The now officially nominated Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Jones arrived at Hope’s Powell’s grocery in a black SUV late Tuesday afternoon to meet voters and take a walk. His Walk a Mile in Your Shoes campaign has taken him to towns all over the state.
As he and his two staffers emerged from the vehicle, Jones was met by about a dozen supporters carrying signs with his name on them. Before embarking on his walk, Jones posed with several people for pictures and talked policy. Throughout his Hope visit he was not shy about criticism of his Republican opponent Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
The first question Jones fielded was from a local teacher who said she had seen the trend of legislatures and governors in other states making decisions about what content could be taught in public school classrooms and asked Jones if he had any plans along this line. “I taught high school for a year,” Jones said. “Ninth grade Algebra. It’s already hard enough for teachers to develop curriculum without anyone else telling them what they can and can’t do. I think those decisions are best left on the local level, the school board and the school itself.
“I do think there’s a standard we all have to meet in terms of providing AP [Advanced Placement] classes, certain science curriculum, physical education. When it comes down to deciding what curriculum the classroom has to have, it’s best left to school boards, the schools and the parents.”
A local reporter asked why Jones is doing his walks in various towns. “It’s about neighbors talking to neighbors in Arkansas,” Jones said. “We did a 75-county tour once, and this is the second 75-county tour we’re doing. We’re walking a mile with Arkansans, having real conversations about issues that matter, about their own life stories and about their vision for the state. That’s what I wanted to do, and that’s what I’m excited about.”
Asked by this reporter what his plan would be for Day One in office as governor, Jones joked that since he did not grow up in the governor’s mansion, first he would look for where to turn the lights on. But, turning serious, he said, “But really Day One through the last day is all about Arkansans, and how we push better education, how we fix infrastructure and how do we bring economic development. As you can see, we’re out here walking and talking with Arkansans. And so whatever Arkansans say matters, that’s what matters.”
About potentially having to work with a legislature that is in the hands of the Republican party, Jones said, “I think our government works best when there is a little bit of a tension, when you can have ideas that you’re going back and forth on. I’ll tell you there’s some Republican legislators that have phenomenal ideas, and I want to work with them, on everything from advanced energy to broadband to preschool. Those things are all important.
“At the same time,” Jones added, “I think it’s important to call folks out who are doing wrong. We just had a conversation a second ago about my opponent who is not showing up and bought the primary and is now trying to buy the general. So what we’re talking about doing is lifting up folks who care about Arkansans and calling out folks who care about themselves.”
Given that Jones has declared himself in support of a pay raise for teachers to be granted as soon as possible, when asked what the legislation would look like, he said “I agree with Governor Hutchinson. He said increase teacher pay immediately, and he developed a sustainable plan where we can fund it for the long term. I think we do that immediately and we work toward doing more. The floor should be $50k for our teachers. That’s sustainable, so let’s start there. And it’s not just teachers, it’s staff as well.”
Asked about connections with, knowledge of and feeling for Southwest Arkansas, Jones reminded this reporter, “I’m from Ouachita County. My family goes back for 200 years there, so I’ve got family in Stamps, family in Stephens. We just left Texarkana. We just left Lewisville. In fact, my cousin owns Sterling Place in Lewisville. I’ve been to Hope multiple times. The library is amazing. Actually before I got here, I stopped at The [Hope] Beauty Shop, because I have supporters at the Beauty Shop. Wilma’s Mexican Restaurant is great. So I know the area a little bit. I always love coming here. We’ve got some great people. We have each other’s backs.”
Much has been made about Jones education in the sciences, especially his undergraduate degree from Morehouse in physics and math, then in nuclear engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but people often forget his Ph.D., also from MIT, is in Urban Planning. “That’s about how you take communities and revitalize communities. How do you work with large cities, with small cities, with rural areas and how do you provide the necessary resources for them to grow and do the things they need to do. That has a direct relation to what I’m doing [in running for governor].”
At this point local activist Sylvia Brown of Fulton, who was on hand to help unregistered voters get registered announced that a batch of Terry Powell’s world-famous cracklins had arrived. “Oh yeah!” Jones said as a small plastic bag of cracklins was brought over. But he quickly resumed his point about his urban planning Ph.D. being an important qualification for assuming the governor’s office, adding he had learned that providing quality education to developing communities, as well as good infrastructure, was also important.
