Sonya Fischer vows to be 'a voice for human services'
Lake Oswego attorney Sonya Fischer, who was chosen by unanimous vote last week to fill the vacant seat on the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners, says she's eager to get started and plans to focus on "carrying my values to benefit all the citizens of Clackamas County."
"Clackamas County has a heart," the 14-year resident of Lake Oswego says. "It's huge, but it's very local. We are a microcosm not only of Oregon, but of the nation."
Fischer was one of 78 applicants for the Position 5 seat, which was vacated in January after Jim Bernard took office as the board's chairman. She says she hopes to provide a needed "voice for human services" on the commission, and says she was motivated to work at the county level to protect "safety net" services that face uncertain futures at the federal level, such as services connected to the Affordable Care Act.
"I just knew in my gut that it was the right thing to do at this time," she says.
She will complete the two years remaining in Bernard's term in Position 5, and in public interviews with the board has said she is prepared to run in the May 2018 primary for a full four-year term in the nonpartisan position.
During the interviews, Fischer said her top concerns include housing availability and cost, as well as services for families, veterans and survivors of domestic violence. She acknowledged that the county's childhood poverty rate is low and unemployment has decreased, but added that "if you look beyond the numbers, you do not have to go far to see that the economic recovery has not included everyone."
"Access to justice has been a major focus for me throughout my career," she says.
She reiterated those priorities to The Lake Oswego Review, adding that she wants to work to safeguard Medicaid funding and access and that her key focus would be "to facilitate the conversation about the delivery of health and human services." She spoke positively about recent gains the county has made, such as the establishment of the Centerstone crisis walk-in center and on-call behavioral health services.
Fischer works as a family practice attorney, but her career also includes multiple staffing roles in the state Legislature, as well as advocacy, support and community-organizing work in Multnomah and Clackamas counties. She served as the legislative director for the Oregon Department of Human Services from 2010 to 2011, and was one of the applicants for the vacant House District 38 seat in 2014 that was eventually filled by Ann Lininger.
Fischer says all of her numerous roles have been tied together by a common focus — one that she intends to maintain as a county commissioner: a desire to be a voice and an advocate for people who aren't being heard.
"My perspective has always been for people who are left out," she says. "I have been an activist for vulnerable populations since college. That's where I started my activism, in organizing parents."
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in sociology/social work from Warner Pacific College in 1988, Fischer accepted an internship in the office of former state Sen. Frank Roberts, which she describes as a "hugely influential" experience that allowed her to learn the ins and outs of the legislative process. She cites former Gov. Barbara Roberts as another influence at the time — and one of several people to whom she turned for advice when seeking the county commissioner position.
Before and after the internship, she worked in Multnomah County to help parents of children with disabilities secure access to early intervention services. She says her own experience as a young parent was a driving force behind her work, especially after her daughter was placed outside her home in 1993.
At the time, she says, Oregon was one of only a few states that lacked in-home support for children with severe developmental disabilities. Fischer says her parents were able to provide care with in home-support for her daughter for many years, but she adds that "many families really struggled during those years," and she advocated to make home services more readily available.
She also helped facilitate the passage of legislation that made it possible for children with disabilities to continue to attend the same school when living temporarily outside their parents' home.
"I just had to make that not be another parent's reality," she says. "It's like making your pain count for something. That's what drives me — when you make it better for others."
Fischer received her master's in public administration from Portland State University in 1993 and worked as a staffer for former state Sen. Frank Shields during the 1990s, when she continued to advocate for assistance for young families. She helped draft bills aimed at increasing or improving early childhood programs, such as training for child care providers, but she says one of her biggest successes was simply to create more awareness of the issue among lawmakers.
"You got people talking," she says. "It was all brand new."
Fischer began studying law in 1999 at Lewis & Clark Law School, and she says her goal was to learn more about how legislation was interpreted by the courts so that she would be able to write more effective legislation in the future.
"I wanted to have that skill, that ability to understand the full picture," she said, "so I could be the best advocate ever."
Her family had grown to include three children by that point — daughters Christine and Joy and son Nathan. The family moved to Lake Oswego in 2003 — after Fischer earned her law degree — and she continued to work part-time with young families. In 2004, she married Kirk Mouser, the executive artistic director for Stumptown Stages.
"I would have a baby and then get a degree," she says, laughing. "That's how I did it."
As an attorney, Fischer worked for several lawyers as well as in the Clackamas County District Attorney's office. She then formed her own firm, Fischer Family Law, in 2005. That's been her main focus since then, aside from the year and a half spent working as the Department of Human Services' legislative director.
She is a member of the Board of Governors of the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association and past president of Clackamas Women Lawyers. Her volunteer roles include work with The Arc of Multnomah County, the Lake Oswego Chamber of Commerce, school foundation boards and budget committees and time spent in her children's classrooms.
The switch to county commissioner will be yet another transition and "a huge responsibility," she says, but it's one she considered carefully, turning to her many state and county contacts for advice.
"It was more me interviewing them to see if it was the right fit," she says. "It's also a matter of educating myself."
Fischer says she's working to quickly bring herself up to speed on the full range of issues facing Clackamas County, but ultimately she says she views the position as similar to working in the state Lgislature, but with an even more local focus. She says she's also making an effort to visit and connect with the more rural and unincorporated parts of the county, in order to understand and appreciate all the interests of its constituents.
"You have a legislative body of five, and it's high community engagement," she says. "I really thought this was a commission that could get things done, and I could help for the good of the county."
When it comes to county issues like transportation infrastructure or the future of the Stafford area, she says her highest priority will be to make sure that the process involves all the affected communities and builds on the "shared values" of Oregonians.
"Local communities need to be the ones making the decisions," she says.
Fisher Family Law will remain active under the guidance of a new managing attorney, which Fischer says is an easier solution than trying to abruptly close the practice. However, she's not going to step away completely.
"I'm going to keep a small caseload," she says, "because I really enjoy helping people."