Danny Jones has a long résumé, but it’s being mayor that suits him best.
photographed by Carla Witt Ford
On June 15, 2015, elected officials, members of the public, and journalists crammed into the dark wood-paneled council chambers at Charleston City Hall to watch Kanawha Circuit Judge Todd Kaufman administer the oath of office to Mayor Danny Jones. He had been reelected just a few weeks earlier, carrying 62 percent of the vote over Democrat candidate Paul Monroe and independent challenger William Carpenter.
Although the swearing-in ceremony carried much less pomp and circumstance than a presidential or gubernatorial inauguration, it was a historic occasion for Charleston. Once Jones said “so help me God,” he officially began his fourth term as mayor, the longest tenure in city history. It was a milestone for Jones, too. With 13 years under his belt—and three more to go—he has spent more time as mayor of Charleston than at any other job in his life.
Since he returned to his hometown after a two-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, which included some time driving a truck in Vietnam, and a yearlong stay at Marshall University, where he studied political science, Danny Jones has worked as a bartender, bouncer, cook, waiter, gravedigger, bottled water salesman, restaurant owner, public relations man, county sheriff, state delegate, and radio talk show host, among other gigs. By his count, Jones has held 35 jobs in his 65 years.
Political opponents criticized him for this when he first ran for mayor in 2003. They said Jones, the Republican nominee, wouldn’t have the attention span necessary to run a city government. After he won that race with more than 57 percent of the vote, his Democratic opponent Chris Smith came to congratulate him and offer a word of advice. He told Jones, “I want you to stick with this.”
Little did Smith—or anyone else—realize how well the mayor’s office would fit Jones. “Some people are suited for a job, and some people aren’t. This is a job that he is more than suited for,” says Charleston Councilwoman Mary Jean Davis. “It’s one he can get out and move around, or sit behind a desk and face a challenge. He loves challenges.”
There have been lots of challenges since Jones took over. His administration has faced budget problems, legal battles, and deadly tragedies. Jones was mayor during one of the worst environmental disasters of the century—when Freedom Industries dumped thousands of gallons of industrial cleaner into the Elk River, contaminating Charleston’s water supply and leaving its residents without potable tap water for days. While some government officials shrank from the ensuing media attention, Jones rose to the occasion, giving voice to the frustrations of his residents and demanding action against the perpetrators.
There have been personal struggles, too, which were often lived out in the local media. During his time in office Jones has been married, had two young sons, got divorced, battled prostate cancer, and dealt with the multiple drug-related arrests of his eldest son Zac, who was 13 when his father took office. While he might not have handled all these challenges perfectly, he has earned a reputation for addressing any situation with unwavering candor. “The one thing I like about Mayor Jones is, I know where I stand. He is honest and direct with his thoughts,” Davis says. “It’s politically incorrect, but it works.”
This is Jones’ modus operandi. “What else is there but the truth? The truth is to be used. The reason we don’t get to the bottom of issues is because people won’t tell the truth,” he says. It’s difficult to believe such a figure exists in our cynical age: a politician who speaks the truth for truth’s sake. You might even be inclined to believe he’s lying, but Jones is not blowing smoke. He’s not that kind of politician. He’s a mayor.
Occupying the space
Most mornings you can find Jones at the only Starbucks in city limits, located in the center court of the Charleston Town Center mall. He reads the newspaper over a small breakfast: a cup of coffee, a PowerBar, and maybe a pastry from the counter. Jones says he comes here to look at women. True to his politically incorrect nature, the mayor is a notorious flirt. But that’s just a bit of his barroom days showing through. Sit and talk with him, and you begin to see what is really on his mind.
Sitting on a stiff couch at this shopping mall coffee shop, Jones is surrounded by his city. He often stops mid-sentence to shout a greeting to a federal judge, lawyer, police officer, journalist, or taxi driver. Sometimes he greets people he doesn’t know. The strangers inevitably return the greeting. Jones calls this “occupying the space,” a concept he picked up from a political science professor at West Virginia State University, where he took a few classes while serving as Kanawha County Sheriff. “You’re mayor every moment you’re awake,” he says. “It’s not a job you work. It’s a job you wear.”
Danny Jones is a performer. During his time as county sheriff, he acted in local productions of Li’l Abner, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, The Music Man, and Annie Get Your Gun, which also featured a young Jennifer Garner. He considers playing the titular character in Abner the highlight of his life—besides, of course, his children. What was the attraction? “The power. You’re onstage. There’s 750 people in the audience and you can raise your eyebrows and they start laughing.”
But having your name perpetually on a marquee isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Jones’ insistence on wearing his job and occupying his space often causes his critics to attack the man as much as his decisions. Not long after taking office, Jones pushed for a $1-per-week user fee on anyone who worked within city limits. The fee generated $2.5 million in its first year, money the city used to pave roads, hire maintenance workers, and put more than 20 new officers on its police force. Yet many people—particularly those who worked in Charleston but lived elsewhere—balked at the fee. Some still have not forgiven Jones for dipping into their paychecks. Back then, commenters on local news websites gave him the disparaging nickname “Dollar Danny.” The name stuck and still gets regular use in some circles today.
