Ada Fisher, unconventional Republican, speaks her mind

Durham nativeAda Fisher defiesparty stereotypes

rchristensen@newsobserver.comAugust 26, 2012 

In a Republican Party that sometimes gets pigeon-holed as a white-bread, suburban political organization, Ada Fisher is a one-woman stereotype buster.

Not only is she one of only two blacks on the 168-member Republican National Committee. She is also a converted Jew, a single mother and a physician who met Martin Luther King Jr.

“I’m not a two-fer,” she recently quipped to a luncheon of Cary Republican women. “I’m a four-fer, or maybe a five-fer.’’

That she would joke about her uniqueness is not unusual for Fisher, a 64-year-old Salisbury resident who charms people with her humor and her frankness and sometimes rubs them the wrong way.

She held onto her RNC seat at the state GOP convention in Greensboro in June – one of three seats that North Carolina holds on the party’s national ruling body. She has twice defeated Mary Francis Forrester, the wife of the late Sen. Jim Forrester and a favorite of religious conservatives.

Fisher has been in Tampa since Wednesday, attending the RNC summer meeting, getting reports on campaign finances, touring the convention facilities. She will be spending the convention week listening to speeches, going to receptions and attending briefings.

At the Cary Republican women’s lunch, Fisher’s shoot-from-the hip style was on display. She said the only thing wrong with the marriage amendment – a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage that state voters passed in May – was that it didn’t guarantee a husband.

She said she once asked Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney if he bowled, suggesting he was “stiff as a board” and needed to loosen up.

Former state GOP Chairman Tom Fetzer calls her “a breath of fresh air” in the Republican Party who cuts quite a figure both on the national and state scene.

“She has a big heart,” Fetzer says. “Ada is very outspoken. She can be very controversial. To say she is interesting doesn’t begin to describe her. She is such an entertaining speaker; she could be a stand-up comedienne.”

Meeting King, Malcolm X

Fisher represents the deep, but increasingly forgotten, roots of African-Americans in the Republican Party. From the days of Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, more blacks identified with the Republican Party. In the South, the Democratic Party was the party of the Jim Crow and segregation until the 1960s.

“My daddy used to tell me,” Fisher said, “you don’t forget who brought you to the dance. I think it’s (the GOP) a great party, and I want to make it continue to be great.”

Her father, the Rev. Miles Mark Fisher, was pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Durham from 1932 to 1965. He was a Republican. Her grandfather, E.J. Fisher, who was born into slavery, was also a Republican and a minister; the family still has a thank-you note from Republican President William McKinley expressing appreciation for Fisher’s helping deliver the black vote.

Her father held one of the leading black pulpits in the South in a city that was a pioneer in black business and education.

She met King, the Atlanta civil rights leader, when he spoke at her father’s church. She also remembers seeing Malcolm X coming down the driveway of the parsonage while the FBI was looking for him – a scene that later was depicted in a Spike Lee film.

Ada Fisher grew up around such prominent black Durham figures as businessman C.C. Spaulding and educator James Shepard. Her father was involved in forming the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, when, she notes, it endorsed Republicans and Democrats. She met such governors as Luther Hodges and Terry Sanford when they spoke at her father’s church.

“When I grew up in Durham, many of the men, particularly the men of prominence, were members of the Republican Party,” she said. “If you go back through history, you will find most African-Americans were Republicans.”

Her just-published book, “Common Sense Conservative Prescriptions,” lists the 17 black Republicans elected to Congress in the 1800s.

“One of the misconceptions that people have is that Republicans are anti-black – that we have never been a party that did anything for black folks,” Fisher said. “Quite the contrary. If you read the history, it was the Democratic Party that brought poll taxes, Jim Crow laws, and all that stuff.

“Then people will say, ‘Well, this is not the same party as it was back then.’ Well, there are some differences. But there are some very good people in the party. If there weren’t, I sure wouldn’t be in it.”

