It had been a rough 72 hours for Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins — even if he wouldn’t admit it.
In the middle of managing a hundred-year global pandemic, last week he found himself locked in a political tug-of-war with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott over the use of a military-operated hospital to treat recovering coronavirus patients and his own county commissioners, who had just limited his extraordinary authority to manage the crisis.
Since Jenkins first learned a month ago that the new coronavirus was spreading through Dallas among people who had not traveled outside the state, he has sought to limit its reach. He has said he has knowingly sacrificed a booming economy in the state’s second-most populous county to save people’s lives.
Each urgent step he has taken — often ahead of the rest of the state — has been informed by his faith, science and experience gleaned from a decade of managing complex public health crises such as West Nile and Ebola, say those who know him.
Jenkins, a Democrat first elected to the role in 2010, has emerged as a decisive leader whose restrictions — including a stay-in-place order — have led the regional response to the pandemic. The crisis also has highlighted the obscure role of the county judge, whose job as the area’s top elected official is to oversee emergencies.
The 56-year-old lawyer and small-business owner has been championed by health care experts and hospital CEOs for his proactive response to the pandemic. Meanwhile, his own commissioners have criticized him for acting unilaterally.
Commissioner John Wiley Price has been the most forceful, demanding rule changes to allow residents access to quick cash. And last weekend, Jenkins’ public showdown with Abbott over the makeshift hospital at downtown’s Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center exposed a lack of communication between different levels of government at a critical time.
In about three weeks, Jenkins will face his next big challenge: Persuading county commissioners to prolong the current stay-at-home rules when they expire on April 30. Health experts are already suggesting that people will have to continue to isolate to keep the virus from spreading.
As he walked through his neighborhood Tuesday before dinner, Jenkins reflected on the events of the past few weeks: “I made my peace with my role in this, which is to listen to the scientists and then act decisively to save as many lives as possible and end this as quickly as possible.”
Jenkins’ order to stay at home has disrupted his own life. Rather than working downtown at the historic county administration building next to the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza, he hosts conference calls from a small, circular table near a window at his northwest Dallas home. He sits in front of two tablets, the morning paper and Ella, the 8-month-old cat he adopted from the SPCA of Texas.
On the other end of the phone are business, civic and faith leaders, city, state and federal governments, and a network of contacts from across the country who are sharing ideas, tips and the latest predictions on how bad the pandemic can get.
When he’s not on conference calls, he steals walks with his 87-year-old mother, whom he moved into his home in March as the threat of the virus became apparent. He reads the Bible to his wife and daughter every night. And on weekends, when he has an unscheduled 30 minutes, he plays a digital version of Monopoly with his sister and niece who live across town.
“I like people, I like being around people, and I haven’t seen many,” Jenkins said, reflecting on how his routines have changed as he’s pushed for extreme social distancing. “This whole thing sucks.”
In Jenkins’ first four-year term as county judge, he faced a pair of crises that in hindsight seem like dry runs for the coronavirus pandemic: West Nile and Ebola.
After less than two years on the job, Jenkins led the charge against West Nile virus. North Texas was the epicenter of the 2012 outbreak, recording over 1,000 cases and 19 deaths— more than any other region. Like the new coronavirus, the symptoms of West Nile range from minor — a fever or headache — to severe — tremors or paralysis. There is no known cure.
As the number of cases grew, Jenkins supported spraying insecticides from the air to kill mosquitoes that carried the virus, a change in decades-old policy. Previously, the chemicals were sprayed from the ground.
The decision put him at odds with a vocal minority of environmentalists and beekeepers, nervous residents who said they lacked information and black leaders in southern Dallas, including Price, a Democrat often considered one of the most powerful politicians in North Texas.
Price and his allies worried about whether spraying would hurt the black community, which has historically borne the brunt of poor public health decisions. Price and others came around after the tactic proved successful.
