Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Jones speaks at a town-hall style event in Fayetteville on Tuesday. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)
FAYETTEVILLE — Democrat Chris Jones has put a lot of miles on his tennis shoes during his run for Arkansas governor. Throughout his campaign, he’s laced up two different pairs to walk a mile with Arkansans in their hometowns.
Jones wanted to meet people where they are through his Walk a Mile in Your Shoes tour. His goal was to walk one million steps to represent each Arkansan that could have voted in the last election cycle but didn’t. By the end of next week, Jones estimates he’ll reach three million steps, one for each person living in Arkansas.
“If I want to serve as governor for you, I need to know you,” he said in an interview after a campaign event Tuesday. “So why not walk a mile in your shoes?”
Jones swapped his sneakers for a pair of gray suede dress shoes during the Women for Chris Jones town hall in Fayetteville. The crowd of more than 100 supporters included a mix of longtime, politically active guests and newcomers like Danielle Bauman, who moved to Northwest Arkansas from San Francisco a year ago with her husband, a native of the region.
Bauman wanted to support Jones because “he actually follows through with what he’s saying.” She likes that he believes in education and supporting women.
“I admire him,” Bauman said. “Even though he is religious, he does feel that women’s rights are theirs, so I like to see that that doesn’t stand in his way.”
Bauman, who said she hasn’t always voted for Democrats, started following Jones’ campaign before relocating to Arkansas. Living in a smaller state means she could have a bigger impact, so Bauman overcame some anxiety to attend her first rally.
“It’s important to me, and I can’t let my anxiety and nervousness get in the way of that,” she said.
Self-described introvert Shannon Mitchell also braved the loud crowd to support “the best candidate for the job.” She has previously attended smaller political events, but this was the first of this size.
Mitchell has lived in Arkansas for three decades and supports Jones because she wants “to have someone on board supporting women” in the state.
“The whole Roe v. Wade issue is a huge thing for women everywhere, and I think Arkansas [has] already gone way too far in the other direction,” she said.
The focus of Jones’ campaign is “PB&J” — preschool, broadband and jobs. Increasing access to pre-K and broadband and supporting rural economic development is “part of a fundamental investment” the state must make, and the mechanisms to do so already exist through state government and the private sector, he said.
The state needs to ensure it’s capturing all available federal funds, so supporting these initiatives doesn’t require a tax increase, Jones said.
But state revenue, which comes from income and other taxes, also should play a role, he said.
“The investment has to come from the state funds, you can’t do that if you cut income tax down to zero,” he said.
His Republican opponent, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has proposed phasing out the state income tax if elected. Libertarian candidate Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. supports phasing out the state’s sales tax.
Jones is a proponent of lowering sales tax and property tax, but opposes eliminating income tax, which accounts for about 57% of the state’s budget, according to the state Department of Finance and Administration.
“You absolutely have to fund things that matter,” he said. “We need safe schools. I want bridges that I can cross over without me worrying about them collapsing. We have a constitutional requirement to provide an education to all Arkansans.”
Jones’ education platform includes a focus on trade schools and certifications. The state has several technical schools and workforce development training programs, but he said organizations need to better coordinate their efforts.
Jones also supports increasing teacher pay and said he would follow Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s plan to increase the minimum salary from $36,000 to $46,000.
Man of faith
Jones wants voters to know he’s “not one thing.” A native of Pine Bluff, he’s a husband, father, physicist, Christian and the state’s first African American gubernatorial nominee from a major party.
“We’ve never had a governor that’s been Black, so not seeing makes you not believe,” he said. “And part of it is helping people see when you can’t see.”
The ordained minister preached a message of inclusiveness at Tuesday’s campaign event, explaining that creating policies supporting all Arkansans exemplifies how to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
While promising to be guided by love, Jones said he can separate religion from politics to serve all Arkansans.
“I believe that you should stand on your faith and live out your faith,” he told the crowd Tuesday. “I also believe that you can stand in your faith and live out your faith without turning the state into a church.”
A tough issue Jones has encountered on the campaign trail, he said, is Arkansans who’ve given up on other Arkansans.
“I don’t want us giving up on our neighbors,” Jones said. “And so I take time with those conversations because I believe that when we stay engaged with each other, we still believe in each other regardless of what has happened in the past. That’s how Arkansas will be better.”
This is the second in a series of stories about candidates on the campaign trail in Arkansas.
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