History-making gubernatorial gambit would include many Black-centric firsts in Arkansas
BCN Executive Editor Wesley Brown — April 2, 2021 — Dr. Chris Jones, executive director of Winrock International’s Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, has stepped down from his post amid speculation of plans to jump into the 2022 gubernatorial race on the Democratic ticket.
If true, Jones would be 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 native, 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.
Sabin lost a tight race for Little Rock mayor in 2018, finishing third behind Baker Kurrus with 28.2% and 29% of the vote, respectively. Frank Scott Jr. won 37% of the vote in the nonpartisan election and later bested Kurrus in a runoff race to become Little Rock’s first Black mayor.
Sabin soon left the city to take a position as executive director of the Society of Fellows at the Washington, D.C.-based Aspen Institute. That prestigious Washington, D.C.-based progressive think tank is funded by the billionaire-backed Rockefeller, Gates, Ford, and Carnegie philanthropic foundations.
Unlike Sabin, a New York native attracted to Arkansas by the Clinton legacy, Jones is an expatriate who like many talented Black Arkansans left the state to find success before returning home. Jones holds a Ph.D. in urban studies and planning, in addition to master’s degrees in nuclear engineering and technology and policy, all from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston.
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. In his letter, Jones also announced that Innovation Hub Deputy Director Errin Stanger has been selected to serve as the Hub’s acting executive director.
“To everything there is a season. After three phenomenal years as executive director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, it’s time for this season to come to an end,” wrote Jones. “I’m stepping down at the end of this month. I have shared this with staff and our Board of Directors and now I’m sharing with you, my Hub family. It has been an outstanding journey, full of rewarding projects and wonderful people. Now it is time for me to start out on a new adventure, a new season.”
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Keeping up with the Jones
Jones, 44, then outlined a long list of accomplishments for the Innovation Hub under his helm, including bolstering the nonprofit’s financial standing and navigating the Winrock-based organization through the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 13 months. In 2021 alone, Jones and his team inked two major partnerships with Fortune 500 companies to further expand the entrepreneurial service organization’s innovative reach and influence across Central Arkansas.
In late February, Jones and his staff announced a partnership with tech retail giant Best Buy to create the state’s first Best Buy Teen Tech Center in Arkansas. That first-of-its-kind collaboration with the Richfield, Minn.-based consumer electronics retailer will allow the local youth-focused center to help Arkansas teens develop critical skills through hands-on activities that explore their interests in technology, art, and entrepreneurial subjects.
According to the project’s details, construction on a new 22,000 square foot facility will begin later this year. The Innovation’s Hub Teen Tech Center is expected to be fully operational in 2022, adding new studio spaces for audiovisual production and cutting-edge equipment for music, video and podcasts.
“This Teen Tech Center is the embodiment of who we are,” Jones said during a socially-distance press conference at the nonprofit group’s North Little Rock headquarters on Feb. 23. “It ties us to a national effort by Best Buy and my old stomping grounds at MIT. It also brings the Hub full circle on our focus on teens since we started in the same place with the ARConnection years ago.”
The Best Buy partnership also includes membership in The Clubhouse Network, a collaborative project with MIT’s Media Lab. That network is an international community of clubhouses in 20 countries, providing youth with hands-on learning opportunities to inspire them to pursue higher education and explore potential careers in science and technology.
Earlier in December, the Innovation Hub and West Coast pharmaceutical giant Gilead Sciences Inc. also announced that the Innovation Hub was selected among 20 “high-impact organizations” across the U.S. to receive part of a $10 million grant fund to tackle racial inequities affecting Black communities across the U.S.
According to Gilead officials, the Forest City, Calif.-based pharmaceutical giant’s Racial Equity Community Impact Fund that posted annual revenues of nearly $23 billion in 2019 will initially provide $10 million in grants to 20 organizations over three years in three focus areas. Gilead was the first drug maker in the U.S. to get FDA approval for its COVID-19 treatment called remdesivir, the experimental antiviral drug used to treat former President Donald Trump.
The proposal to win the $1 million-plus grant includes local projects that will focus The Hub’s community advocacy and social justice outreach on virtual learning, digital literacy, STEM workforce and career training, and innovation challenges that involve problem-solving.
“The projects in (our) proposals are the ones that Gilead Sciences knows we will focus on, but their funding is really to support the Innovation Hub and any work that we feel will help advance racial equity and social justice,” said Jones.
Among other things, Jones has also helped the Innovation Hub jumpstart several workforce and so-called maker small programs for local teams to get involved in hands-on activities that explore their interests in technology, art, and entrepreneurial subjects. For example, the Hub’s Skills to Launch workforce development program trains and mentors young adults, preparing them for apprenticeship programs and jobs in trade and high-tech skills.
In the maker space arena, which brings together people and ideas focused on STEM-related projects, the HUB has also developed programs or partnered with other like-minded organizations to reach teens across the state.
During the pandemic, the Innovation Hub also announced the Arkansas Maker Task Force, an emergency response team of more than 260 Arkansas makers who helped make and supply much-need personal protection equipment (PPE) during the first months of the COVID-19 health crisis. That project allowed local software developers to use 3D printing technology at the Innovation Hub to quickly manufacture and distribute masks, face shields, ventilator parts and ear protectors.
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Jones v. Jones: History in the making
When asked by BlackConsumerNews.com about his future, including speculation that he will run for Arkansas governor in 2022, Jones replied: “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.”
Jones and his wife, Dr. Jerrilyn Jones, an emergency room physician at the University of Arkansas for Medical Science, reside with three daughters in Little Rock. “I will be able to share more about my future plans in the coming weeks,” Jones told BlackConsumerNews.com.
If he runs for governor, Jones’ candidacy would 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 elected, the older Jones sibling would ascend to the highest level in Arkansas state government by an African American in either party.
However, if the younger Jones wins the race for governor on the Democratic ticket, then his candidacy would eclipse his brothers’ bid to replace Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is term-limited. Together, the Jones brothers would make history on Black candidates 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.
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. There has been no announced AG candidates from the Democratic Party yet.
If Jones enters the race for governor on the Democratic ticket, he will likely emerge as the frontrunner with the current slate of candidates with little political experience. 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.
The winner of the Democratic primary will still face insurmountable odds to win the governor’s seat 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.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, also a Republican, announced last year that she is running for governor in 2022. She will be running 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.
Rutledge has raised more than $1.2 million for the 2022 gubernatorial race, while combined budget coffers for all the three announced Democratic Party candidates are nearly empty.
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