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Ebola Response Puts Jenkins in Spotlight Again

After the first case of Ebola in the U.S. was confirmed in Dallas, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins has been thrust into the national spotlight.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins during "All Transportation is Local," part of The Texas Tribune Transportation Symposium on Oct. 17, 2013.

In the days before Sept. 30, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins was in full re-election mode, seeking campaign money ahead of a fundraising deadline as he works to keep his post as the highest elected official in the county’s government.

Then, the first U.S. case of the deadly Ebola virus was confirmed at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.

In an instant, Jenkins became the main public official leading on-the-ground emergency response efforts to contain the spread of the virus, which arrived in the U.S. months after it had begun ravaging several West African countries. Jenkins would steer the response locally working with the Dallas County health department, the Texas Department of State Health Services and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It was a daunting responsibility that Jenkins — a lawyer and Democrat elected in 2010 to the first public office he’s ever held — said he never imagined he would have to shoulder.

“Certainly, having the federal and state government ask you to run point on an Ebola outbreak is not anything you expect when you run for county judge,” Jenkins said this week in a phone interview from Dallas.

But much of Jenkins’ tenure has been unexpected, as he has not shied from speaking out on hot-button issues that have put him front and center on the state and national political stages. He has been vocal in his support of the federal Affordable Care Act. And this summer, he said the county would help house some unaccompanied minors coming from Central America and Mexico.

As county judge, Jenkins has budgetary and administrative authority over the county’s operations, but he is also responsible for homeland security and emergency management for Dallas County. It’s a role that requires him to oversee the county’s response to disasters and emergencies.

After health officials confirmed that Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national who traveled to Dallas to visit his family, had possibly exposed dozens of individuals to the virus, Jenkins said he spent the next few hours “whiteboarding” the next steps with his team. Up first: identifying every individual Duncan might have come in contact with; removing Duncan’s possibly virulent belongings from the family apartment he stayed at; and relocating Duncan's partner, Louise Troh, and three other family members still living in the apartment.

“There’s not an incident-in-a-box for the first Ebola outbreak in the United States,” Jenkins said. “I came into office during the worst recession since the Great Depression, and I thought the hardest thing would be to balance the budget without having to raise taxes because of the deficit. … Ironically, that turned out to be one of the easiest things I’ve had to do.”

In the last week, Jenkins has been constantly on the move, splitting his time between meetings, media briefings and visiting Duncan’s family members, who are quarantined in a temporary residence in an undisclosed area of Dallas.

Local officials actions’ have been scrutinized after it took several days to remove four family members from the apartment where Duncan — who died on Wednesday morning — stayed and to find a cleaning crew to dispose of Duncan’s belongings.

But Jenkins said they worked diligently to find a company that would take on the task of cleaning the apartment and a willing host for the family as fast as possible given the apprehension and misinformation surrounding Ebola.

Last Saturday, Jenkins personally drove the family to the new home after entering the apartment without any protective gear.

His intentions were to calm public fears about a possible outbreak, which is highly unlikely because the Ebola virus isn’t spread through the air. But the action generated enough criticism that Jenkins’ office sent out several statements from top health care officials confirming that Jenkins put no one at risk because the family members he drove have not shown any Ebola-like symptoms.

When Jenkins got word from the hospital about Duncan’s death on Wednesday morning, he drove back out to where Duncan's family was staying to break the news, bringing their pastor, George Mason, from Wilshire Baptist Church.

Those who have worked with Jenkins said such actions are unsurprising and emblematic of the type of person he is.

“When you look at some of the actions that he’s taken against the winds of public opinion, you know that he does it for what he perceives to be the right reason,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. “That’s Clay Jenkins, he looks out for the little person.”

Mason said the move demonstrated that Jenkins had been willing to accept the responsibility of county judge “with the highest standards.”

“He has exercised courage and wisdom at the same time. And because of his actions, he has dispelled false fears in the community and taught us to put our focus in the right place,” Mason said, adding that Duncan’s family consider him an “advocate” who has their “best interests at heart.”

As county judge, Jenkins has shown a penchant for pushing the envelope.

Jenkins has been a vocal supporter and advocate of the Affordable Care Act and has urged Texas legislators to extend Medicaid benefits to cover impoverished Texans. When a West Nile virus outbreak threatened the Dallas community in 2012, he pushed for the controversial aerial spraying of pesticides to kill the mosquitoes spreading the virus, which federal officials said proved effective. And amid this summer’s influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America and Mexico to the state, Jenkins announced that Dallas County would volunteer facilities to house thousands of these children despite criticism from Republicans who said he never asked for community input on the proposal.

At the time, Cathie Adams, president of the Tea Party-backed Texas Eagle Forum, questioned Jenkins’ intentions after he announced the plan at the Texas Democratic convention. She told CBS-DFW that he was “using it for his own political gain.”

Jenkins’ tenure has not come without scrutiny. Over the years, he’s worked to shed the nickname of embattled Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price’s “water boy,” which critics tagged him with when he first took office in 2011. They claimed Jenkins was doing Price’s bidding, pointing to what some have called a “controversial scheme” that ousted the county’s long-time elections administrator in favor of Price’s choice for the position. 

Jenkins came into office at a time when the demographics of Dallas County made it a beacon of hope for Democrats, who took over the county’s leadership positions after failing to pick up high county posts in Harris and Bexar counties.

While Republicans nabbed several Texas House seats in the 2010 election, straight-ticket Democratic voters, particularly black middle-class voters in the county’s southern suburbs, helped elect Jenkins and gave the county Commissioners Court, which the judge oversees, its first Democratic majority in nearly 30 years.

“Democrats across the state would be excited to see him take a more active role in running for higher office at some point,” said Will Hailer, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.

For now, Jenkins’ most immediate political aspiration is to win re-election in November. He is facing Ron Natinsky, a former Dallas City Council member with ties to the Dallas business community. Natinsky announced his intentions to run against Jenkins last year to get Dallas County “back on course” after it “veered dangerously off the right track” under Jenkins’ tenure.

Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said he was unsure whether Jenkins’ lead on the Ebola response could enhance his political prospects given the mixed reviews on the county’s initial handling of the Ebola case.

“He has sort of plodded through to more solid ground at this point, but you know, he hasn’t covered himself in glory in the whole thing,” Jillson said. “I think that’s representative of him as an understated personality.”

Jenkins said he’s focused on the task at hand with 48 people still left to monitor for possible contraction of the virus and fears in the community to qualm. He said he’s been humbled by the work his team and response partners have done, which seemed to remind him of the reason he first ran for county judge.

“I’m the first person in my family to have the opportunity to go to college,” Jenkins said. “I was very fortunate and very blessed in life. I wanted to do something to give back…”

He didn’t finish his statement. After a short break in a rapidly moving week, a member of his staff notified him it was time to head out for the nightly briefing at the county’s Incident Command Center.

“I’ve got to go,” Jenkins said.

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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