Can Black Democrat Chris Jones win in the Deep South?

The Republican Party has held a virtual control over America's Southern states for decades. Both at the federal and state levels, GOP leaders have done all they can to maintain that advantage. This includes restricting voting rights and gerrymandering. However, the Georgia Senate elections were won by Democrats. This gave hope that these states could be more competitive. This has prompted a new generation to join the ranks of Southern Democrats. Chris Jones is one of them. He is a physicist, a religious leader and now he is running for Arkansas governorship. His viral video got him into the race. Jones spoke to me on Friday's episode of A Word about his unusual path to politics, and his hopes for the race. This edited version of our conversation was condensed to make it more concise.AdvertisementAdvertisementAdvertisementJason Johnson: Chris, I see that you have a Ph.D. in MIT. You are a scientist. Youre a church leader. You are a teacher. Your life seems very fulfilling financially, intellectually, and spiritually. What makes you want to go into politics? What drove you to become a politician? Do you ever wake up and see too many potholes in the morning? Did one of your children come home from school to say, "They're attacking me with race theory?"Chris Jones: Jason, I'm going to take your back and take you back to the spark. When I was eight years old, the spark occurred. My father brought me from Pine Bluff, Arkansas to Little Rock Arkansas. I met a guy at the mall, and we had a great interaction. I met a man and we shook hands. He was a phenomenal guy, spoke with many people. My dad asked me, "Who is that?" He seemed like an impressive man. My dad replied, "That's Bill Clinton." And I was satisfied. So who is he? My dad replied, "Thats Bill Clinton." And I was like, OK. We went home and looked at Encyclopedia Britannica. Although we didn't have the entire set, we did look it up and found out what the governor did. I replied, "You know what?" This is how I want you to serve.AdvertisementAdvertisementThat was the spark. Over the years, that spark continued to grow and I returned home to Arkansas to raise my family, to have three daughters, and to serve. Three years ago, I looked at Arkansas' trajectory and thought, "You know what?" It was time to get in the ring, given the challenges we face as well as the future I want for my daughters. I am blessed with many experiences, connections, and the ability to access resources. All of this I wanted to share with the place that has been home to me for so many years.What are your top concerns in Arkansas? What solutions are you able to offer that have not been tried before? People will often say that they have to do something about education when they run. We had to do something about the ocean. We had to do this and that. However, many politicians have attempted plans in the past. They have not been successful. What are your solutions to these problems? What are the problems Arkansas citizens don't see?AdvertisementAdvertisementThese problems are well-detailed. The challenges are in education. Two-thirds of our children aren't proficient in reading. They are in health care. They are in infrastructure. Rural broadband is not available to 25 percent of the population. Bridges are falling apart. These are the common problems we all face. There are many solutions that haven't been tried, but I disagree. There are many solutions that haven't been tried.What makes us different? What makes you different? My right ear is the only one that can hear. I have never been able hear out of my right side. I have had to learn to listen and to build my muscle. What makes us different is our willingness to listen. Yes, I have a background as a policy analyst. I am a masters student in policy. I hold a master's degree in nuclear engineering, a bachelor's degree in physics, and a PhD in urban planning. It is important to listen at the beginning of any engagement I have. This I learned both as a scientist and through faith in Christ. There are solutions in every community across the state and they need to be heard. This is where we are starting.AdvertisementAdvertisementThis was a great politician, and I must follow up. It is a moment to mention that you met Bill Clinton at 8 years old. You've now launched your campaign for Arkansas governor. I don't think there have been many Democratic governors. Have you reached out to Clinton associates? From Hillary Clinton From Bill Clinton Are you planning to bring them in at some point?Jason, let's start by saying that Arkansas has elected both Republican and Democrat governors in oscillation. Our last governor was a Democrat. The Republican before him was a Republican. We've been back and forth. We elected a Democratic governor in recent years. Our entire delegation to the U.S. before 2010 was Democrat. As I reflect on this and your question, I think we are a lot like the Avengers, where everyone is needed. So I have reached out to Bill Clintons people. I reached out to Mike Beebes, the former governor. I have reached out to everyone, both in and out of the state. People are starting to get on board and offer their help. When the time is right, we can all take turns.AdvertisementAdvertisementAdvertisementMany Democratic voters learned from President Joe Biden's win that it is impossible to win enough white Republicans by running an old white guy. You are now in a very Republican, white state. What makes you believe you can win?Here are a few things. Arkansas is considered a non-voting state. Were 50th in voter registration and 50th in voter turnout. We have 75 counties and 3 million people. We call 28 of them the Black Belt counties. These counties have at least 25% Black population. Arkansas had a 16 percent Black population and a 5 percent Hispanic population. These 28 counties accounted for nearly 300,000 people who could have voted in 2020300,000. We discussed going into the communities throughout the state, not only Black communities but also white communities. This would allow us to get people involved in a process that will ensure they vote and protect it once it is done.AdvertisementAdvertisementEverybody is discussing voting rights on this program and national television. The stalled efforts of national Democrats to pass legislation protecting voting rights are a major topic. What is the impact of voter suppression on Arkansas voters? What structural challenges are Arkansas voters likely to face next year as a result of voter suppression?We faced similar structural challenges to other states, such as Georgia. This includes the distance people have to travel to reach their polling places. This includes the requirement of signature matching for absentee voters and ID matching. This includes a shorter time period of waiting before you can vote. There are many issues at play in every state, as there are in all of them. Particularly in the South, legislators have attempted to limit the right to vote. Arkansas ranks 50th in voter registration. Arkansas also ranks 50th in voter turnout. Arkansas was a non-voting state. We are not a red state. When we talk about this, we are talking about voter registration and voter engagement, voter turnout and voter protection. We are now lining up for all four because it is not enough to simply get people registered or turn them out. It is important to ensure that people vote.AdvertisementAdvertisementImagine a fantasy scenario: I wave a magic hand and you're having a conversation with Vice President Harris and President Biden. We can also throw in Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. Maybe Kyrsten Sinema is not in the right place, Joe Manchin says so. What message would you deliver to that group if they were to vote rights?It's actually a message in two parts. The first is to emphasize, because they already know it. But the second is to reiterate that everyone deserves their vote to be protected. We tend to think of the cities first, then the larger states. Then we start to think about the swing states. This is why places like Arkansas are often overlooked. Rural areas are often overlooked. Everybody should have the right to vote.Another thing is that we don't have to accept old methods in order to preserve the vote. What does that mean? One of the most striking things we observed in the last election, especially in Georgia, was that people used social media in very innovative ways to say, "Here's what's happening." This is what's happening. I encourage them to make investments in infrastructure that will allow people to use old schoolphones and call, go through churches, and SMS to keep up to date with what's happening. It is important that the infrastructure exists to respond, especially in areas like Arkansas where they don't have the resources.You can listen to the whole episode below or subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or Overcast, Spotify or Stitcher or Google Play.