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Local Government

How Clay Jenkins Manages a Pandemic From Home

From his Bluffview house, the county judge Zooms to the aid of 2.6 million people.
By Peter Simek |
Kevin Goodbar

One of the first decisions Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins made as the pandemic spread into the United States was to move his 87-year-old mother out of her assisted living facility and into his home in Bluffview.

On a sunny Tuesday in mid-April, I also find myself at Jenkins’ house, sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch, worried that I might unwittingly spread the coronavirus to the man responsible for the health of Dallas County’s 2.6 million residents—or, even worse, infect his mother. A week earlier, I had asked Jenkins’ chief of staff if the judge would give me a glimpse into how he was managing the response to the greatest health and economic crisis in Dallas history at a time when people were not allowed to leave their homes. I thought I might be looped in on a couple of Zoom meetings. To my surprise, Jenkins said I should just come over. We should be fine, he said, as long as we stayed outside and maintained social distance.

Leading the response to a pandemic from home, it turns out, is like managing air traffic control through an iPhone. The judge is in gray corduroys, white New Balance running shoes, and a navy windbreaker with the words “Emergency Management” on the back. He rocks in his chair as he fields an endless stream of conference calls.

There’s an emergency responders call, a daily call with the staff of the Dallas city manager’s office, a check-in with heads of area hospitals, and calls to local labor and business leaders whom Jenkins wants to include on an economic recovery task force. There are calls about procuring N95 masks, expanding testing sites, stocking food banks, and communicating best practices for disinfecting golf carts. We take a break from the porch and stroll around his leafy neighborhood. Neighbors approach (and get closer than 6 feet) to thank the judge for his leadership. Then the director of Dallas County Health and Human Services, Dr. Philip Huang, calls with his daily briefing on infection rates.

“Unfortunately, we are going to have a lot of deaths today,” Jenkins says, taking a sip of iced tea from a large metal mug.

Jenkins was a political nobody when the personal injury lawyer from Waxahachie came into office, even though his mother was friends with Texas Gov. Ann Richards and former Dallas mayor and U.S. Ambassador Ron Kirk recruited him to run. Jenkins lost his father when he was 7 and grew up a latchkey kid, as he puts it. He lived a reckless youth before getting badly hurt in a car crash on a snowy Thanksgiving Day in 1993. Jenkins broke his neck, suffered a traumatic brain injury, and nearly died, but his recovery initiated a personal transformation and a slow rise to politics through social work and community service.

Jenkins has a folksy drawl, expressionless face, and rigid gait that belie a swaggering self-confidence. His self-assurance is born, in part, from his surprisingly deep experience quarterbacking epidemic responses. In 2012, not long after he was elected the county’s top executive, Jenkins took heat for ordering spraying for mosquitoes to combat the outbreak of West Nile virus. He still believes it was the right call.

When Ebola arrived, in 2014, Jenkins personally drove the family of Dallas’ patient zero to temporary housing while their Vickery Meadow apartment was disinfected by men in hazmat suits. He says he had to demonstrate that he believed his health experts when they told him he wasn’t in any danger of getting infected.

Jenkins’ strategy during COVID-19 has been to whistle a similar tune: follow the science, communicate it clearly to the public, and lead by example. But COVID-19 is a far more complicated health emergency than West Nile and Ebola. After COVID-19 began to overwhelm the healthcare systems in Seattle and New York, he knew it was only a matter of time before it reached Dallas. Over the first few weeks of March, Jenkins hired additional staff and began coordinating with county health officials and local hospitals to expand ventilator capacity and secure personal protective equipment. Then, with only 131 total cases reported in the county, Jenkins ordered the lockdown.

Dallas was the first county in Texas to shut down in response to the virus, but the rest of the state soon followed Jenkins’ lead. He believes the timing of his shelter-in-place order gave Dallas a three-week head start over the coasts. The number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continued to rise—gradually but steadily. But the county’s hospitals never ran short of beds or ventilators, which might suggest that Jenkins’ swift action helped “flatten the curve” of the infection rate. But as the state shut down, the economy tanked.

Within a few weeks, the scope and scale of Jenkins’ decision to shut down Dallas became clear. The pandemic wasn’t merely a public health emergency; it was an economic catastrophe. And Jenkins’ role in shaping the state’s response to the crisis turned the 56-year-old Democrat into one of the most high-profile—and polarizing—public figures in Texas.

The judge’s supporters bought t-shirts sold by the restaurant Goodfriend with the phrase “Listen to Clay Jenkins” printed on the back, while detractors took to social media to accuse him of an assault on individual liberty. “Social distancing is anti-human,” the parody account @JenkinsSucks tweeted. “They’re asking us to stop being human.”

On the April morning of my visit with Jenkins, the backlash was only beginning to percolate beneath the surface of the crisis. Over the weekend, Gov. Greg Abbott threatened in a letter to remove federal troops who had set up a pop-up hospital at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, which the governor claimed wasn’t needed. The public flap was further complicated when Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson issued a statement that criticized the judge.

As we sat around an outdoor dining table on his backyard patio, next to his pool, Jenkins was trying to get a straight answer from the hospitals about whether they needed extra beds. The hospitals, however, hemmed and hawed, perhaps afraid to upset the politicians. Jenkins was frustrated. “With Rick Perry,” Jenkins says, “I would call his cellphone.”

County Judge Clay Jenkins, photographed in his office. (Photo by Elizabeth Lavin)

Pandemics are as much communication problems as they are public health challenges. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Field Epidemiology Manual lays out guidelines for how leaders should communicate with the public. Scientific information and safety recommendations will inevitably shift during a crisis, the manual says, as research progresses, initial hypotheses are proven wrong, or the virus mutates. Leaders should not over-reassure or overpromise. The CDC suggests that governments designate a doctor as a lead spokesperson, someone who can become the face of the public response. A doctor can build trust and empathy with the public by reassuring them that the response is based in science, not politics.

