said Fisher moved on and dedicated her time to helping others succeed.
McDaniel said there was no doubt he would not have won the statewide election had it not been for Fisher’s political support, friendship and judgment. He said Fisher was a mentor, an example and someone who enriched the lives of everyone she met.
“Sometimes she didn’t recognize how influential she really was,” McDaniel said. “But there isn’t a politician who held local, state or national office in Arkansas from 1975 to 2005 who didn’t owe Jimmie Lou in some way.”
After her election, she worked for McDaniel as a legal teacher, a part-time job during which she spent time speaking to groups of senior citizens about computer fraud and identity theft.
He said Fisher had developed a real passion for seniors and wanted to help seniors across the state.
Fisher told the Democrat-Gazette at the time, “It will be nice to get out into the community.”
McDaniel also recalled Fisher’s deep faith and love for food. According to McDaniel, Fisher always had a Sunday school lesson to share. He said Fisher found a way to make everyone feel special and appreciated, and that often happened through cooking.
When Fisher campaigned, she made friends all over Arkansas, McDaniel said.
“People loved him,” he said.
Fisher was born Dec. 31, 1941, in Delight as Jimmie Lou Cooper to Joyce Nutt Cooper, a former basketball player and educator, and Tollie H. Cooper, a high school basketball coach, according to the Encyclopedia. The eldest of five children, during her childhood, Fisher’s family moved to five towns in Greene and Faulkner counties while her father worked as a school superintendent.
After graduating from high school in Vilonia, she attended Arkansas State College (now Arkansas State University) for three years. In 1959, she married George Fisher of North Little Rock. Their marriage lasted 18 years, and together they had a son, Kevin, who died when he was 1.
Prior to entering politics, Fisher had worked as a cashier and bookkeeper for Arkansas-Louisiana Gas from 1963 to 1966 and also as a bookkeeper for Thompson and Fry Insurance in Paragould from 1966 to 1970.
In 2013, Fisher moved back to Paragould to be near her family members. Fisher’s family will receive friends during visitation Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Mitchell Funeral Home in Paragould. His funeral will be held Thursday at 1 p.m. in the funeral home chapel.
Democratic Governor Mike Beebe, who led the state from 2007 to 2015, said in a statement that Fisher was not only one of the state’s most dedicated public servants, but also had a great love of life and an energetic spirit.
Beebe praised Fisher for her commitment to education advocacy and public service, and he called her a “stay friend, trusted adviser, and dependable ally.”
“To say she was one of a kind is not a cliché in Jimmie Lou’s case,” Beebe said. “It’s the truth, and it will be missed.”