Taking on Ebola: Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins Leads the Fight

The Texas lawyer with the highest profile in the state these days hasn't had much time to practice law.

That's because Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins has spent the last month trying to contain the first ever outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus on U.S. soil.

As administrative head of the county, Jenkins oversees public health emergencies. So when Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan was admitted late last month into a Dallas hospital exhibiting full-blown Ebola symptoms, Jenkins instantly became a national figure.

"This is not Dallas' tornado or Galveston's hurricane," he told a throng of reporters bearing down on him with microphones and cameras last week. "This is America's Ebola outbreak, and Dallas County is going to take point. The buck has to stop with somebody, and the buck will stop with me."

Indeed, Jenkins—a personal injury lawyer and Democrat who's up for reelection Nov. 4—has been the most visible public official since Duncan was diagnosed and two health care workers who treated him contacted the virus early this month. He's had numerous profiles written about him in the national media, and conducted dozens of print and television interviews.

Such a spotlight is uncommon for Texas' county judges. While their legislative mandates include overseeing homeland security, emergency preparedness and public health crises, the normal course of business in county government is mostly about roads, bridges and jails.

Jenkins did garner national media attention last summer when he offered up county facilities to house droves of unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America, pouring in across Texas borders. He also made regional headlines when he pushed for aerial spraying of pesticides during a West Nile virus outbreak in 2012.

But none of that compares to the attention to the county and his office brought by Ebola, and Jenkins said he's sought to make sure that Dallas County is seen by the world as a place of not only efficient governance but also of human compassion.

Supporters say that's not surprising because that's the way Jenkins, a Waxahachie native, is when the cameras aren't rolling.

"There is not a mayor or a county judge or a president that wants to have their term defined by a crisis," said former U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, who also served as mayor of Dallas and Texas secretary of state. "I couldn't be prouder of the energy and commitment that Judge Jenkins has brought to trying to manage what some of us thought was the unthinkable."

Kirk, senior of counsel in the Dallas and Washington, D.C., offices of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, lauded Jenkins' humanitarian stance on the immigrant children issue. And he defended Jenkins' controversial decision to personally escort Duncan's quarantined family out of the apartment where they were living to an isolated location.

But Jenkins' opponent in the upcoming election accused the county judge of using his position for political gain and called the apartment visit a "campaign stunt." Former Republican Dallas City Council member Ron Natinsky also accused Jenkins of being "foolhardy" in coming into such close contact with Duncan's family and potentially exposing himself and others to Ebola.

"It was irresponsible to put the public at risk after he had been in that apartment," said Natinksy, who said he had done much research on the virus and believes there is still misinformation circulating about difficult it is to contract it. "He had such bravado: 'I'm the county judge and I'm going in there with no protection.'"

Natinsky discounted Jenkins' position that he wanted to calm fears and instill confidence in an anxious public by demonstrating the medical position that one cannot contract Ebola from someone who is not yet showing symptoms.

'I'm a risk taker," said Natinsky, whose hobbies include scuba diving and hot air ballooning. "But they are calculated risks, and there are safety precautions and protocols you go through."

He also faulted Jenkins' stance on the unaccompanied immigrant minor issue, saying that the county judge had no mandate to take a position at all.

"That was the tail that wagged the dog," he said. "I don't believe we had a problem that we, Dallas County, had to be responsible for … I have to believe that a lot of what he is doing is meant to expose himself to the public."

Kirk, who supported Jenkins' initial campaign for county judge in 2010, said he had talked with his friend numerous times in recent days, and "he has not expressed one time how this would affect his campaign or his image.

"Clay hasn't spent a minute thinking about reelection," Kirk added. "Clay has just put his head down and gone to work. For those of us who have enjoyed and valued public service, we understand that the best politics is good governance."

For his part, Jenkins said his focus has been to combine strong leadership with compassion—a quality he says he learned when a 1993 traffic accident left him "completely helpless and dying."

Doctors told him he might not live and, if he did, would almost certainly not lead a normal life after suffering a broken neck, ruptured diaphragm, crushed ribs and a fractured pelvis, among other injuries.

The accident happened about a month after Jenkins had a conversation with God in the shower in which he acknowledged that he and God "weren't close" and "he was sorry about that." Jenkins was beginning to question his life as a young single lawyer, making decent money and living the high life, when all of sudden his life hung in the balance.

"I was told I wouldn't walk again, but here I am," he said last weekend, riding in a car to another meeting with top scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "When that happens, there is a profound sense of gratitude because you are saved by grace, and it's life-changing."

Daily neck and back pain serve as reminders to Jenkins to have empathy for others, he said. And on his right wrist he wears a red elastic bracelet that reads "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength." His young daughter wears an identical one, he said.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, a political ally who has at times sparred with Jenkins, said he believes the county judge is a genuinely compassionate leader. Not only has he seen Jenkins' humanitarianism in the high-profile issues, but also in more mundane county business like truancy and jail services.

"I think in his heart of hearts, and in terms of his spiritual center, the sincerity is there, and he is good," Price said.

On Oct. 20, Jenkins held another press conference to announce that Duncan's relatives would be coming out of quarantine and have not contracted the disease. Dozens of others, including five school-age children, who potentially were exposed also would be returning to their normal routines. Jenkins urged the public to treat them well.

"This, I believe, is a defining moment for Dallas," he said. "The world is watching Dallas … I want to ask for the community's help."

With those words, Jenkins defined himself and how he would like to be remembered after the last of those on the Ebola watch list are cleared—which could happen in early November.

"I hope what people will say is that we treated others the way we would want to be treated," Jenkins said.