The first thing you need to know about Jim Fonteno is that he was not of Italian descent. He was a Cajun, born in Port Arthur to a family named Fontenot, with a “t” at the end. He just dropped the “t” somewhere along the line to make it easier to spell.
A successful real estate developer, Fonteno was elected to Commissioners Court in 1974. He planned to serve just two or three terms, but he ended up serving seven terms — 28 years in all — and he retired in 2002 because of bad health. Former County Judge Jon Lindsay was also elected to the court in 1974, and Lindsay says he has nothing but fond memories of Fonteno.
“Jim and I got along very well. He was kind of my mentor in some ways because he’d been around, he knew the politics, especially in east Harris County. I did very well in his district thanks to him.”
Lindsay says Fonteno was honest to a fault, and he never allowed party affiliations to interfere with getting things done. More than anything else, Lindsay remembers how hard Fonteno worked for his east Harris County precinct, especially if he thought his people were getting short-changed on something. There was one particular fight in the 80s, over county funding for the Greater Houston Partnership.
“And he insisted saying if we’re going to give anything to the Houston partnership we’re going to give something to Baytown economic development people out there as well, and down there in Clear Lake as well, and we did. You know, he fought for’em and won.”
Fonteno was especially concerned about the lack of services for seniors, so he launched the county’s first seniors program in his own Precinct 2, and helped expand it to the other three precincts. He also raised donations to buy the county’s first bus for seniors. There are now almost two dozen buses taking seniors to places like Minute Maid Park and Moody Gardens. Jim Fonteno’s funeral will be held Monday at Second Baptist Church in Humble.
Jim Bell, KUHF, Houston Public Radio.