Jack R. Fenton

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Jack R. Fenton
Member of the California State Assembly
from the 51st district
In office
Preceded by John Moreno
Succeeded by Robert G. Beverly
Member of the California State Assembly
from the 59th district
In office
Preceded by Alan Sieroty
Succeeded by Matthew G. Martínez
Personal details
Born August 7, 1916
Rochester, New York
Died November 6, 2007 (aged 91)
Dallas, Texas
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Betty Byer
Children Mark Fenton, Melissa Fenton, Marilyn Fenton, the late Maureen Fenton
Alma mater SUNY Brockport
Profession Lawyer

Jack R. Fenton (August 7, 1916 – November 6, 2007) represented California's 51st State Assembly district and California's 59th State Assembly district 16 years in the California State Assembly. He was part of the Democratic leadership, majority leader in 1972, and helped establish California's occupational health and safety regime.[2]


His parents were Lithuanian immigrants. His father operated a delicatessen.

He earned a degree in 1939 from what was then called Brockport State Normal School, and later studied at University of California, Berkeley.

He was drafted into the United States Army in 1941, and served in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II. After his discharge, he entered Loyola Law School in 1945, and was graduated in 1949.

Also in 1945, he married Betty Byer who subsequently bore him four children.

He established a law practice in Montebello, California in 1949.

Mr. Fenton belonged to many organizations, including the Optimist Club, American Legion and Rotary Club.

He received the George Moscone Memorial Award for Outstanding Public Service in 1978, from an association of consumer lawyers in Los Angeles.[3]

He was appointed a member of the Judicial Council of California in 1979.[4]

Political career[edit]

When John Moreno, the first term Mexican American Assemblyman for the 51st District sought reelection, he faced both Dionisio Morales and Jack Fenton. With the chicano vote split, Fenton won the party's nomination in the primary election.[5][6] He carried the general election with 69% of the vote. He continued to represent Montebello, reelected to seven more two year terms (from 1974, in the 59th Assembly District.)[7][8]

In the legislature, Fenton championed consumers, veterans, and labor (including farm workers.)[2]

After Jess Unruh declared his candidacy for Governor in 1969, Fenton and Assemblyman George N. Zenovich encouraged Unruh (at first unsuccessfully) to resign as party leader in the Assembly.[9]

Following an industrial accident on June 24, 1971, when a methane gas explosion fatal to seventeen workers occurred in the California Water Project's Sylmar tunnel, Fenton led the investigation in the Assembly's Committee on Industrial Safety. His investigation, and civil litigation, found negligence by the contractor (Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company) and state inspectors. He was a leader promoting statutory change, notably the June 1973 California Occupational Safety and Health Act.[2]

Hospitals and staff threatened to cease organ transplantation activity in 1973 when its legal basis came into question. Criminal defense attorneys argued that harvesting a victim's organs while his heart was still beating caused death, not their clients. Dixon Arnett (R-Redwood City) introduced emergency legislation to recognize death when brain activity ceased. He was three votes short of the required supermajority when he enlisted Jack Fenton, who secured favorable action from two more members. After the California State Senate passed the bill, Arnett flew to Chicago to secure Governor Ronald Reagan's signature giving force to the law.[10]

From 1977-1980 he was chairman of the Assembly's Judiciary Committee.[11] Earlier, he had been chairman of the Assembly's Finance and Insurance Committee.[12]

Fenton lost his primary election in 1980 to Matthew G. Martínez.

Art Torres was a protégé and Republican Assemblyman Robert Hayden (of Santa Clara's 22nd district) was a friend.


  1. ^ Guerra, Fernando J. and Dwaine Marvick (1986). "Ethnic Officeholders and Party Activists in Los Angeles County". Minorities in the Post-Industrial City. Institute for Social Science Research (University of California, Los Angeles). II (Year 1986 Paper 11). 
  2. ^ a b c Stewart, Jocelyn Y. (2007-11-17). "Jack R. Fenton, 91; legislator pushed worker safety". Los Angeles Times. p. B-13. Retrieved 2008-09-16. During his 14 years in the Capitol, Fenton was known as a gruff straight-talker with a fiery temper and a deep loyalty to his allies in the Democratic Party. He championed the rights of consumers and pushed for unemployment insurance for farm workers and benefits for veterans. But Fenton’s greatest legislative achievement was the passage of laws that improved health and safety conditions for workers and implemented the state plan known as Cal-OSHA. The action came two years after the Sylmar tunnel disaster, which some critics said could have been prevented. 
  3. ^ "Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles". Retrieved 2008-09-17. 
  4. ^ Judicial Council of California (2006-09-22). Profile (PDF) (Fourth ed.). San Francisco, California: Administrative Office of the Courts. Retrieved 2008-09-17. 
  5. ^ Schmal, John P (2005-07-04). "Chicano Representation in California: Taking Control of their Destiny". HispanicVista Columnists. Retrieved 2008-09-17. When Assemblyman Moreno tried to get reelected to his 51st District seat, he found himself up against another Chicano candidate, Dionisio Morales. This contest split the Chicano vote and led to victory in the Democratic Primary by Jack Fenton. Jack Fenton received 16,278 votes to John Moreno’s 12,850 votes. 
  6. ^ "SOMOS PRIMOS: Dedicated to Hispanic Heritage and Diversity Issues". Somos Primos. Retrieved 2008-09-16. In 1962, Philip Soto and John Moreno, both local Council members, became the first two Latinos from Los Angeles County to be elected to the California State Legislature in the Twentieth Century. They were also the first Latinos to be elected to serve in the State Assembly since the election of Miguel Estudillo of Riverside County in 1907. The election of these two men set a precedent for a long line of Latino legislators committed to the service of their communities... John Moreno, a World War II veteran, was a Democrat from Los Angeles and served as a representative of the 51st District to the California State Assembly. Unfortunately, in 1964, when Moreno tried to run again, he was defeated in the Democratic Primary by Jack Fenton. 
  7. ^ Vassar, Alex; Shane Meyers. "11-03-1964 Election". JoinCalifornia. The One Voter Project. Retrieved 2008-09-16. 
  8. ^ Vassar, Alex; Shane Meyers. "Jack R. Fenton". JoinCalifornia. The One Voter Project. Retrieved 2008-09-16. 
  9. ^ Putnam, Jackson K. (2005). Jess: The Political Career of Jesse Marvin Unruh. University Press of America. ISBN 978-0-7618-3068-9. Retrieved 2008-09-16. 
  10. ^ "Brain Death Bill". San Diego Jewish World (Volume 2, Number 73). San Diego, California. 2008-03-25. Retrieved 2008-09-17. 
  11. ^ Cain, Bruce E.; Thad Kousser (2004). Adapting to Term Limits: Recent Experiences and New Directions. Public Policy Institute of California. ISBN 978-1-58213-101-6. 
  12. ^ "First among Equals: California Legislative Leadership, 1964-1992". Retrieved 2008-09-16. 
California Assembly
Preceded by
John Moreno
California State Assemblyman
51st District

Succeeded by
Robert G. Beverly
Preceded by
Alan Sieroty
California State Assemblyman
59th District

Succeeded by
Matthew G. Martínez