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Chris Jones' Arkansas campaign ad shows how extraordinary Black politicians must be

He's a nuclear physicist and priest — and wants to be Arkansas' first Black governor.
Photo illustration: Dr. Chris Jones behind a blue podium.
The man's resume is honestly intense.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Until Monday, the only thing I knew about the race for governor in Arkansas was that former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had thrown her hat into the ring. I was fully prepared to ignore the ensuing Trump-infused circus over the next two years. But then I saw a video pass across my Twitter timeline. Two minutes and 37 seconds later, I was convinced that this might be one of the most interesting campaigns in the country.

Chris Jones announced his candidacy for governor June 15. As I learned in his campaign’s announcement video, he is an actual nuclear physicist and an ordained minister as of 2017. He went to Morehouse College on a NASA scholarship and attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology for graduate school. And now he’s running to replace the term-limited Gov. Asa Hutchinson as leader of the state his family has lived in for eight generations now.

Political candidates, especially first-timers, are encouraged to figure out the story that they want to tell the voters. The best versions draw from both biography and policy, mixing them together into a personal narrative that the candidate implies will carry through into how they govern or legislate. And Jones’ team knocked this one out of the park.

As I sat with the video some more, it really dawned on me how incredible Jones’ resume is — and what it says about Black candidates for statewide office.

I was absolutely floored by the video’s genius use of his preacher’s stole to illustrate the passage of time, coupled with his explanation that “as a physicist, I know that time is also relative — and with the right application of energy, you can bend it.” That transition into a timeline of his family’s roots in the state and the emotions it conveyed were on point; the use of footage from Jan. 6 to illustrate the trauma that we lived through was also extremely well deployed.

But as I sat with the video some more, it really dawned on me how incredible Jones’ resume is — and what it says about Black candidates for statewide office.

Consider that just five years after earning dual master's degrees in nuclear engineering and technology and policy from MIT, he was named the school’s assistant dean for graduate students. He got his doctorate from MIT while managing a multimillion-dollar budget as executive director of Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. He was leading a nonprofit, the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, which as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette put it in a profile of Jones “promotes and encourages innovative ideas among, and creates opportunities for entrepreneurs, students and other makers” in the state until he resigned to run for governor.

He also checks all the boxes that we don’t say a Black man running for office needs to have — but they absolutely do. Jones is overly educated, far beyond the average white candidate. His wife, Dr. Jerrilyn Jones, and their daughters are featured prominently in the ad — no single, promiscuous African Americans here, just a wholesome upper middle-class family. His last role was all about jobs and businesses and other respectable capitalist ventures, not something confusing like “community organizer.” And the issues he focuses on — education, infrastructure, and “living out our values” — are solidly middle of the road, not too progressive — or too , well, Black — for Arkansas voters.

(Jerrilyn, I must add, is almost as freakishly well-credentialed as her husband is — she’s an Air Force veteran and graduate of Harvard Medical School who’s currently an ER doctor and serves as preparedness medical director at the Arkansas Department of Health. Together, their careers sound like what an eager kindergartner would say when asked what she wants to be when she grows up.)

He also checks all the boxes that we don’t say a Black man running for office needs to have — but they absolutely do.

Jones’s video went viral soon after it went up, drawing buzz to a race that wasn’t lacking in national attention. Former President Donald Trump has already endorsed his former staffer, who also has the benefit of being the daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee. Sanders’ name recognition in the state has her with an early lead against the other Republican in the race, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, but it will be interesting to see how Jones’ splashy entrance changes things.

Black candidates have historically had a hard time winning statewide races, as Charles E. Jones and Judson Jeffries noted in their 2006 article on campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate. Since that article was published, we’ve seen a slight uptick in Black candidates to win those races, including Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who — like Jones — hadn’t previously held elected office. But if Jones wins the primary, it will be an uphill climb for him in a state dominated by Republicans.

But here’s one more twist that makes Arkansas’ election one to watch over the next few months: Jones isn’t the only member of his family seeking high-profile statewide office. His brother, Leon Jones Jr., is running for attorney general in 2022 — as a Republican.

Leon was, up until recently, the head of the state’s Fair Housing Commission, having been named to the spot by Hutchinson. Before that, he was the first Black leader of the Arkansas Department of Labor, his campaign noted soon after he announced his run. He’s running for the slot on the general ballot against Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin.

So, to sum up: A nuclear physicist/priest is competing in a race where there’s a nonzero chance that Arkansas voters not only elect the first Black men to hold those positions in the state, but that they also disagree on policy. I, for one, am going to be keeping a very close eye on this race.