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Does Clay Jenkins Really Have a Heart or Is He Scamming Us?

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Before I get on my high horse, I usually check back upstream to see what sort of feet of clay I may have myself on an issue. Great thing and terrible thing about the Internet. It's all still there. So this morning before leaping to the saddle to whack people for calling Dallas County Clay Jenkins bad names, I took a moment to see what I may have called him in the past that I have conveniently forgotten, now that I am a Jenkins fan.

Well, let's see here in this first item that comes up. "Dormouse," I called him. Not even sure what that is. Could be a kind of pet maybe. "Footman." Possibly not flattering. "Fool."

See also: All Hail John Wiley Price, the King of Dallas County.

Fool? I called him a fool? That was three years ago. Listen, I have grown up a lot since then. In fact I grow up every day. All over again.

I called him that stuff because he went along with ... he was involved in ... it seemed to me ... oh, forget it. It's too far back. Not worth dredging up again. Got mad at him. Pretty much the sum and total of the matter.

Today he's on my mind because Christine Gorman, writing on a blog for Scientific American, has called him and Dallas County Health Director Zachary Thompson "Ebola heroes"for their roles in calming fears and combating bigotry in the Dallas Ebola crisis. Thompson is a choice I would have agreed with even back when I was still calling Jenkins names. Through the city's struggle and quandary over aerial spraying for West Nile disease, Thompson has always been a rock -- a source of measured judgment and intelligence in a climate where those qualities have been in short supply.

See also: Ebola in Dallas: What We Know So Far

Jenkins took much longer for me to get. He and I wound up in sort of a face-off in the hallway outside some arcane regional planning meeting like "Curbs and Gutters in the 21st century." We were talking about the living wage issue, and in the course of our chat he let slip that he had been a latch-key kid after his father died and his mother had to work double shifts as a phone operator.

I remembered that conversational fragment and went back to him last August for an interview about his role in offering shelter here for unaccompanied Central American children who were briefly flooding across the border at that time. I wanted to ask him if his own childhood experiences had enlivened his empathy for these children who were gone from their parents.

See also: Heart of Clay

He wasn't really enthusiastic about my question. I mean, look, this guy's a lawyer and a successful litigator. His instincts are going to be to avoid sounding like a cry-baby. But he did concede, somewhat reluctantly, that he knows "what it's like to be alone as a child and to feel abandoned."

By the way, WFAA investigative shark Brett Shipp, not known for his sentimentality, showed up in the comments section on that column with a really intriguing account of a speech he heard Jenkins make at the county commissioner's court on the living wage issue. Shipp called it "the most powerful speech I have ever heard delivered from a public pulpit in this city. Out of turn and almost out of nowhere, Clay Jenkins took the floor and stole the show with an artfully crafted, passionate and extemporaneous soliloquy on the topic of 'a living wage'.

Right now the debate around town is whether Jenkins' role in the Ebola response -- especially his ceremonial car ride in regular clothes with an Ebola-exposed family -- has been true moral leadership or mere political theater. His Republican opponent in the next election cycle, former City Council member Ron Natinsky, has been excoriating him on social media for opportunism and irresponsibility.

I want to excoriate Ron Natinsky. I want to ask why we can't ever take a gesture at face value. But given the things I have said about Jenkins myself in the past, I just can't quite boost myself up onto that high a horse. Politics is politics. It would be naïve to imagine that any elected official or candidate for elective office is ever devoid of political motivation. And the last thing Natinsky wants his opponent to become is any kind of saint. We all understand that.

Nevertheless, we also have to keep our hearts and minds open to the possibility that what we are seeing in both Jenkins and Thompson is competence, responsibility, compassion and true leadership. We don't want to construe the world around us in such a way that those qualities are permanently beyond our capacity for belief. Do we?

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