PROVO — The first time Jeffrey Max Jones gave a political campaign speech, the other guy — fighting him for a nomination to run for the Chihuahua state legislature — raised the crowd to its feet.
"Everyone was standing up cheering and clapping," said Jones, who described his own oration as "pragmatic" and "boring." "I said to myself, 'Well, that was a good try. This is just about as far as I'm getting.'"
But, when the votes were tallied, Jones, who was recently named a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board, beat the charming, young orator two to one. It was the first of many political victories for the unassuming cowboy from Chihuahua. A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and a Brigham Young University graduate, he would become the highest ranking Mormon in Mexican government. A tall, green-eyed Anglo Saxon who aligned himself with a minority party, Jones broke cultural and political barriers.
Even now that he's abandoned his political career for quieter work in the financial field, Jones is still working to better Mexico and, in making it a more hospitable place to live, curb illegal immigration to the United States.
But he'd be the last to brag about that.
Sitting in the front room of his vacation home in Provo, Utah, dressed in scuffed cowboy boots, western-style jeans and a blue, button-up shirt, Jones describes himself as an "accidental politician." Aside from the understated monogram on his right breast pocket, he looks like he belongs on a ranch. When community leaders convinced him to run for office, Jones was knee deep in a failing business making feed supplements for horses. At the time, Jones said, interest rates had ballooned to nearly 150 percent. The inflation stunted job growth and made it hard to borrow money.
"As a new business owner, you just knew you were not going to get out of this hole," he said. "There was no way to get ahead."
Jones, who was "sick and tired of the government's irresponsible monetary policy," started participating in community organizations. He just wanted to voice his opinion, but then, late one night, they showed up at his front door — the leader of the chamber of commerce, a head of the teacher's union, the president of the chamber of industry and several other local leaders.
"Jeff, you ought to run for office," they said.
"You're crazy," Jones said. "I'm white and I'm Mormon."
The first time around, he lost. The second, in 1997, he won the people of Chihuahua over with his grass-roots campaign efforts and affable mannerisms. Jones recruited a cousin to help write a series of campaign songs. Sometimes he and his team rode horses from town to town. Sometimes he loaded his four children, who helped him pass out flyers, on a blue bus. His training as a missionary for the LDS church came in handy when it came to canvassing. Knocking doors and charming strangers was cake.
Talking one-on-one with the people, Jones discovered few understood what a federal representative was for.
"They come ask us for the vote, and then we never see them again," the people told him.
Jones, who served a term as a member of Mexico's lower house, the Chamber of Deputies and the senate, passed out his business card and told the people, "I am like your lawyer. I will fight for you."
He got calls for help from people who were being robbed by public officials and calls for help from people upset about the bribes required to import cars into the country illegally. Sometimes he helped get them out of trouble. Sometimes he gave impromptu lessons on ethics. People were just happy that someone cared.
"He's a rare public servant in that he doesn't care what people think about him; he's just focused on doing the right thing," said Paul Ahlstrom, a partner at Alta Ventures Mexico and Jones' business associate. "He's completely honest and he quickly gained a reputation as one who cannot be corrupted."
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