A religious conversion

Fisher’s views have not always made her popular. When she ran for the national Republican post, she received phone threats and a broken window. She told a rally in 2010 that her response was to go out and buy a Smith & Wesson. She said she has few black friends.

But she has remained close to state Rep. Mickey Michaux, the Durham Democrat whom she has known since they were both children.

“She has a true streak of her father,” Michaux said. “Black folks and Republicans had formed an alliance at one time together. I guess she is looking to form that same alliance. For her to be on the Republican National Committee is a step in the right direction.”

Her father taught theology at Shaw University in Raleigh for 32 years, and there were religious discussions around the dinner table. Fisher became increasingly attracted to the Old Testament and Judiasm, although out of respect for her father, she waited until he died to convert.

“Rabbi Hillel said if you could summarize Judiasm while standing on one foot, could you do it?” Fisher said. “Rabbi Hillel said sure, ‘Do good and be good.’ And I thought that is the essence of it all.”

Interested in being a doctor since age 5, Fisher got her medical degree from the University of Wisconsin and a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins University.

To pay off her $50,000 debt, Fisher worked for several years running a rural clinic in the tiny Duplin County town of Greenevers – only to learn later that Congress had not funded the program and her service had not counted toward the repayment. She repaid the debt working as a medical director for Amoco in Chicago.

Looking back at age 64, she speculates that those seven years in a poor remote area with few marriage prospects for a black female doctor is the reason she never found a husband.

Speaking her mind

While in Chicago, Fisher adopted two boys. Wanting a safer environment for her children, she moved to Salisbury, where she went to work for the Veterans Administration, serving as chief of occupational health services until her retirement in 2000.

That freed her to run for political office, starting with her election to the local school board. She ran in the GOP Senate primary against Elizabeth Dole in 2002, against Democratic U.S. Mel Watt in 2004 and 2006, and for the legislature in 2008. She lost all three long-shot campaigns. Having suffered a heart attack in 2007, Fisher said she has run her last campaign.

She remains, however, very much engaged in party politics.

In many ways, her views are in line with the Republican Party. She describes her self as a “constitutionalist.”

“If it is not in the Constitution, I don’t think we ought to be doing it,” she said.

She supports English as the country’s official language, supports a flat income tax, opposes gay marriage, favors medical malpractice limits, opposes the president’s new health care law, and is against gun control.

“Rich is not a four-letter word,” she told the Cary women. “No one should have to pay more than 50 percent of their income in taxes.”

As one of two black members of the RNC, her views are often sought out on issues that touch on race. In 2009, she endorsed South Carolina chairman Katon Dawson to become national party chair despite a controversy over his membership in a country club that does not admit blacks.

But she criticized another candidate for party chair, Chip Saltsman, for distributing a CD that included a song played on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program called “Barack the Magic Negro.” “It is time we all grew up and exhibited some sophistication in how we act,” she wrote. “Racist actions and deeds have no place in the party.”

When Michael Steele, the first black chairman of the party, ran into trouble in 2010 because of questionable spending, Fisher did not hesitate in calling for his resignation.

Last week, she blogged that by choosing Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, Romney “is forcing the nation to make some grown-up choices” about the budget and the nation’s debt. In another blog post, she wrote that the comments Republican Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri made about “legitimate rape” were “stupid and unacceptable.”

She is not reluctant to criticize the nation’s first black president, who she faults for too much taxing and spending, for his immigration policy, and for criticizing the wealthy. “She will speak the truth, as she sees it, to power very readily,” said state GOP chairman Robin Hayes. “And that is a good thing.

“She’s not always right, but never in doubt.”

Fisher, Hayes and state Rep. David Lewis of Dunn are North Carolina’s three representatives on the RNC.

She is a big-tent Republican, arguing that the party needs to make efforts to open itself up to black people and to constantly broaden itself in other ways.

“I don’t care if you are a RINO, or a WINO, or a DINO,” she says.

“We must change our dialogue,” Fisher says, “not necessarily our message.’’

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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