Little Rock native Chris Jones announces historic run as Arkansas' first Black Democratic candidate for governor (updated)

Little Rock native Chris Jones announces historic run as Arkansas' first Black Democratic candidate for governor (updated)

By BCN Executive Editor Wesley Brown — June 15, 2021 — Run, Chris, Run!

Little Rock native Chris Jones has announced that he is jumping into the crowded 2022 race for Arkansas governor as the state’s first Black candidate for the top office at the State Capitol, just as surmised several weeks ago here.

Jones, a nuclear engineer who resigned from his role as executive director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub on April 29, made it official during a press conference at the Pine Bluff Public Library this afternoon. Jones also held a reception Monday evening to announce his candidacy to the closely-held group of family, friends, and key supporters.

“The last few years have shown how much political division can tear us apart.  The reality of this moment in our nation’s history is that if we want our politics to be different, we have to be different.  Other candidates may try to divide us in this election. But I’m not running for governor to fight a culture war or to go on cable news. I’m here to bring Arkansans back together with a campaign that brings out our best,” said Jones.

“After the pandemic we’re ready for a real recovery. One that reaches every community. We want life to get back to normal, but not a return to the status quo. We want new goals, new possibilities, and new leadership that doesn’t shy away from challenges, and instead, dares to dream big,” Jones continued. “I’m in this race because Arkansas needs a governor focused on solutions, not politics.  I’m in this race to rebuild our infrastructure. To invest in healthcare and education. To extend access to rural broadband. And to give Arkansans the tools we need to compete. “

Although Jones did not tout his candidacy until today’s announcement as his childhood home, there has been speculation for months about the 44-year-old, well-traveled millennial making a potential bid for the governor’s seat. In early May, Jones told after his resignation from the Innovation Hub that “new adventures” were in his future plans.

“I have not made any formal announcements about my decisions for the future. Right now, I’m mostly focused on enjoying my girls’ soccer games and this great weather. Hoping to also get in some good food and fun local adventures because the options are endless in Arkansas,” said Jones, a father of three daughters who is married to Dr. Jerrilyn Jones, an emergency room physician at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science.

Now with his hat officially in the ring, Jones is the first Black candidate for governor from the Democratic Party. According to research by the UA Little Rock Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Josiah Blount, a school administrator and farmer from Forrest City, was Arkansas’ first black gubernatorial candidate in 1919. Blount ran as a Republican Party candidate in 1920, research shows, one year after the infamous Elaine Massacre.

A Little Rock resident, Jones was tabbed more than three years ago to take over the vacated position at the Innovation Hub. That post was formerly held by former Arkansas Rep. Warwick Sabin of Little Rock, another former millennial touted as the future star in Arkansas’ Democratic party after serving three terms in the Arkansas House of Representatives from 2013-19.

Jones is a former assistant dean for graduate education at MIT and has 20 years of far-reaching experience in energy and infrastructure, diversity, community development, and housing. He has led and participated in academic research that ranges from plasma fusion and nuclear nonproliferation to the social impact of large-scale energy infrastructure systems.

Jones also was formerly executive director of the community development nonprofit the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston and formerly a principal at Newark, N.J.-based BCT Partners, where he led executive on numerous multimillion-dollar federal projects. After graduating from Watson Chapel High School in Pine Bluff in 1995, Jones attended Morehouse College in Atlanta on a full scholarship from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He later earned his bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physics.

In announcing his resignation from the Innovation Hub on Thursday (April 29), Jones sent a letter to the North Little Rock nonprofit’s staff, board of directors, and constituents detailing his decision to step down after three years. Jones was replaced by former Innovation Hub Deputy Director Errin Stanger.

As a candidate on the ailing Democratic ticket, the political neophyte will immediately emerge as the frontrunner with the current slate of candidates with weak public policy resumes. To date, the Democratic ticket includes businesswoman Supha Xayprasith-Mays, the wife of former Black legislator, civil rights attorney, and Arkansas Supreme Court Justice, Richard L. Mays Sr. Also, James “Rus” Russell and Anthony Bland, who ran for Lt. Governor in 2018, have announced plans to run for governor on the Democratic ticket. Ricky Dale Harrington Jr., a Libertarian candidate in the 2020 Arkansas Senate election against Tom Cotton, also recently announced his candidacy for governor in 2022.