Concerning what is Arkansas’ most pressing issue that does not get sufficient attention, the lack of affordable housing, Jones said he is listening to those he meets during his campaign stops. “When I’ve been places—and I would really like to hear from you all on what housing is like here—is there are really two things that I’ve heard. One is the conditions themselves, particularly for renters, are immoral. Arkansas is the only state that doesn’t guarantee a certain quality if you rent. The other part is the affordability and the availability of housing.
Asked whether he had had experience speaking under pressure, which would come in handy for his October debate with Huckabee Sanders and Libertarian candidate Ricky Dale Harrington, Jr., Jones alluded laughingly to the process of presenting his work to a dissertation committee. Whether you go to Eureka Springs or Lake Village, availability of housing is limited.”
At this, a farmer from Hope said the state of housing here was “precarious, to say the least. We really have a problem with our representation both state and federal. For some reason the people in office now think the only people they are supposed to work for are the people that voted for them.”
“And not everybody,” Jones said.
“There’s more people that didn’t vote for them than did,” resumed the farmer. “And because of their attitudes that you don’t matter, they don’t come see. They don’t come talk to the people and ask the people what they want. They run on a national agenda of whatever Fox News says. That’s what they do.”
“On that note,” Jones said. “I’m going to run in and say hello to the shop owners, and thank them for letting us use the space. And I’ll be right back out. That’s one of the reasons it was always important to show up everywhere. So we’re here. We were in Texarkana. We did a walk in Mena.”
At hearing his, the people gathered around engaged in knowing laughter. “At sundown,” Jones then added. “Why? Because it’s important to show now we are in this for all Arkansans. No matter who you are or what your background is, every Arkansan deserves high quality education. Every Arkansan deserves streets and bridges they can cross over without collapsing. Every Arkansan deserves economic opportunities. Now, we shouldn’t allow folks to do evil things to other people.”
Once he had emerged from the store, Jones began to lead the group down East Greenwood Street, stopping to say hello to people taking in the cloudy day on porches or in carports. In response to this reporter’s query, he named some of the historic figures he felt most influenced by. He named the Civil Rights Movement leaders Martin Luther King, Benjamin Mays. I asked if the New York Mayor and prolific urban planner Robert Moses was of influence, but Jones named another the Civil Rights Movement veteran, Bob Moses, the founder of The Algebra Project, an initiative to teach math literacy in public schools as a way of improving the quality of those schools, who died last year. “Isnt he with the Algebra Project,” Jones asked. “I know about him.”
“Kennedy was important. Clinton, I read his biography,” Jones continued. “Deval Patrick. I didn’t read the biography of Einstein, but I did look into his life and what he did. Carter G. Woodson. So . . . a few folks.”
In an abrupt change of subject, this reporter then asked what the best approach would be for addressing the current situation regarding women’s access to abortion care, whether it would be to immediately introduce legislation to reverse the law triggered in the state after the US Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, which forbids abortion except in the case of peril to the mother’s life, or whether Jones favored asking the legislature for more exceptions when abortion would be allowed.
“I think it depends on what the legislature looks like. That’ll play a big role … and what Arkansans do and how they show up in November,” Jones said and agreed he would like to see an overwhelming turnout here like what happened in Kansas August 2 when that state’s voters refused by nearly 20 percent to allow the state legislature to end abortion.
By the time Jones and his aides were about to make the left turn onto North Spruce Street, one of his aides had brought a music player that could be wheeled like luggage. It started with Earth, Wind and Star’s “Shining Star” and would continue to play a mixture of 70s Rhythm and Blues and Gospel Songs. Jones said that you could never go wrong playing “Earth, Wind and Fire,” and when asked to named several of his musical favorites said, “That’s a question you should ask my wife,” he said, referring to Jerrilyn Jones, Medical Director for Preparedness and Response at Arkansas Department of Health and Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at UAMS and also mother to the couple’s three daughters.
“It’s a range,” he added. “I listen to a lot of gospel and R&B. I’m a child of the 80s and 90s. In terms of inspiration, a lot of it will come out of gospel. But some of the music that’s coming out now … I love hearing Beyonce dropping new albums left and right.” Jones struggled to remember the name of a certain violinist who played Hip Hop and R&B. He also said he liked “some of the new country. I’m an eclectic guy.”
The walk finished after about an hour just in front of the sign at Northside Park. At this landmark, Jones patiently stood in pictures with several supporters. An aide had driven the SUV Jones had shown up at Powells in to the park’s parking lot. Jones said he would do his best to return and shook hands with vitually every person out of the over 20 or so who had joined his march by this point. Then he and his aides drove off just before 6:00 p.m.