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Chris Jones, a nuclear engineer and political newcomer, enters Arkansas governor's race

Candidates like Jones could ride a recent wave of people of color with limited political experience running for and getting elected to higher office.
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The race to replace Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who cannot run again because of term limits, is gaining another candidate — a nuclear engineer who says he's running as a Democrat to offer voters another alternative to the Trump brand of politics.

Chris Jones, the former head of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, a nonprofit organization based in North Little Rock, announced his candidacy Tuesday. A political novice — he once served as student body president at Morehouse College, a historically Black university in Atlanta — Jones, 44, said he was turned off by the political divisions of the past few years.

Chris Jones, 44, is announcing his run as a Democrat for the 2022 Arkansas gubernatorial race.
Chris Jones, 44, is announcing his run as a Democrat for the 2022 Arkansas gubernatorial race.Chris Jones for Arkansas Governor

"Our campaign is about lifting people up and building a fair Arkansas so there are opportunities for all of us," he said, adding that "the reality of this moment in our nation's history is that if we want our politics to be different, we have to be different."

His first campaign video is entitled, "About Time."

Jones, a former assistant dean for graduate education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he worked to double minority enrollment, said if elected, he would focus on rebuilding Arkansas' infrastructure, investing in health care and education, and extending access to broadband in rural areas.

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He joins a handful of declared candidates on the Democratic side, including Anthony Bland, a teacher and the party's nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018. Meanwhile, two Republicans have also declared: Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is the daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee and who served as press secretary under then-President Donald Trump, and state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. (Jones' brother, Leon Jones Jr., announced in April he is running for the GOP nomination to replace Rutledge.)

Early polling and name recognition have given Sanders an edge, and Trump quickly endorsed her in January through his political action committee. Sanders has already raised nearly $5 million as she runs a campaign vowing to fight the "radical left" and federal government overreach.

Political observers say Jones, who is Black, could ride a wave of recent years in which people of color and from historically disenfranchised groups with limited political experience are getting elected to higher office.

"Jones is a native son. This is important because he's not seen as an outsider," said Najja Baptist, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Arkansas. "But what he'll have to do is take the opposite approach of a Sanders: galvanize small donors and build a multicultural coalition."

Black candidates for governor or any statewide race are rare in Arkansas — one ran for governor more than century ago — and the state has also never had a female governor, which would make the outcome of the 2022 election historic, said Heather Yates, an assistant political science professor at the University of Central Arkansas.

At the very least, Baptist said, this election may be a springboard to inspire a diverse group of people to run for office in a state that remains a conservative GOP stronghold.

"The question is how much of an impact can a young Black candidate make in this election, even if they don't win?" he said.