After today’s kick-off press event in Pine Bluff, Jones’ candidacy will make history on several fronts. His brother, Leon Jones Jr., 49, officially announced on March 6 that he is now a candidate for Arkansas attorney general in 2022, joining an increasingly crowded race for the state’s second-highest elected office. If either or both are elected, the Jones siblings would ascend to the highest level in Arkansas state government by an African American in either party.

Also, the Jones brothers are making history as the first two Black candidates to make a primary run for the state’s two highest elected offices. In Arkansas, there have never been two Black candidates, much less two brothers, running for the state’s highest elected or congressional offices. Gov. Hutchinson and his brother, Tim Hutchinson, ran and won for respective congressional and Senate seats in Northwest Arkansas in 1996.

Nationally, although there have been several cases of brothers or siblings running on the same ticket for top state or congressional officers, such as the Hutchinson, Kennedy and Rockefeller families, there have never been two Black brothers or siblings running for top state or congressional offices at the same time, according to congressional archives.

In addition, the Jones brothers’ candidacy would also make history by having two siblings competing for top elected offices from different parties. Leon Jones is a longtime Republican appointed by Gov. Hutchinson led the state Department of Labor in 2015, the first Black person to lead this cabinet-level agency in its 100-year history.  Four years later, Hutchinson appointed his former aide as executive director of the Arkansas Fair Housing Commission. Jones resigned from that post earlier this year to announce his run for attorney general.

The younger Jones is a longtime Democrat who had close ties to former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick during his near 20-year stint in the Boston area. Patrick was the history-making first Black governor of Massachusetts from 2007 to 2015.

Either way, if the Jones brothers end up in the Democratic and Republican primaries leading up to the November 2022 election, both will uphill battles in their races. In Leon’s case, Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, a Republican, on Feb. 8 pulled out of the governor’s race and announced he was not running for the AG’s position. Griffin already has key endorsements from top Trump officials and has raised over $575,000. Little Rock attorneys Jesse Gibson and Jason Davis have recently thrown their hats into AG’s race for 2022 on the Democratic ticket.

The winners of the Democratic primary will still face insurmountable odds to win the AG or governor’s race in Arkansas, where Republicans hold every elected state and congressional office and enjoy a supermajority in the state House and Senate. The nine-person state Supreme Court also has a duly elected Republican majority, including Chief Justice Dan Kemp.

Any Democratic candidates that emerge victorious after the primaries will likely be well behind in polling and the fundraising as campaign budget coffers for all the announced Democratic Party candidates are nearly empty, said Heather Yates, associate professor of politic science at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

“Dr. Chris Jones’ candidacy for governor reminds the party organization, and voters alike, that representation matters.   Jones’s candidacy signifies a fresh trajectory for the Democratic Party here on the ground, but he carries a heavy mantle as his campaign will also be relied upon to kickstart party building activities and develop a languishing voter coalition,” said Yates.  

Going into campaign season, the UCA political scientist said Jones will likely encounter both enthusiasm and frustration because the odds are tough since Arkansas shifted even further to the right under Trump by double digits in several counties. However, she noted that the data also shows where the ground is softening here because seven counties shifted leftward in the 2020 presidential election.  

It will be a tough contest, but if Jones can appeal to median and moderate voters, secure the Democratic base,  the benefit Jones’ campaign stands to offer in mitigating the effects of Trumpism in the post-Trump era should not be dismissed,” said Yates.

Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge announced last year that she is running for governor in 2022 and has raised more than $1.2 million for the 2022 gubernatorial race. However, she is running in uphill race in the Republican primary against Sarah Sanders Huckabee, the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former spokeswoman for outgoing President Donald Trump. Huckabee announced earlier this month that she had raised a whopping $4.8 million in the first quarter of her candidate, a record haul with a year away from the Republican primary and 18 months to the 2022 general election.

To watch Jones’ announcement video, go here.


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