But perhaps nothing has drawn more anger than Jones’ efforts to stop a 2014 state law that repealed all municipal weapons bans on city-owned properties. The mayor lobbied hard against the legislation, publicly calling on lawmakers to kill the bill. His efforts drew vicious criticism from gun rights supporters, and he eventually gave up the fight. “I don’t really fault them at all. I was basically a strawman. It was a tactic,” he says. “But nobody was there to help me. I was fighting that battle alone. I didn’t want to spend my last few years fighting something I cannot win.”
Either of these episodes, spun in the right way by opponents, could have ended his political career. Fighting to raise taxes and ban guns certainly would not work well for most candidates running on a Republican ticket. And yet he remains unrepentant about the battles he has picked even when, as with the gun ban controversy, he lost. He says being mayor brings you “nose to nose” with issues that affect your community—leaving little time for blind partisanship. Nanya Friend, former editor and publisher of the conservative Charleston Daily Mail newspaper who has followed Jones throughout his political career, knows what he means. “When you’re running a city it’s hard to be a pure ideologue, because of the issues that come up,” she says. “When you’re dealing with gun crime on the West Side, or need to make sure kids are safe in community centers, you get a different point of view.”
Amazingly, Jones’ habit of following his gut instead of the party line does not seem to have hurt him politically. If anything, it might have helped. Councilwoman Davis says this is because city politics are decidedly nonpartisan. “If you asked me to tell you who is a Democrat or Republican, I’d have to stop and think. When you come to the city level, you’re working for your neighborhoods. You’re working to make your city stronger. You don’t have time to think about who is what,” she says. “You don’t stay in office unless people feel you have the passion and they’re seeing change.”
Davis, for the record, is a Democrat. She was elected in 1999 and served for four years with Mayor Jay Goldman before Jones took office. “When I first went into City Hall, there was an area where there were hundreds of plans. Each administration makes its own plans of what it would like to see in Charleston,” she says. The plans in that room had never come to fruition. There’s only so much a mayor can accomplish in one term—and Charleston voters only allowed one of the five mayors before Jones to serve a second term. “Inevitably, what you have is a lot of plans gathering dust,” Davis says.
There aren’t many plans gathering dust now. Jones says he originally planned to end his mayoral career in 2011. But as he approached the end of his second term, he started to rethink his decision. “I thought eight (years) would be enough. But … there’s so many things that couldn’t have been done.”
Making a mark
Driving into Charleston at night, heading east on Interstate 64, the first thing that will catch your eye is the gilded dome of the West Virginia State Capitol. If it’s a summer night, another very impressive structure will come into view just seconds later. Appalachian Power Park is home of the Charleston Power, a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team. Their games are a favorite social occasion for Charlestonians of all stripes, even those who don’t really like baseball.
But Appalachian Power Park almost didn’t happen. Early on, the project was incredibly unpopular. According to a Charleston Gazette article at the time, a poll found 75 percent of voters opposed the new park. Democrat mayoral candidate Chris Smith promised in his 2003 campaign to divert the $12 million state lawmakers set aside for the project to other needs like sewer system upgrades or a new library. Jones also expressed doubts about the project, but promised to see it completed. Over the following two years his administration oversaw the demolition of an old factory and grocery store on the site, and dealt with lawsuits that temporarily tied up the state funding. In the end, a modern, $23 million complex rose on the city’s East End, and Power Park opened just in time for the 2005 baseball season. “It’s one of those amenities that make Charleston a better place to live,” Jones says. “It makes everything look better.” Now businesses and apartments are moving into a side of town that once contained little more than abandoned warehouses.
As you leave the ballpark, make your way toward the Kanawha River and turn right on Kanawha Boulevard. After a few blocks, you’ll spot another spectacular bit of architecture: Haddad Riverfront Park. What began as a simple concrete amphitheater along the Kanawha River is now covered with a sweeping white canopy, a little reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House. Down front, the stage has its own arching canopy, designed to look like the paddlewheel of the sternwheeler boats that once frequented the adjacent waterway.
This park is also a monument to Jones’ tenacity. In 2008 he secured $2.4 million in federal earmarks from then-Senator Robert C. Byrd to build the roof at Haddad, which paved the way for additional donations from local philanthropists. The park, where spectators once blistered in the sun, is now the centerpiece of almost every summertime celebration in Charleston’s downtown.
By the beginning of 2018, Jones hopes to have completed another ambitious improvement project for the city. Workers have begun construction on a nearly $100 million revamp of the city’s Civic Center, largely funded by a half percent sales tax passed by City Council in October 2013. It’s a project he has wanted to tackle since he first took office. “When I was in a show (in the Little Theater) in 1986, I was performing and the lights went out. It was a worn facility and needed work,” he says. “We don’t know how many events we lost, but we lost some.”
Now the aging, utilitarian Civic Center will be updated with a towering glass façade and an overhanging roof, a stylishly updated interior, and an outdoor plaza along the Elk River. Jones believes the project will attract bigger conventions and other events to the city, which will boost the local economy as a whole. “I’ve been in some world-class venues and I think this is definitely going to be one,” he says.