Two years later, Jenkins catapulted onto the national scene when he became the first American politician to manage a spread of Ebola, a deadly virus that killed 11,000 people in West Africa between 2014 and 2016.
The incident paralyzed the region as a massive surveillance effort was underway to track those who had come in contact with Thomas Eric Duncan, who traveled to Dallas from Liberia, developed symptoms and died. Two nurses who treated Duncan tested positive and recovered.
As he is doing now, Jenkins held regular news conferences, stressed a compassionate community-wide response and relied heavily on public health officials and doctors. He made national headlines after he drove members of Duncan’s family from their apartment to a temporary home where they would be monitored for signs of Ebola.
“He got a very good idea of what epidemiologists do and what disease detective work is,” said Diana Cervantes, an epidemiologist at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. She worked at the state health department in 2014 and assisted Jenkins during the Ebola emergency. “He really appreciates the work that it takes to keep public health going.”
Cervantes and others interviewed this week by The Dallas Morning News believe the decision to keep people at home came easier for Jenkins than other elected officials because of his work on West Nile and Ebola.
He learned that federal and state support would be slow to materialize — if at all.
Jenkins understands that “we can’t rely on anybody but ourselves to make sure that we’re doing the very best to put in good prevention-control measures and be out and open with the public,” she said. “He knows it’s very clearly his responsibility as the county judge.”
‘Tell me why I’m wrong’
Sunday, March 22, started off like most days for Jenkins — with a morsel of inspiration from a website that highlights select Bible verses: “My divine power will give you all you need to live a good life.”
He texted the Scripture to an expanding list of advisers helping him manage his response to the exponential threat posed by the coronavirus, just as he had done every day before.
At 8:30 a.m. he hosted a conference call with a small group of public health experts and doctors. He wanted to run an idea by them: If Abbott, Texas’ Republican governor, failed to issue a statewide stay-at-home order — limiting movement to the most necessary workers and errands such as grocery shopping — Jenkins would do so in Dallas.
At the time, few local governments, let alone states, had taken such drastic measures. The ones that had — California, New York, Illinois — had many more confirmed cases than Dallas County or Texas of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Dr. Mark Casanova, president of the Dallas County Medical Society, recently recalled that phone call when Jenkins said: “This is what I’m thinking. Shoot me down. Tell me why I’m wrong.”
No one could, Casanova said.
Nine hours later, Dallas County’s top executive, who earns $198,493 a year, announced his decision — setting off a cascade of similar orders adopted by counties around the state. And ultimately Abbott would do mostly the same, though he took great care to distance himself from the terminology “stay-at-home.”
In the three weeks since, Jenkins has generally received high marks for his handling of the crisis. In his corner are the heads of hospitals, powerful business associations, unions and faith leaders.
While Jenkins moves with a sense of urgency, he is equally holistic, they said, thinking through how his orders will affect workers, houses of worship and the most vulnerable. During an April 5 news conference, he pitched a digital food drive, netting the North Texas Food Bank $80,000 in a single Sunday afternoon — an unusual sum, the food bank said.
“He’s going to look at all facets of an emergency and if there is a way he can help, he’s going to make sure it gets done,” said Trisha Cunningham, the food bank’s CEO.
Mark York, secretary-treasurer for the AFL-CIO of Dallas, has worked with Jenkins during the past three weeks to help establish rules to protect grocery clerks, construction crews and truck drivers.
“It brought me security and comfort knowing there is someone in the corner of working families,” York said. “He assured us he’d do everything he can to protect the people of Dallas County. He puts the ‘lead’ in leadership.”
Jenkins’ wide support is a decade in the making, said Bishop T.D. Jakes, who counseled the judge as he wrestled with how to pause church services that attract tens of thousands on any given Sunday — a decision made more difficult with the many religious holidays in spring. Since Jenkins was first elected, he has built alliances in all corners of Dallas County and the country.
“He didn’t just start respecting us when the pandemic started,” Jakes said. “He has a longstanding relationship interacting with us ahead of time. Those relationships become priceless in times of crisis. You can’t begin a relationship in a firestorm.”
