Running on a Prayer

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S1: This is a a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Democrats won the White House and the Senate in twenty twenty, but the party suffered a string of disappointments and near misses in the Deep South. Democrat Chris Jones believes he can change that. And when the Arkansas governor’s mansion

S2: looked, if you grew up in Arkansas, like I’d be, your family would be here for two years. And you love the state as much as I do. And you say there’s no other place to be. But here,

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S1: a rising political star hoping to shake up the Republican South coming up on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. This is a war, a podcast from Slate, your host, Jason Johnson. 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 to just suppressing everybody they can. But Democratic victories in the Georgia Senate races have 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.

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S3: Taking Arkansas into the future requires improving education opportunities from cradle to career, enhancing infrastructure from bridges to rural broadband, and making available every tool Arkansans need to Bill businesses and healthy families. It’s about living up to our potential. It’s about living out our values. It’s about working hard together. And my fellow Arkansans. It’s about time.

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S1: And Chris Jones joins us now. Welcome to a work.

S2: Glad to be here at Jasmine.

S1: Chris, you have a PhD from MIT Neurosciences. 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? Were critical race theory? Like what? What drove you to get into politics at this particular point?

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S2: So I’m going to take you back Jason and I’ll take you back to the spark. The spark happened when I was eight 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 sitting and seeing phenomenal talk with a lot of folks. And I asked my dad, who is that? Because he seems like a very impressive guy. And my dad said, That’s Bill Clinton. I was like, oh, OK, so who is he? And my dad said, he’s the governor and I said, what are they going to 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 it what 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 rain. I’m blessed. I’m blessed with experiences with connections and resources. And I wanted to break all of that to the place that has been my home for all these years.

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S1: What do you see as the top issues facing Arkansas and, you know, 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’ve got to do something about the the water on the coast. We’ve got to do this, that. But in many instances, politicians have tried plans before. They haven’t been successful. So whether the problems that you see and what are you offering that Arkansas citizens haven’t seen before,

S2: the problems are pretty well laid out, the challenges and there in education, we aren’t reading at grade level. About two thirds of our kids are there in health care. They’re in infrastructure. We don’t have real broadband in 25 percent of our our population. Bridges are breaking down. So those are your bread and butter common challenges that we all see. The difference, I would argue that solutions actually have not been tried. And there are a number of solutions out there that have not addressed what makes us different, what makes me different. And I came out here out of my right here. I’ve never been able to go out of my writer. So that’s caused me to have to lean into listening and Bill 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 masters in policy of a massive technical engineering, bachelors of physics, math and planning. But community development businesses. But. At the beginning of every engagement that I have and I learn 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.

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S1: I have to follow this up, because that was a that was a perfect politician and that girl was me kind of moment to see that you met Bill Clinton when you were eight years old. Now that you’ve launched this campaign for Arkansas governor, I mean, they have been that many Democratic governors. Have you reached out to associates from from Clinton, from Hillary Clinton, from Bill Clinton? You know, do you plan on bringing them in at any point or, you know, is that no longer a name that rings out in the streets in Arkansas?

S2: So, you know, Jason, let me first start by saying Arkansas is actually elected Democrat and Republican governors in isolation. So our last governor was Democrat or whatever, Republican or 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 US was Democrat before 2010. So what I would say, you know, as I as I think about this and your question is that we are really like The Avengers coming together and we we need everyone. So absolutely. I’ve reached out to Bill Clinton folks I’ve reached out to might be these folks who the former governor of Wisconsin, 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’s.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. We come back more on the governor’s race in Arkansas. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. Did you know you could be listening to this show? Ad free, all it takes is a slate plus membership. It’s just one dollar for the first month and it helps support our show. Plus, it lets you hear all Slate podcast without ads and read unlimited articles on the Slate site without ever hitting a paywall. So sign up now for Slate plus at Slate Dotcom. Again, a word plus that slate. Dotcom, a word plus. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking with rising Democratic star and Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Chris Jones. One of the lessons, right or wrong, that a lot of Democratic voters took from President Biden’s victory is that the only way to win enough white Republicans is to run that old white guy? Basically, now you’re in a very white, very Republican state, even if they have oscillated with Democratic and Republican governors. Just objectively, what makes you think you can win?

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S2: I would say that Arkansas is a non-voting state with 50 of voter registration and fiftieth in voter turnout. And when you look at the counties, we have seventy five counties, three million people. There are twenty eight counties that we we characterize the black vote. Twenty five percent of population, the black population are higher. And I’ll tell you, in Arkansas, we’re about 16 percent African-American population, black population, about five percent Hispanic. So you take those twenty eight counties. They accounted for almost three hundred thousand people that could have voted but didn’t in twenty twenty three hundred thousand people. So we’re talking about going into communities across the state, not just black communities, but white community 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 that happens

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S1: on this program and on national television and pretty much anywhere where anybody is 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?

S2: So, you know, we face some of the similar structural institutional challenges that other states like Georgia face, and that includes the distance that folks have to travel to get to their polling locations. That includes the the requirements of ID matching his signature matching for absentee voting. That includes a they reduce the number of days and hours that you have before you can vote. So 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 50 percent voter registration and fiftieth in voter turnout, we’re non-voting state. We’re not a 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 there’s not enough to just get people registered and turn them out. You have to make sure that their vote actually counts.

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S1: 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 Chris in cinema 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?

