2020 Charlottean of the Year: N.C. Sen. Jeff Jackson
As the pandemic derailed his door-to-door campaign style, a young, charismatic state senator used social media to connect with his constituents
On a Saturday afternoon last spring, not long after the county stay-at-home order went into effect, I got a call from a 704 number I didn’t recognize. It was N.C. Senator Jeff Jackson, whom I’d never met, calling to ask how I was doing. He wanted to know if my family was staying healthy, if my fridge was stocked, if my kids were driving me crazy. It felt like a chat with a neighbor I hadn’t seen in a while.
Then I wondered, Would somebody go to the trouble of impersonating a state senator to make prank calls? Or is this really something Senator Jackson does in his spare time? I asked my co-editors, who both assured me that, yes, that’s just the kind of guy he is.
Jackson, 38, is an attorney, Army National Guard captain, and father of three. He’s the youngest Democratic state senator, and personal calls to his constituents in District 37 are on brand for him. “This year, my big plan was to knock on 10,000 doors,” he says. “That’s my campaign style. I started in January and hit 1,100 doors.” When coronavirus struck, he switched to phone calls. “I called people in an election mindset, but I ditched that real quick and switched to, ‘How are you doing? How is your family?’” he says. “The last thing people wanted was a campaign pitch.”
As the virus spread, Jackson’s Instagram page was the first place many of us went for news on school closures, Governor Cooper’s reopening phases, or where to find (or donate) face masks in Charlotte. “At first, I used (social media) because I was a young, broke politician, and I couldn’t afford TV commercials,” he says with a laugh. “Now it’s part of my job. Constituents want to hear from me on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. It’s their expectation that I’m on those platforms, so I’m using them to convey good information.”
He demonstrated his social media savvy during an ice storm in February 2015, when he live-tweeted from an empty Senate chamber because he was the only legislator to brave the icy roads and show up to work. Jackson had been in the Senate for less than a year; he was appointed to fill the remainder of Dan Clodfelter’s term, so he hadn’t even won an election yet. But his hashtag #JustOneLegislator and string of posts proved he knows how to deliver a political message in the digital age—which he did again in June, when he took to Twitter to challenge Charlotte-Mecklenburg police on why they tear-gassed nonviolent protesters uptown.
As roughly 200 demonstrators marched on a block of 4th Street in response to George Floyd’s murder, CMPD boxed them in, detonated tear gas from both ends of the street, and fired pepper balls near them. In a detailed post on Medium, Jackson broke down the incident with a series of photos and videos and shared updates from his conversations with Charlotte City Council members and CMPD. When he assures his constituents he’ll get to the bottom of something, we believe him.
Jackson was up for reelection in a year dominated by a presidential race, but for him, it’s a redistricting election, which has been his primary policy issue from day one. “Gerrymandering has been a huge problem in North Carolina for decades,” he says. “We can’t let politicians draw the districts anymore because every time they do, they cheat, and you’re deprived of a competitive election. It’s a corrupt system, and it’s indefensible from an ethical standpoint.”
He won’t say if a U.S. Senate run is in his future; at press time, his goal was to help Democrats retake legislative majorities in November—and for voters to raise their standards. “Take basic things like honesty and decency seriously, and treat them as voting issues,” he says. “Every time we lower our standards, crummy politicians love it. When we raise our standards, it cuts off their oxygen.”
On my second call with Jackson in four months, I ask him to name the most important quality in a political leader. I know he has an afternoon of calls ahead of him, but instead of giving me a rushed, rehearsed response, he pauses, then says, “You just have to like people.”
He sends his regards to my kids and wishes me luck on the home schooling. I know I’m one of at least 30 people he’ll speak to that day, but once again, Senator Jackson makes me feel like the most important one.
TAYLOR BOWLER is lifestyle editor of this magazine.