PINE BLUFF -- Chris Jones, the former executive director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, will seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2022, he announced Tuesday.
Jones, a 44-year-old physicist, minister and Pine Bluff native, said he was first inspired to run for governor at age 8.
"I found out about a governor and realized that they can actually help people and serve and make a difference in real people's lives and that's when I was sold. I knew that I had been given so much, even at that young age, I knew that I loved this place and I wanted to do something here with all of my talents, that would be the thing to do," he said in an interview. "It was a spark then and life has just kind of fanned that flame."
Jones said his top priorities are strengthening infrastructure, from bridges to rural broadband, improving public education opportunities, and economic development, including supporting small "Main Street" businesses.
He said his travels across the state for work had shown him the "barriers to getting ahead" that Arkansans face.
"I saw far too many overcrowded classrooms and underpaid teachers. ... I met good people who felt left behind, forgotten and unheard. It's heartbreaking to know that we have underpaid workers, Arkansans without health care, children going hungry, senior citizens worried about the cost of prescription drugs and truck drivers worried about driving over fractured bridges," he said at a speech at a campaign kickoff event Tuesday in downtown Pine Bluff.
In announcing his campaign, Jones emphasized his deep roots in the state as a seventh-generation Arkansan who can trace his ancestry back to a slave record from a plantation in south Arkansas.
After studying physics and math on a NASA scholarship at Morehouse College, earning higher degrees in nuclear engineering and urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and becoming an ordained minister, Jones returned to his home state about four years ago.
"Serving the state matters a lot to me so coming back was about, what is the best way to serve Arkansas? That was top of my mind when I got here," he said.
He is married to Dr. Jerrilyn Jones, an emergency room physician and the preparedness medical director for the Arkansas Department of Health. They have three daughters.
Jones noted the challenges of entering the race as a political newcomer.
"We begin this campaign without a lot of name recognition. I've never run for office before. My father wasn't governor. In fact, no governor has ever looked like me," he said. "It's going to be a challenge. But one we can meet together."
He said his campaign would be about "going into every community and listening to as many voices as we can and together coming up with solutions, and through that really making a difference in people's lives."
At least two other candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination, small-business owner James "Rus" Russell and businesswoman Supha Xayprasith-Mays.
Russell said in a text message that while the other candidates "have experience working within existing systems and overcoming the inherent obstacles presented," he has dedicated his life to "examining those systems to root out and remove those obstacles to work toward a more equitable society for everyone." He also said he was excited to welcome Jones into the race.
Xayprasith-Mays said her background as a woman of Asian descent and as an immigrant sets her apart from the other candidates, along with her campaign's focus on inclusion and putting people first.
"I encourage open discussion that brings people together. More people in the race facilitates a broad base discussion about the challenges facing Arkansans," she said in a text message.
Anthony Bland, a Little Rock educator, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last month that he was exploring a run for governor and would decide whether to enter the race after receiving community input. He didn't return a voicemail by deadline Tuesday evening. Bland ran as a Democrat for lieutenant governor in 2018.
The announced candidates for the Republican nomination for governor are Attorney General Leslie Rutledge of Maumelle and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a former press secretary for former President Donald Trump and the daughter of former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has held the office since 2015, is barred from seeking reelection under the state's term-limits amendment.
The primary election is scheduled for May 24, according to the secretary of state's office. The party nominees face each other in November 2022.