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Pioneering Arkansas politician Jimmie Lou Fisher dies; was state treasurer 22 years

by Olivia Alexander | July 13, 2022 at 4:15 a.m.
FILE — Jimmie Lou Fisher is shown in this Aug. 17, 2002 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staff photo)

Jimmie Lou Fisher, Arkansas' longest serving state treasurer and a pioneering female politician, died Monday night. Fisher, who was 80 years old, died at Arkansas Methodist Medical Center in Paragould.

The Democratic Party of Arkansas on Tuesday tweeted that the state lost a "true legend."

"Her grace, kindness, and passion made our party and our state a better place to call home," the tweet read. "Thank you, Jimmie Lou."

Fisher first started out in politics after being elected the treasurer of Greene County in 1970 and serving four two-year terms in the position. However, according to the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas, her friendship with a young Bill Clinton as he campaigned for Congress launched her state political career.

In 1979, the newly elected Governor Clinton appointed Fisher state auditor to replace Jimmie "Red" Jones, who became the adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard. Before then, Fisher had directed Clinton's 1978 campaign for governor in the first congressional district.

In 1980, Fisher ran for Arkansas state treasurer and won. As only the second woman in Arkansas to be elected to a state constitutional office, she served in the role for 22 years.

Fisher remained popular during her time as state treasurer, according to an article by journalist Ernest Dumas in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. In 1997, Easterseals Arkansas recognized her as the Arkansan of the year, and she appeared on the organization's list of the Top 100 Women in Arkansas in 1997, 1998 and 1999.

She also received the Arkansas Democratic party "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 opponent or ran unopposed, Fisher visited communities across the state regularly. In 1989, Fisher told the Arkansas Democrat that she didn't believe she could serve the people of Arkansas if she stayed in the Capitol building all the time.

"I like to shake everybody's hand," she said. "If it ever ceases to give 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 her back. He said he will always be grateful for her kind and giving heart.

"I will always remember that early October morning in 1991, when Jimmie Lou introduced me as I kicked off 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 limitations were the only thing stopping Fisher from another reelection in 2002.

In that year, Democratic Party leaders persuaded Fisher to run against the popular Republican incumbent governor, Mike Huckabee. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, they saw her as the serious candidate they needed in the race.

According to Dumas' article, she easily defeated two unknown Democrats in the primary and went on to campaign hard against Huckabee.

During the race, Fisher became known for her strong words. Fisher's campaign criticized Gov. Huckabee for what they viewed as an inattention to education and promised a $4,000 raise for the state's teachers and bonuses for new teachers, the encyclopedia said.

In a televised debate, Fisher said if Huckabee were the chief executive officer of a major corporation, he would be fired for his ineptness.

But when Huckabee's campaign ran an advertisement depicting a person in a red dress and a gray wig riding a four-wheeler and splashing mud on Huckabee campaign signs, Fisher responded by saying she wasn't slinging mud on her opponent.

"I'm telling it like it is," she said.

Fisher also campaigned for part of the race on crutches after she had surgery to heal a slipped disc in her back.

In November 2002, she told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that she believed she'd proven herself to be committed to her campaign.

"People are taking me seriously. People are liking that I do have a plan, and we're working toward the goal," Fisher said. "My heart's really in this."

Ultimately, though, Fisher lost with 47% of the vote. Huckabee's campaign had outspent her by more than $1 million, the Democrat-Gazette reported in 2002.

According to the encyclopedia, in his next term, Huckabee pursued school reform, pushing large tax increases and school consolidations through the legislature.

Huckabee said on Tuesday that he offered his sincere respect for Fisher's service to the state of Arkansas as state auditor and treasurer.

"She was one of the last of the Democrat office holders who was part of what had been a one-party state since Reconstruction, and her campaign in 2002 was a vigorous and spirited one," Huckabee said in a statement. "She loved politics and was a faithful and fierce warrior for her party throughout her adult life."

Huckabee also acknowledged Fisher's longtime and unwavering support of Bill Clinton. He called Fisher "an icon" in both his administration and the state Democratic Party.

Before Clinton became governor, Fisher was a Democratic Party leader who served as a vice chair of the Arkansas Democratic State Committee, a member of the Democratic National Committee and a member of the Credentials Committee of the National Convention, according to the encyclopedia.

Fisher was a delegate to the party's national 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 governor's race, Fisher remained active in the Democratic Party and advised Arkansas' former U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln and former U.S. Representative Marion Berry, according to The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

In 2006, she chaired State Representative Dustin McDaniel's successful campaign for Arkansas attorney general. During the same year, Fisher spent time in the hospital after a mild stroke but soon regained her movement and speech.

McDaniel told the Democrat-Gazette on Tuesday that Fisher spent her entire career breaking down barriers for other people. He said that she ran a strong race for governor, and when she lost, she never held a grudge. Instead, McDaniel said Fisher moved on and dedicated her time to helping others be successful.

McDaniel said there's no doubt he wouldn't have won the statewide election without Fisher's political support, friendship and judgment. He said Fisher was a mentor, an example and somebody who enriched the lives of everyone she met.

"She sometimes didn't give herself credit for how truly influential she really really was," McDaniel said. "But there's not a politician that held local or state or national office in Arkansas from 1975 to 2005 that did not owe Jimmie Lou in one way or another."

After his election, she worked for McDaniel as a legal educator instructor, a part-time job during which she spent time speaking to senior groups about computer fraud and identity theft.

He said Fisher had developed a real passion for senior citizens and wanted to help older people around the state.

Fisher told the Democrat-Gazette at the time, "It'll be good to get out in the community."

McDaniel also recalled Fisher's deep faith and love of food. According to McDaniel, Fisher always had a Sunday School lesson to share. He said Fisher found a way to make all people feel special and appreciated, and this often happened through cooking.

When Fisher campaigned, she made friends all over Arkansas, McDaniel said.

"People loved her," he said.

Fisher was born on 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 oldest of five children, during her childhood, Fisher's family moved to five towns in Greene and Faulkner counties as her father worked as a school superintendent.

After finishing 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 one son, Kevin, who passed away when he was 1 year old.

Before entering politics, Fisher had worked as a cashier and accounting clerk for Arkansas-Louisiana Gas from 1963 to 1966 and also as an accounting clerk for Thompson and Fry Insurance in Paragould from 1966 to 1970.

In 2013, Fisher returned to Paragould to be near her family members. Fisher's family will receive friends during visitations on Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Mitchell Funeral Home in Paragould. Her funeral will be Thursday at 1 p.m. in the funeral home's 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 devoted public servants, but she 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 "loyal friend, a trusted advisor and a dependable ally."

"Saying that she was one of a kind is not a cliche in Jimmie Lou's case," Beebe said. "It's the truth, and we will miss her."


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