Behind The Scenes With Kristi Jones: Chief Of Staff To Governor Cooper


Jordan Meadows, Staff Writer

The chief of staff oversees executive branch operations and holds a position of parity with appointed Cabinet secretaries. It is common for the role to wield significant influence over policy matters within the administration and orchestrate the development of the administration’s policy goals while ensuring cohesion amidst diverse stakeholders.

Among these behind-the-scenes and important figures is Kristi Jones, the chief of staff for North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper. Jones comes from Sims, North Carolina, and completed her bachelor’s degree in political science at N.C. Central University before going on to earn a law degree from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

After law school, she spent a few years at the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC), started by civil rights leader Leon Howard Sullivan, focusing on the creation of job skills training opportunities for African Americans.

Jones worked briefly for the OIC of Wilson and was then promoted to executive director of the OIC in Greenville where she gained experience working with the board of directors and improving her management skills.

“I think what helped me is one, to understand the value of nonprofits in the world’s advancement: nonprofits do tremendous work,” Jones said. “Secondly, it also taught me a lot about workforce development; you’ve got to teach people skills to get them ready for the workforce.”

Under the mentorship of her uncle, Howard Jones, Kristi’s leadership qualities flourished, earning her recognition across her community.

Jones’ entry into politics commenced during Democratic Governor Jim Hunt’s 1996 re-election campaign, where she served as the deputy political director. This association laid the foundation for a longstanding partnership, with Jones proving to be a key advisor to both Governor Hunt and, subsequently, to Governor Cooper.

Jones spent approximately a year working in the employee relations section in the human resources division of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services before assuming the role of executive director for the Governor’s Initiative on Race Relations.

“It taught me a lot about employee satisfaction, keeping employees happy, and making sure things were done in a consistent manner,” Jones said. “Gov. Hunt had this idea: always wanting to improve race relations.”

Following her tenure in the Hunt administration, Jones transitioned to Governor Cooper’s team during his 2000 campaign for attorney general. With insight into Cooper’s reputation as a state legislator and Senate majority leader, Jones’s familial connections with the Cooper family in neighboring Nash County further facilitated her integration into the campaign.

Navigating effortlessly from campaign politics to governance, Kristi’s tenure within the Cooper administration has been characterized by a consistent rise, mirroring the trajectory of Cooper. Serving as the first African American chief of staff at the N.C. Department of Justice, and later as the co-chair of Governor Cooper’s gubernatorial campaign, Jones diligently worked towards the realization of Cooper’s vision at every step.

In December 2016, newly-elected Governor Cooper named Jones as his chief of staff, making history as North Carolina’s first African-American woman to hold the esteemed position of gubernatorial chief of staff.

“Kristi simply gets things done. We’ve worked together for a long time. She is tenacious about doing the right thing,” Governor Cooper said at the time of the appointment.

Jones elaborated on her process of translating the governor’s future visions and goals into actionable steps and assignments, outlining who needs to do what to achieve these objectives and bring the vision to life.

“Sometimes I call myself an air traffic controller because I’m doing all these things: making sure no two issues collide and that we’re all working together,” Jones said.

“One of the things the governor wanted for a healthier North Carolina was for us to expand Medicaid and so, we created a strategy,” Jones said. “The chief of staff remains behind the scenes getting things done, and I’m okay that nobody knows me. What I want people to know is the good work Governor Cooper did, but also to build on the results.”

Regarding how her office remains attuned to the prevailing sentiments and concerns within the community, especially among marginalized groups such as low-income and minority communities who may feel underrepresented, Jones explained the methods employed to maintain transparency and accountability within the governor’s office.

“I think it starts with who you have around the table,” Jones said. “When you start talking about these things, people who are from those communities sit at the table, and so they know and understand what their community wants and needs, so it starts there… And then all of us are individually connected to these communities: I am a part of those communities.”

She proudly highlighted Governor Cooper’s establishment of an office for public engagement and inclusion, which facilitates direct communication with communities across the state. She also stressed that the governor ensures informed decision-making by continuously gathering information on the potential impacts of various ideas and policies, enabling her team to make well-informed choices.

Numerous initiatives are underway simultaneously, and she describes her role as overseeing their progress. She elaborates on how any occurrence, such as a recent storm in Gaston County, can alter the trajectory of her daily agenda, priorities, and concentration, adapting as necessary based on urgency and requirements.

“We have to turn our attention to what’s happening in North Carolina: it can’t just be what you want to deal with, it has to be what’s happening on the ground.”

She mentioned that her team, referred to fondly as “Team Cooper,” prioritizes daily check-ins with a focus on safety first. Following that, they address other measures such as Medicaid numbers, clean energy initiatives, and reentry and rehabilitation programs.

“All the things the governor wants to accomplish, we have teams that are working on it, and I feel like my job is just to check in with the team… making sure they’re good because one person in one lane is not going to get us to where we need to go.”

She expresses that although challenges exist, she views them as integral to the strategy for accomplishing any task amidst a variety of diverse opinions, preferences, and ideas. As chief of staff, she considers navigating these dynamics as part of the job, not as something impeding her from doing it.

Jones references the proposed expansion of the private school voucher program, noting its altered focus on the governor’s mission to enhance public schools and increase teacher salaries.

“The governor talks about what great things are happening in our public schools, but he also will say that we can’t just turn away from them, we have to continue to invest. Everything that is great you must continue to invest in,” Jones said.

Kristi Jones sees her role as chief of staff as more than just administrative tasks; it represents a profound responsibility in shaping North Carolina’s future. Her appointment marks a shift towards greater diversity and expertise in state leadership, securing her place in history. As she ponders the future beyond Governor Cooper’s final term, her dedication to realizing his vision for a fairer, more prosperous North Carolina remains unbreakable.

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