There have been other big changes since Jones took office. Businesses are growing on the city’s East End and West Side. Capitol Street in the heart of downtown was once a derelict row of boarded-up storefronts with a bad reputation; now it’s the city’s main cultural thoroughfare. But the accomplishment Jones is most proud of—the thing he hopes will define his legacy as mayor—is something you can’t see. It’s something visitors, as well as most residents, will never consider. “Barney Frank once told me you never get credit for what you prevent,” he says.
In 2009, the Pew Charitable Trusts named Charleston as one of worst cities in America for unfunded pension liabilities. At the time, the city had saved only a quarter of the $270 million it owed in firefighter and police pensions. Jones knew that kind of debt could bankrupt a city—pension debts are what drove Detroit, Michigan into economic disaster—so he began looking for ways to pay down the debt. The city instituted hiring freezes on its fire and police departments, then made deep cuts to the city budget in 2010, removing across-the-board raises for city employees for the first time since Jones had taken office. In 2015, the city instituted a half-percent sales tax, expected to generate $13 million a year by 2029. Although the city still has hundreds of millions in pension debts on the books, Charleston is now on track to have its accounts settled within 25 years.
Jones did not tackle any of these challenges alone, and he admits that. He’s proud to have built a team of smart people who know how to get things done. But he can be credited for creating an environment where good things can thrive. “Like him or not, you have to respect that he wants to push Charleston and make it move forward,” Davis says. Ric Cavender, executive director of Charleston Main Streets, says this will be the legacy of Jones’ administration. “He’s somebody that’s up for new ideas. His vision will have a residual effect. These aren’t changes that will go away.” Friend, of the Daily Mail, agrees. “I’m not sure I’d want to be his successor.”
Vacating the space
Danny Jones’ great-great-grandfather, Henry Clay Dickinson, was the sixth mayor of Charleston. His administration has only one notable accomplishment: Dickinson was the city’s shortest-serving mayor, lasting only a month in office before he unexpectedly died.
Dickinson’s great-great-grandson is now the city’s longest-serving mayor. But he has no intention of dying in office. When Jones announced he would seek a fourth term as mayor, he made it clear it would also be his final term. Will he change his mind? “That ain’t gonna happen. We need to have younger people in these positions,” he says.
He believes leaving office in 2019 is best for the city. But you also get the feeling the job is wearing thin for Jones. “It is, by nature, selfish. You have to base everything around yourself because that’s whose name is on the line.”
In the meantime, Jones is content. In January, he made his return to local airwaves as the host of “580 Live with Danny Jones,” an hour-long news talk show on AM station WCHS. On a snowy morning in February, he arrives at the station a few minutes before the start of the show. He exits his black Toyota and heads into the building without feeding the parking meter. The blue and yellow “Danny Jones, Charleston Mayor” sticker on his rear bumper ensures he won’t be ticketed.
Inside, Jones descends into the subterranean broadcast studio. He carries no notes or other preparatory material other than the newspaper he had at Starbucks earlier in the morning. “When I go on the air, I never know what I’m going to talk about,” he says.
He has no difficulty filling the silence, however. In the radio studio, Jones is animated behind the microphone. He shakes his head, swivels in his chair, and talks with his hands. He muses about the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the U.S. Senate’s promise to block any appointee from the Obama administration. He talks about the sentencing of executives from Freedom Industries. Owner Dennis Farrell and CEO Gary Southern each received 30 days in jail, while other officials got probation. “They should’ve gotten a lot more time,” Jones tells radio listeners. “The damage those people did to this community is incalculable when you think about it. Three hundred thousand people were affected by what they did … and it lasted for days and days and days.”
He also talks about the political battles being fought at the State Capitol a few miles away. Jones, who served two years in the House of Delegates before leaving to run a barbecue restaurant full-time, says the state is in the worst financial shape he’s seen. He criticizes lawmakers—of both parties—for not doing more to fix it. “This is conviction-driven government. They have no new taxes. That is what they believe,” he says. “Where’s the money going to come from?”
Jones holds up Charleston as a model of effective government, touting his town as “a sea of certainty.” “A place where we give great service. A place that has good finances, unlike the rest of the state. I’m so glad we planned for 13 years. We put things in order. We did things the way they needed to be done,” he says. But he doesn’t spend too much time congratulating himself—he wants to hear from listeners.
Throughout the hour Jones asks again and again for calls. Two people phone in wanting to talk about medical marijuana. Jones isn’t against the idea, but is skeptical state lawmakers would legalize pot. Someone else calls in to ask why the city hasn’t sued over the Freedom Industries spill. “Can I answer that? We have,” he says.
He continues pushing listeners to call in. He wants something to sink his teeth into. Danny Jones wants a challenge. “We have about four minutes left if you’d like to call the show,” he hums into the microphone as the show draws to a close. We’d like to hear from you if you’d like to ask me anything. You know,
I am the mayor.”