Just who is Christine Jones? That’s what Arizonans are asking as her bespectacled face pops up, with increasing frequency, on television and computer screens.
Is she the tech policy wonk who’s testified before Congress on everything from Internet censorship in China to intellectual property law? The wealthy civic activist who founded a non-profit organization to encourage voter participation? Or the hard-right anti-establishment gubernatorial upstart who’s cozied up to some of the state’s most controversial anti-illegal immigration crusaders?
The answer could help determine just how far Jones will go in her quest to be Arizona’s next governor, in a wide-open race that features nine Republicans and three Democrats vying to succeed Republican Jan Brewer. Jones is considered one of four serious GOP contenders, while Democrat Fred DuVal has the Democratic nomination all but locked up.
The Phoenix attorney and her deep pockets are shaking up the race.
Jones is much more chatty and engaging in person than her stern on-camera persona suggests. She tells OZY she’s a political outsider and successful business leader who has been moved by a groundswell of encouragement from Arizonans to run for office. Her opponents suggest she’s simply entitled and rich, posing as a social conservative to win over hardline primary voters.
Not up for debate: the Phoenix attorney and her deep pockets are shaking up the race. She’d already poured half-a-million dollars into her campaign by the end of last year. And her success or failure in the Aug. 26 primary could offer an important barometer on just how much immigration continues to animate Republicans in this border state, ground zero for America’s long-running brawl over policy towards illegal aliens.
Raised in Denver, the 45-year-old Jones bounced around the country with her husband, a U.S. Air Force captain, before landing in the Phoenix area more than 15 years ago. After working as a lawyer for five years, she joined a small, Scottsdale-based web hosting company as an in-house lawyer in 2002, well before a brash ad campaign made GoDaddy.com a household name. A decade later, GoDaddy had evolved into the world’s largest domain name registrar and Jones had climbed the ranks to general counsel and executive vice president. She left the company not long after its $2.25 billion sale to three private equity firms in 2011.
But until she began probing a gubernatorial run last year, Jones had zero political profile.
Mudslinging aside, it’s hard to find evidence of long-held conservative principles in Jones’ past.
“She jumped in and nobody knew anything about her,” says Professor David Berman, an expert on state politics at Arizona State University.
As Jones explains it, she was busy “becoming a CPA and a lawyer and working to grow a business.” Aside from her Internet policy work at GoDaddy, politics weren’t a big focus.
In that sense, she’s like a long line of successful businesspeople that have tried to make the leap to politics. Many — eBay’s Meg Whitman, WWE’s Linda McMahon, Godfather Pizza’s Herman Cain — have failed, but a few, like Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, have successfully trumped the political establishment.
Now the political neophyte is busy introducing herself. And subtle, her pitch is not.
Jones argues that the illegal immigration issue profoundly impacts her other top priorities — the economy and education — by stretching state resources thin.
The first thing that greets visitors to her web site — before even reaching the home page — is a request to sign a petition demanding secure borders. Last fall, she was videotaped singing (literally) the praises of controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose office has been convicted of racial profiling and other civil rights violations against Latinos.
Jones insists the criticism the event generated is much ado about nothing.
“I think you really have to peel back the sensationalism,” Jones said when asked about her support for Arpaio, saying she doesn’t know if there’s evidence Arpaio or his sheriff’s office really profiled people. And she says he should get credit for helping reduce crime in the populous Maricopa County, which has seen a big drop since 2002. Violent crime, however, went up under Arpaio, his critics have pointed out.
Meanwhile, an outside political group supporting Jones’ rival for the conservative mantle in the GOP primary, Arizona Treasurer Doug Ducey, has set up a Tumblr site labeled “The Real Christine Jones” and is airing ads accusing her of lying about her resume. Jones’ campaign has published a point-by-point rebuttal.
Mudslinging aside, it’s hard to find evidence of long-held conservative principles in Jones’ past. Her political donations in recent years have gone mainly to Republican moderates, including thousands for Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Florida Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist.
The attacks from the pro-Ducey camp nonetheless signal that Jones’ opponents view her as a threat, not the least because she seems prepared to spend millions on her campaign.
How resonant the immigration issue remains is also open to debate.
Congressman Matt Salmon, who’s been outspoken about the issue in the past, says its largely been settled at the state level. 2014 will be all about the economy, he predicts, given how the downturn hit Arizona “disproportionately harder than the rest of the country.”
Moderate Republicans have recently been reasserting themselves to bolster Arizona’s reputation in the business world, and to appeal to the state’s growing Hispanic vote. They successfully pushed back against a controversial proposal to allow Arizona businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
Even Arpaio, Berman says, is “just not the political force he once was.”
As she’s traveled around the state, she says illegal immigration remains “the single biggest issue everyone wants to talk about.” And Jones argues that the issue profoundly impacts her other top priorities — the economy and education — by stretching state resources thin.
As for the bad rap Arizona has gotten for being intolerant to Latinos? “Just completely bogus,” she says. “That to my mind is a branding issue.” And she’s certainly had experience helping build a brand.
The question is whether Arizonans are still buying what she’s selling.
Why you should care
Arizona has always been at the forefront of the debate over America’s broken immigration policy. This year’s crowded governor’s race will test just how much the issue still fires up the state’s voters.