For decades, the Republican Party has had a virtual lock on America’s Southern states. And GOP leaders at the state and federal level have done everything they can to keep that advantage, from gerrymandering to restricting voting rights. But Democratic victories in the Georgia Senate races sparked hope that more of these states can be competitive. And that’s inspired a new generation of Southern Democrats to step into the ring. Among them is Chris Jones. He’s a physicist and a religious leader, and now he’s a candidate for the Arkansas governorship, jumping into the race with a viral video. On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with Jones about his unlikely path to politics and his hopes for the race. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason Johnson: Chris, you have a Ph.D. from MIT. You’re a scientist. You’re a church leader. You’re a teacher. You seem to have a very spiritually and intellectually and financially fulfilling life. Why on earth do you want to get into politics now? Like, what drove you? Did you wake up one morning and see one too many potholes? Did one of your kids come home from school and say, “They’re attacking me with critical race theory”?
Chris Jones: So I’m going to take you back, Jason, and I’ll take you back to the spark. The spark happened when I was 8 years old. My dad brought me up from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to Little Rock, Arkansas. We went to the mall and I had an interaction. Met a guy, shook their hand. He seemed phenomenal, talked with a lot of folks. And I asked my dad, “Well, who is that?” Because he seems like a very impressive guy. And my dad said, “That’s Bill Clinton.” And I was like, “Oh, OK. So who is he?” And my dad said, “He’s a governor.” And I said, “What does the governor do?” And we went home, looked at Encyclopedia Britannica, and we didn’t have the whole set, but we looked it up and I found out what the governor did. And I said, “You know what? That’s how I want to serve.”
So that was the spark. The spark fanned over the years and when I moved back home to Arkansas … I was always coming back home to raise my family here, and I have three girls, and to serve. And what happened about three years ago was I was looking at the trajectory of Arkansas and said, “You know what? Given the challenges we face and the future that I want to help create for my daughters, it was time for me to jump in the ring.” I’m blessed. I’m blessed with experiences, with connections, and resources. And I wanted to bring all of that to the place that has been my home for all these years.
What do you see as the top issues facing Arkansas? And what solutions do you have that haven’t already been tried? Because a lot of times when people run, they’ll say, “Oh, well, we got to do something about education. We got to do something about the water on the coast. We got to do this, that.” But in many instances, politicians have tried plans before. They haven’t been successful. So what are the problems that you see? And what are you offering that Arkansas citizens haven’t seen before?
The problems are pretty well laid out. And the challenges, they’re in education. We aren’t reading at grade level—about two-thirds of our kids aren’t. They’re in health care. They’re in infrastructure. We don’t have rural broadband in 25 percent of our population. The bridges are breaking down. So those are your bread-and-butter, common challenges that we all see. I would argue that solutions actually have not been tried. And there are a number of solutions out there that have not been tried.
What makes us different? What makes me different? I cannot hear out of my right ear. I’ve never been able to hear out of my right ear. So that’s caused me to have to lean in to listen and build that muscle. So I think what makes us different is that we’re going to listen. Yes, I have a background in policy. I’m a master’s in policy. I have a master’s in nuclear engineering, bachelor’s in physics and math, a Ph.D. in urban planning, Black community development, run businesses. But at the beginning of every engagement that I have, and I learned this both through science as a researcher, but also through faith in the church, is that it’s important to start with listening. The solutions are actually on the ground in communities across the state, and they have not been listened to. That’s where we’re starting.
I have to follow this up because that was a perfect politician and “that girl was me” kind of moment to say that you met Bill Clinton when you were 8 years old. Now that you’ve launched this campaign for Arkansas governor, I mean, there haven’t been that many Democratic governors, have you reached out to associates from Clinton? From Hillary Clinton? From Bill Clinton? Do you plan on bringing them in at any point, or is that no longer a name that rings out in the streets in Arkansas?
So, Jason, let me first start by saying Arkansas has actually elected Democrat and Republican governors in oscillation. So our last governor was Democrat, the one before that Republican, one before that Democrat. So we’ve gone back and forth. So we have elected a Democratic governor recently. And in fact, also our entire delegation to the U.S. was Democrat before 2010. So what I would say, as I think about this and your question, is that we are really like the Avengers coming together, and we need everyone. So absolutely I’ve reached out to Bill Clinton’s folks. I’ve reached out to Mike Beebe’s folks, who’s the former governor. I’ve reached out to … you name it, in state and out of state. And people are beginning to come on board and beginning to help. And when the time is right, look, we’ll take everyone.
One of the lessons, right or wrong, that a lot of Democratic voters took from President Joe Biden’s victory is that the only way to win enough white Republicans is to run an old white guy, basically. Now, you’re in a very white, very Republican state. Just objectively, what makes you think you can win?
A couple of things. I would say Arkansas is a nonvoting state. We’re 50th in voter registration and 50th in voter turnout. And when you look at the counties, we have 75 counties, 3 million people. There are 28 counties that we characterize as the Black Belt counties. They have 25 percent of Black population or higher. Now, I’ll tell you in Arkansas, we’re about 16 percent Black population, about 5 percent Hispanic. So you take those 28 counties, they accounted for almost 300,000 people that could have voted but didn’t in 2020—300,000 people. So we’re talking about going into communities across the state, not just Black communities, but white communities as well, and firing up folks, and getting them engaged in a process, and making sure they turn out the vote, and protecting that vote once it happens.
On this program, and on national television, and pretty much anywhere where anybody’s paying attention, everybody is talking about voting rights. And in particular, the stalled efforts for national Democrats to pass legislation to protect voting rights. How does voter suppression specifically affect voters in Arkansas? What kinds of structural institutional challenges do Arkansas voters face that may come into play next year?
So we faced some of the similar structural institutional challenges that other states like Georgia faced. And that includes the distance that folks have to travel to get to their polling locations. That includes the requirements of ID matching and signature matching for absentee voting. That includes a reduced number of days and hours that you have before you can vote. So there are a number of issues that are at play, just like every state across the country. And particularly Southern states have had legislators that have tried to restrict the vote. So when we talk about voter registration, because Arkansas is 50th in voter registration and 50th in voter turnout, we’re a nonvoting state. We’re not a red state. So when we talk about that, we’re talking about voter registration, voter engagement, voter turnout, and vote protection. So we are lining up to do all four of those because it’s not enough to just get people registered and turn them out. You have to make sure that their vote actually counts.
Fantasy scenario: I wave a magic wand and you’re having a sit down with President Biden and Vice President Harris. And look, we can throw in Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer. And maybe Kyrsten Sinema walks in the wrong door, she’s in the meeting, Joe Manchin. What is the message that you would deliver if you could have that group assembled in front of you about voting rights?
It’s really a two-part message. One is to reemphasize, because they know it, but to reemphasize that every person everywhere deserves to have their vote protected. Because often we think about the cities, we think about the larger states, we think about the swing states, and places like Arkansas get left out. Rural areas get left out. And so every person everywhere deserves to have their vote protected.
The other piece is that we don’t have to accept the old techniques in order to protect the vote now. So what do I mean by that? Some of the things that we saw in the last election, particularly in Georgia, is that people were using social media in ways that were pretty innovative to say, “Here’s what’s going on. Here’s what’s happening.” So I would encourage them to invest in infrastructure that would allow folks to use both old school—picking up the phone and calling, going through churches—and new school technology—SMS, and so on and so forth—to make sure that we’re aware of what’s going on in real time, because you can find out what’s happening in real time. And that there’s the infrastructure for response, particularly in places like Arkansas that haven’t had the resources that are there before.