S2: So it’s really a two part message. One is to re-emphasize, because they want to re-emphasize that every person everywhere deserves to have their vote protected, because often we think about the city, we think about the largest 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 the other piece is that 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, pick up the phone and calling, you know, going through churches and new school technology. That’s a mess 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 the infrastructure for response, particularly in places like Arkansas that haven’t had the resources that are there before.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. We come back more on the governor’s race in Arkansas. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking with Chris Jones, he’s a Democrat running for governor and Arkansas generations of black Americans have been voting for Democrats at all levels of government. And a twenty twenty one. We’re back to literally fighting for the right to vote. Are you hearing despair or even like anger from black voters in your state who are wondering if it’s worth it because it’s one thing to have a Democratic governor. It’s one thing to probably get part of your delegation to Congress to be Democrat, but a black governor in a deep red state, that might be something that people think is too far to dream for you. Are you running into that kind of skepticism and apprehension when you talk to voters?

S2: Jason? Surprisingly, no. And I think there are a couple of different dynamics at play. One is because I haven’t been in in in the quote unquote system. So, you know, we came in as new entrants to the system and we came in with some authenticity. My background is varied and so it’s confusing people a little bit of both a minister and a physicist. And I’ve run businesses and I have a policy background. And so I think that that’s throwing folks off a little bit enough to ask the question, is this possible, what’s possible? What can I believe in? And I think the sort of the other reason why is because people are hungry, people are hungry for something different, people are frustrated, and Arkansans realize that we deserve better. And I’ve been going across the state and folks are saying, you know what, we’ve tried the old way. We’ve tried such and such and so on, so forth, and we deserve better. And the last thing on this is that for us this year we have one hundred and thirty five state legislative seats. All 435 are up for re-election. All of them, because they’re so, so, so part one of our process is encourage strong people to step up and show up and run for the Oval Office. And I think the way we enter the race has become sort of a clarion call and people are starting to step up. Part two is that not only fight for my race for the governor’s seat, but up and down the ballot. So all the way down the ticket to local races, we’re fighting for everyone and supporting everyone across the state because this isn’t just about Chris Jones or the governor’s seat, it’s about all of us. To me, we have to focus on those steps first because we can expand the electorate and change the dynamics on the board that that’s the focus. And then once we figure out the dynamics on the board, then we’ll have a game for whatever pieces are there.

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S1: You’re a family man. You’re a self-described girl, Dad. But I think there’s something to be said for the unique challenges that in particular black politicians face when they run for higher office. You know, on the best in maybe you get invited to the BET awards, you know, on the worse in maybe there’s, you know, threats and challenges to your family. What kind of conversations have you had with your wife and with your daughters about what the next year, year and a half of scrutiny are going to be like? What have those conversations been like within the family? Because I knew you couldn’t run if you hadn’t talked to your family. So obviously they’re on board. But what have you told them about the kind of scrutiny they’re going to face and how you guys will deal with it?

S2: Yeah. So, you know, we’re all entering this new we don’t have any any direct experience. What I would tell you that my wife’s a rockstar, hands down. And if you met her and when you do meet her, you’ll say you don’t ever want to have me on the podcast anymore. You want her. And I mean, I sincerely like she’s helped Artecoll with she’s been helping with the Colbert response. She served in Afghanistan and she was at the finish line of the Boston Marathon bombing, working as an E.R. doc. She’s run EMS systems. Yeah, she was she was at at the hospital in Baltimore the night of the Freddie Gray riots working. She’s the Howard Bison’s and she’s a Harvard Med grad. So, look, I say that to say she and I both are not afraid of challenges. And she knew when we met and got serious and we were in love, I said, look, you know, this is great. We’re having a blast. I love you. You love me, I think. And one thing that you have to know, I’m going to move back to Arkansas and I’m going to run for governor. So if you’re not on board with that, then let’s be friends, and she was on board with it. We thought about it. So we’ve been we’ve been thinking about this for a while now. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know who holds my future. So so as long as we stay true to who got us to be and we stay prayerful every day, we’ll be fine. We’re protected. Things will happen. It’ll be scary. But not doing it is more scary than than than what we would face while because there’s so many kids who are losing out, the kids going hungry, the people that are homeless, the folks that can’t afford prescription drugs, they’re real challenges and issues that are far greater and more challenging than anything that we would face. So we’re willing to do the hard stuff to make somebody’s life better.

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S1: I got to close with this, because this, I think, is key, what we have been seeing and there’s two paths to this. The last several years, we’ve seen governorships be springboards to even higher office, but even people who haven’t been successful end up getting amazing opportunities. Even running puts you on the radar for a national kind of positions. If you were to become governor of Arkansas, could you see yourself spending the rest of your career in that state, or would you imagine yourself following in the footprints of that guy who you met when you were eight years old at the mall?

S2: Yeah, and I appreciate that question. Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know what I what I do know is that that I am at peace at home here and I want to give everything I have to make my state better, to put us from the bottom to the top so that kids growing up will experience the greatness disadvantage that I experienced. So that’s what I know and that’s what I’m committed to. And honestly, I genuinely do not know what happens after that. And part of it that I’m not concerned about what happens after that, like I’m doing my my life has been phenomenal. I’ve had my challenges, but I’m blessed. I have a great career. Like you said, I could be anywhere in the world. We traveled the world, but I want to be here. And so when I look back at my life and the moment and the times when I have felt most in the flow, most like I was doing what God called me to do and serving in the best way and living up to my gifts was when I focused on where I was in that moment and what I was doing that moment. So that’s one of them. And that’s not a political answer. That’s the answer.

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S1: Chris Jones is a Democratic candidate for governor in Arkansas. Thank you so much for joining us on a word.

S2: Thanks so much. Great vision.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate Dotcom. This episode was produced by Ahyiana Angel and Jasmine Ellis Ahsha. Solutia is the managing producer of podcasts Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcast at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for work.