Clash with commissioners
On March 12, when Jenkins announced his local disaster declaration at the beginning of the crisis, it afforded him the broad powers to close county buildings, shut down businesses and limit movement.
His own colleagues, incensed that they have not been consulted on his decisions, took the extraordinary step last week to curtail some of Jenkins’ powers as county judge, requiring him to gain their approval when tweaking minor rules for businesses and extending the county’s stay-at-home order on April 30.
Just as they clashed in 2012 and many times since, Jenkins and Price have sparred over the county’s stay-at-home order. Price has argued it will exacerbate well-established racial inequities between the county’s residents.
“I’m getting my butt kicked for the decisions you’re making on the fly,” Price yelled to a nearly empty room at the county commissioners’ headquarters downtown during a pitched four-hour meeting on April 7. Jenkins — who has consistently acknowledged the economic hardship brought on by the pandemic — joined by telephone.
Commissioner Theresa Daniel, a fellow Democrat, and J.J. Koch, a Republican, also stressed the need to be included in decisions.
“There is a level of experience at this table that has not been utilized,” Daniel, who represents most of central and eastern Dallas, said during the meeting.
In an interview after the meeting, Price said: “I just need reasonableness to prevail. I know Israel wanted a king. But they elected county commissioners, as well as the county judge. Right now, we all have some input.”
After the meeting, Jenkins downplayed the frustration his peers have expressed for weeks, saying that they agree on most decisions and that he is already doing what they’ve asked. Shortly after, he provided the commissioners court updated orders allowing them sufficient time to call a special meeting if they wanted to weigh in before those guidelines became public.
No such meeting was called.
Tussling with Texas’ governor
Before the pandemic, Jenkins used Twitter and other social media sporadically. Now, he tweets throughout the day: updates on his orders, new data on confirmed cases, the occasional word of inspiration.
Since late February, he has added more than 20,000 followers.
Just as Jenkins has used the medium to share news with constituents, he’s also used it to exert pressure on his peers, including Abbott. During the early weeks of the emergency, he regularly called on Abbott to do more. And when Abbott issued his statewide order, Jenkins was quick to take credit.
On April 5, an Abbott aide sent Jenkins a blistering letter, demanding to know why Jenkins told a federal official he had no plans to use a Navy-staffed hospital set up at the Dallas convention center and warned that the federal government would move the resources if he didn’t clear things up.
When the governor’s office leaked the letter and a military official’s voicemail that raised doubts about the county’s plans for the pop-up hospital, political observers saw that as retaliation. Even Jenkins said at his afternoon news conference, where he denied ever saying Dallas wouldn’t use the hospital, to “read between the lines.”
Longtime Republican political strategist Vinny Minchillo, who has advised both former President George W. Bush and U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, said Jenkins’ tangle with Abbott was “at best unfortunate.”
“Judge Jenkins has made a name for himself, he’s good in disaster,” Minchillo said. “Naturally, people have turned to him. He’s shown a lot of leadership. He’s been aggressive on this.”
Minchillo added that Jenkins has been able to “throw sharp elbows” deftly without coming off as a bully. But there’s a line he shouldn’t cross — especially if there’s even a small chance he wants to run for higher office.
“Keep politics out of it as much as possible,” he said. “Getting into it with the governor is not good.”
Speculation has swirled about Jenkins’ political future. His growing fan base on social media regularly encourages him to run for governor. “My head is on the mission,” Jenkins responds to the suggestion. “And getting this nightmare all over with.”
Returning to the tiff at hand, Jenkins said he has since had a “pleasant” conversation with Abbott’s team.
“We’ll do what we can to work on that relationship to the extent we can,” Jenkins said. “There are so many things I have to do at once. My focus is on the mission, and I don’t want anything to pull us away from the mission.
“The lives we save are going to be Democrats and Republicans and independents, and people who never think about voting.”