Life Lessons: Jeff Jackson

The unknown prosecutor who became the politician who went viral


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PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER TAYLOR

JEFF JACKSON is not your typical politician. For starters, he’s just 33. And the North Carolina state senator who represents District 37 (about one-half of Mecklenburg County) found his way to office by an unusual process. In the two years he’s served in the state legislature, he’s become an outspoken member on social media. He is so anti-HB2 that his Twitter avatar is plastered with the hashtag #WeAreNotThis, and his use of the “Crying Jordan” meme after the NBA pulled the All-Star from Charlotte was praised by Deadspin. 

Jackson faces his first opposed election in November against pharmacist and Vietnam War veteran Bob Diamond, a Republican who supports HB2. We talked to Jackson recently about his approach to social media and how his life has changed in the two years since former Charlotte mayor Patrick Cannon was arrested on corruption charges. Here he is, in his words (edited for clarity and space).

I WAS A CRIMINAL PROSECUTOR and I was finishing court one day (in March 2014) and a defense attorney came up and said, “Jeff, did you hear the news?” I said, “No, what happened?” He said that the mayor of Charlotte has just been arrested by the FBI. And I said, “That’s amazing.” And then I just went on about my day, and didn’t think that it would ever have anything to do with me.

BUT SURE ENOUGH, we needed a new mayor. They wanted someone from outside of city council, and they picked my state senator, Dan Clodfelter. And then we needed a new Dan Clodfelter.

AS A PROSECUTOR, something I learned was that very few of the people I encountered were truly evil people. Almost everyone involved in the criminal justice system is there because they didn’t graduate from high school (or) they have an untreated mental illness or substance abuse problems. ... I realized that I could go into the district attorney’s office and do my absolute best for the next 30 years, and that would be dwarfed by the impact on people’s lives from passing one good bill. As soon as I realized that, I knew I had to run.

THE WAY WE FILL vacancies in North Carolina is the leaders of whatever party the departing legislator belonged to pick the replacement. Out of 49 people, I got 25 votes.

I INHERITED Dan Clodfelter’s unopposed seat, but I ran a full campaign in 2014 anyway. I knocked on 2,500 doors and just let people know who I was.

I’M IN THE NATIONAL GUARD, too. That’s one weekend a month, two weeks a year, as they say in the commercial. … I’ve been in for 13 years. I’ll probably stick with it for as long as they’ll have me. Officers typically don’t have enlistment contracts. I started out as an enlisted soldier. I enlisted after September 11 and then I went to Afghanistan as an enlisted soldier.

NONE OF THIS was Marisa’s (his wife’s) idea. … We’d like to have more kids, so we’re just going to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I try to tell her that at this point in our lives, we’re really not supposed to be taking fancy vacations or buying nice things for ourselves.

MY 15 MINUTES of fame came less than a year into office. In February 2015, there was a big snowstorm in Raleigh, and when I showed up that morning, the security guard said, “Senator, you’re the only legislator we’ve seen today.” And as soon as she said that, I knew what I had to do.

I (TWEETED OUT) a list of things that I thought would represent a true bipartisan agenda. It wasn’t a left-wing list or a right-wing list. The idea was if our General Assembly actually represented the will of the people in this purple state, what would that agenda look like? And so I started letting the world know via Twitter that we were making progress in North Carolina. We were expanding early childhood education, we were raising teacher pay to the national average, we were making investments in solar technology and wind technology. These are areas that the vast majority of the state supports, but because of the political situation, very little progress is being made.

AS SOON AS legislators get elected, they tend to see how Republican or how Democrat they can be. There’s very little compromise—despite the fact that when you catch them in their office and you’re having a private conversation, there’s an enormous amount of common ground.

RIGHT NOW it’s considered a novelty for politicians to be on social media. But social media is how most of my constituents want to interact with me, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I make provocative posts on Twitter.

FOR INSTANCE, the Crying Jordan meme after the NBA All-Star game was pulled from Charlotte. I posted a photo of Crying Jordan hugging Governor Pat McCrory and the words, “When you realize HB2 is your legacy.” I don’t remember how I got the idea, exactly. I think I thought that this is something (Michael) Jordan would actually cry about. This is not an exaggeration of the Crying Jordan. It just struck me as the rare fair use of that meme.

I’VE BEEN USING social media as an elected official for a couple of years now, and every once in awhile, I’ll be really surprised by how popular something becomes. Last I saw, it had been retweeted over 1,000 times. Those aren’t Kardashian numbers, but for a local politician with 8,000 followers, those are pretty big numbers.

I WISH THE NBA would have stood in solidarity with Charlotte. Legally, there was nothing the city could do. HB2 put Charlotte in a straightjacket. There was no wiggle room for the city as far as reaching a compromise.

THAT WAS A BAD DAY, the day the All-Star game was taken away. But the actual bill passing was much worse. That was my worst day so far in the legislature.

SOMETIMES YOU STRUGGLE to focus on the positive. There are hard days. But at the end of the day, my consolation is I’m half their age and the world is turning in my direction. The cavalry’s coming in. I don’t know exactly when they’re going to get here. But my job is to hang on until they do. 

THE BIGGEST SURPRISE I’ve seen in office is how much both sides agree in private. On the one hand, that’s encouraging because it means we all live on the same planet Earth. On the other hand, it’s discouraging because so much of the political rhetoric is just for show. And it’s a function of gerrymandering, like everything. What we need to do is instead of having a system that empowers either the left wing or the right wing, have a system where you’re beholden to the general population of the state. Which is not a radical concept. It’s basic Jeffersonian democracy we’re talking about.

THE COOL THING about North Carolina is it’s a true 50-50 state. We should be able to have bipartisan conversations that produce a bipartisan agenda in this state. And that’s what I’m hanging on for. It’s not the day when my side gets to win every fight. It’s the day when both sides have to actually listen to each other and care about each other. And it’s inevitable.

JODIE VALADE is a freelance journalist who recently moved to Charlotte from Cleveland, where she lived for 12 years. Email her at jovalade@gmail.com, or follow her on Twitter: @JodieValade.


This article appears in the October 2016 issue of Charlotte Magazine

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