In Dallas, however, Jenkins took on the spokesperson role, with Dr. Huang serving as his scientific sidekick. Huang says he and the judge never talked about how they would organize the response. But they did have a conversation in which the pair agreed that whatever choices they made would be guided by science. “I remember early on, when we first talked, we said that we need to be able to look at ourselves at the end of the day and say we did the right thing and we saved lives,” Huang says.

Jenkins describes his approach to communication this way: “I use this analogy when talking to people. You go to Grandma’s house, and she’s lost 20 pounds and her hands are shaking, and you say, ‘What’s wrong, Grandma?’ And she says, ‘Grandma’s fine. Don’t worry.’ Do you not worry about Grandma? No, you worry more.”

I ask him to explain the analogy.

“More transparency is better than less transparency,” he says. “People can handle the information.”

In late May, I log in to one of Jenkins’ daily Zoom staff meetings, and it appears the politicization of the pandemic is beginning to take its toll. Many of Jenkins’ staff have been working long hours and have hardly had a day off since early March.

The team is also smaller than it was at the beginning of the crisis. With approval from county commissioners, Jenkins had hired three people to help manage the pandemic, but after eight weeks the commissioners reversed course, ending the arrangement. Jenkins starts the call in his living room, then proceeds to the kitchen, where he pours a bowl of Cheerios, then takes his breakfast out to the patio. He calls on each staff member for an update. The concerns from the field mostly revolve around navigating the confusion created by contradicting state and federal reopening orders.

Jenkins remains upbeat, almost jovial, joking with his staff and clapping and cheering when they have good news. One staff member says she is putting together a video message for preschool children about wearing masks, and Jenkins volunteers to participate. Since Abbott effectively stripped Jenkins of his executive authority over issuing COVID-19 regulation, the judge and his team have shifted from regulations to a strategy based on effective communication.

They created a color-coded guide to warn residents of the health risks of leaving their homes and patronizing certain businesses, regardless of the governor’s reopening. “You can’t put forth rules, but you can call on people to be reasonable and gracious toward one another,” Jenkins says. “You gotta communicate with them in such a way that they’re empowered to make the right decisions and they feel a part of it and that they want to make the right decisions.”

In addition to the preschool video, Jenkins has recorded video messages encouraging graduating high school seniors to think of their mothers and grandmothers, who are more vulnerable to the virus, before congregating to celebrate.

To promote social distancing over Memorial Day weekend, Jenkins hosted a Zoom happy hour with Texas celebrities ranging from Dallas Maverick Dwight Powell to former U.S. Congressman Beto O’Rourke. The PR moves—coupled with his tussling with the governor—have not only extended Jenkins’ health safety messaging beyond the lifespan of his shelter-in-place order, but they have also raised Jenkins’ public profile. That has led to speculation about the judge following in O’Rourke’s footsteps, emerging from the pandemic as the next Democratic darling in the fight to turn Texas blue. 

Jenkins brushes off questions about higher office (his second term expires in 2022, though there are no term limits on the county judge). People close to Jenkins struggle to understand his political ambitions.

“I know others have often wondered why Clay hasn’t run for something else. He’s clearly built the portfolio necessary to do other things,” says Miguel Solis, former chair of the Dallas ISD school board and mayoral candidate. He was one of the three whom Jenkins brought in to be on his expanded pandemic response team, before his fellow commissioners forbade it. “But I honestly think one of the biggest reasons why [he doesn’t run for higher office] is because of the unique power that the county executive has. He has the capacity to lead, specifically in times of crisis, which has happened in Dallas fairly frequently. He thrives on the idea of leadership.”

“You can’t put forth rules, but you can call on people to be reasonable and gracious toward one another.

County Judge Clay Jenkins

The kind of leadership that animates Jenkins is the kind that reaps few political rewards. Averting disaster means making unpopular choices. Success means returning to the way things were before the crisis or, as is the case with COVID-19, shepherding the public into an uncomfortable and uneasy new normal.

As D Magazine went to press in early June, the daily numbers of new cases and deaths in the county were hitting new highs, while hospital admissions and bed capacities remained flat. The numbers may reflect the impact of the governor’s reopening order, or they could be related to other factors. That’s another challenge with pandemics: uncertainty is baked into the epidemiological equation. If the death toll rises or the economy fails to recover, Jenkins may appear vindicated, but no one would call that a win. If the reopening goes well, people will wonder whether Jenkins’ drastic early steps were necessary. The reality is we may never know if Jenkins’ moves were the right ones.

On that April afternoon, however, Jenkins doesn’t have time to think about any of that. He spends much of the afternoon trying (and failing) to reach the governor’s chief of staff and the Dallas mayor to discuss the convention center, and now he finds himself running late. At 3:30, he disappears into the house, where he loses the New Balances and reemerges in his uniform: a sharp blue suit with an American flag lapel pin. Jenkins jumps into his GMC Yukon and heads toward the Dallas County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, in West Dallas.

I follow in my car, but as Jenkins speeds down Inwood Road, weaving in and out of traffic, I struggle to keep up. I’m not sure what the big hurry is. If Jenkins is a few minutes late to his daily public briefing, everyone will understand. After all, he is simply going to repeat the routine he has followed nearly every day since March. At 4 pm, he will go to the mic, read the latest infection statistics and death toll, and then pass it to Huang for an update on the scientific information. When Huang has finished, Jenkins will return to the mic to translate the science into a few understandable takeaways, field questions from reporters, and try once again to reassure an anxious public that, in Dallas County at least, there’s a steady hand on the wheel.

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