I talked by phone Tuesday with Chris Jones, one of the Democratic candidates for governor, who’s been a social media hit this last week with his introductory video, viewed 4.6 million times according to a count this morning.
THE VIDEO: The producer was Frank Eaton, vice president of Putnam Partners, a consulting group in Washington. He has a background in North Carolina Democratic politics and a long career in producing political videos. During a 2005 documentary shoot in Haiti, he was kidnapped by a gang, according to his firm biography. Jones said the video was a “labor of love that involved a lot of people here in the state who know me.”
MANTRA: Jones said of the video and in answers to most questions about strategy and issues that he intended to focus on the “things that matter most” to people in Arkansas. In other words, he’d prefer to talk about what he believes to be the dinner table topics — education and the economy particularly — than some more contentious topics often employed as weapons in recent political campaigns.
POLITICS: He readily acknowledges a climate that favors Republican candidates and that party’s success with emphasizing hot-button topics (race, transgender people.) But he said he’d just been on a farm in Rose Bud and people there weren’t talking about those things. They were talking about their neighbors, mental health, trauma, schools that weren’t working, safety, a depleted aquifer, dangerous bridges.
STRATEGY: Get more people registered and more people voting — categories in which Arkansas brings up the rear nationally. Then, engage people directly with a heavy round of retail politicking. He said he expects the usual branding Republicans give Democratic candidates. “People are going to say what they’re going to say. I will deal with it by showing up in every town, churches, gas stations, restaurants and farms and having conversations. I think people are ready for those conversations.” He added, “My engineering experience and faith have taught me to maintain values and focus on things that matter to people. if I do that and we do that, everything else will be ok.”
BUT WHAT ABOUT …: Yes, sure, I said, you will emphasize the positive. But inevitably there are specifics. Such as:
- Taxes and the current push for further reductions in the state income tax: “I’m not opposed at the outset to tax cuts. but what I am focused on is asking questions. Have we given families and children in Arkansas the chance and opportunities to succeed? to make that happen, that’s where the focus has to be at outset.”
- As time ran out, I rounded up the familiar Republican standard-bearers: Abortion, guns, LGBTQ discrimination. The recent debate on equal treatment of people based on sexual orientation or gender is a “complex issue,” he said, but added, “All Arkansans should be treated fairly. with love and respect.” On abortion and guns, he said there were a “reasonable set of laws on the books.” I didn’t get to ask the follow-up on whether that included the recent total ban on abortion in Arkansas, now under challenge in court. He said he was a gun owner and liked going to the target range. But he also said he understands people have concerns about safety. “This campaign is going to be about breaking through divisive noise and finding a way through.”
- Schools, particularly the push for expansion of charter schools and voucher programs. Jones, who has one child in a Little Rock private school and two in public schools, said “we need a strong public education system.” He said charters and vouchers were “complex issues.” He said he was not “not 100 percent for or against anything.” He said also that focus of school coverage tends to be in Little Rock, but there are issues statewide and he intends to make the rounds and listen.
He said he expected independent forces on both sides will engage in negative campaigning. He suggests he won’t join in. “I’m going to be pretty busy finding a pathway to encourage voters.”
Trump? He won’t talk about him except to say: “We’ve been through tumultuous times. We can learn from the past.”
HOW LONG HAS HE WANTED TO RUN FOR GOVERNOR: The “spark” came when he was 8 years old and met a dynamic politician named Bill Clinton, who was governor then. “Wow, he was impressive.” He said he began learning then that governors could accomplish things. “It was fascinating to me that people could make a difference.”
When he returned to Arkansas four years ago, his thinking began evolving.
“I came home to serve and I didn’t know what that would look like and how it would transpire. I looked at the opportunities and challenges and it became clear to me some three years ago that it was time. And I could use my gifts in combination and make a difference.”
Does he have the political equivalent of mountain climbing boots? The first test is the May 2022 primary where at least three other Democratic candidates, Snthony Bland, Rus Russell and Supha Xayprasith-Mays, have announced.