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Jack R. Fenton, 91; legislator pushed worker safety

November 17, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Jack R. Fenton, the former Democratic assemblyman from Montebello who conducted hearings on the 1971 Sylmar tunnel explosion that left 17 workers dead and who pushed in its aftermath for passage of what would become the cornerstone of California's worker health and safety laws, has died. He was 91.

Fenton died Nov. 6 at a skilled nursing facility in Dallas from complications of Parkinson's disease, said his son, Mark.

Richard Hayden, a Republican who served in the Assembly from 1970 to 1980, said of the legislator: "He was a Democratic leader, but in many ways he was nonpartisan. The interest of the people of California was foremost in his mind.

"Jack was interested in any kind of legislation that had to do with . . . the welfare of individuals," Hayden said.

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.

The men were working in a tunnel being constructed beneath the Sylmar hills, part of the State Water Project. A powerful blast -- caused by a buildup of natural methane gas -- rocked the tunnel. The workers died in the explosion or from the smoke and fumes it caused.

As head of a select Assembly Committee on Industrial Safety, Fenton conducted hearings. The committee found that field inspectors from the state Division of Industrial Safety knew the gas level was high but failed to close down the job.

Speaking before the committee, the chief defended his agency and said it was the best in the nation. Fenton would have none of it.

"I think your division stinks, absolutely stinks," he shouted. If the agency was the best in the nation, "I'd hate like heck to see the other 49," he said.

Resignations and prosecutions followed. Fenton turned his attention to preventing future calamities.

In June 1973, the Assembly approved legislation that set up tougher rules to protect workers from job-related injuries, including penalties for violations, and required the state agency to investigate all complaints within three days.

The legislation also implemented the state's occupational safety and health plan.

Fenton was born Aug. 7, 1916, in Rochester, N.Y., to Lithuanian immigrants; his father operated a deli.

In 1939 Fenton earned a degree from what is now the State University of New York at Brockport, and the following year he enrolled at UC Berkeley.

In 1941 Fenton was drafted into the Army and he served in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

After his discharge in 1945, he enrolled in Loyola Law School.

He married Betty Byer the same year, and the couple eventually had four children.

In addition to his son, of Grass Valley, Fenton is survived by two daughters, Melissa Fenton and Marilyn Stern, of Dallas; and four grandchildren. A daughter, Maureen Fenton of Monterey, died in June.

After his graduation from law school in 1949, Fenton opened a practice in Montebello. Over the years he was involved in a long list of organizations, including the Optimist Club, American Legion and Rotary Club.

In Montebello he met a young man who would become a colleague.

"He was a like a father to me," said Art Torres, who attended school with Fenton's daughter, later served in the Assembly and is now chairman of the California Democratic Party. "When I was a lobbyist for the United Farm Workers union, he would always give me a dollar or two to make sure I shined my shoes and looked OK."

In 1964 Fenton ran for an Assembly seat in the 59th District and won. Subsequent campaigns were sometimes easy in the overwhelmingly Democratic district, which he served for 14 years.

In 1972 he ran unopposed after his Republican opponent dropped out of the race to accept a federal job. That year Fenton was appointed Assembly majority leader.

The legislator made a point of reaching out to younger and newer members of the Assembly and sometimes helped them secure good committee positions, Hayden said.

"This was a man who . . . had a heart as big as a mountain," said Hayden, who represented the 22nd District in Santa Clara. He tempered his tough exterior with humor and used both to help win passage of laws, Hayden added.

Fenton wrote a law that offers protection to consumers purchasing items from door-to-door salesmen. He also worked on workers' compensation issues and no-fault auto insurance.

To mark his departure from the Assembly, more than 1,000 people gathered to pay tribute to him, lauding him as a "true friend" and, according to one speaker, "the only man I know in Sacramento who keeps his word."


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