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."
Jones' living room decor is dominated by Jesus and photos of his smiling daughters. Behind his thick moustache, the big, balding man professes a deep love for both his faith and his family. Jones's great-great-great-grandfather Daniel Webster Jones led the first group of missionaries to Mexico in 1876. He later helped to establish the Mormon colonies in Chihuahua where Jones grew up. Jones's climb into the government earned the Mexican Mormons mainstream acceptance, said Daniel L. Johnson, area president for the LDS church in Mexico.
After the LDS church abandoned the practice of polygamy in 1890, some Mormons, who refused to give up polygamy established their own faction and moved to Mexico to avoid harassment from the U.S. government. Among their descendents was Ervil Lebaron, who initiated close to 25 murders during his lifetime.
"Before Jeff was elected into office, there was a tendency by some to associate the church with the Lebaron movement," Johnson said. "He did quite a bit to dispel that erroneous notion."
Jones has opened roads for the church to expand its humanitarian work in Mexico and helped to expedite the construction of temples, Johnson said. Jones and his wife took the first lady of Mexico on a two-hour tour of the Mexico City Temple before it was rededicated. "There are an awful lot of people who think well of the church because of the church because of Jeff," he said.
During his time as a representative and later as the undersecretary of Agribusiness Development, Jones attacked issues relating to border affairs.
"He is one of the most innovative thinkers on the border in terms of solutions," said Eliot Shapleigh, a former Texas State Senator from El Paso.
The Mexico of today is not the Mexico of Jones's youth. As a result of drug violence, Cuidad Juarez, Chihuahua's biggest city, has been named one of the most dangerous in the world. Jones came face-to-face with the country's corruption in 1998 when two men he believed to be police officers attempted to kidnap him and his brother, ostensibly to drive them from ATM to ATM collecting money. Jones, feeling that it would be better for his family to know he was dead than live through "drawn out kidnapping scenarios in which severed body parts of the victim are sent to family members," fought back and was shot three times.
"I've always felt that the position of a Mexican statesman should always be to do anything that needs to be done to retain the country's human capital," he said. "The violence and the economic hardship are driving people away."
Jones political career came crashing to an end in 2009 after he suggested farmers take a lesson from the drug lords and start producing product to satisfy market demand, thus becoming more dependent on consumers and less on government subsidies. He stands by the comment, which, he said, "was meant as a strategic analogy and not an endorsement of narcotics." When he got the news that he'd need to resign, sitting in a restaurant with a friend, he simply sighed. Then he turned and asked his dinner partner, "Do you think you could find work for my driver?" When Jones abdicated his position, the driver, a young father, was certain to lose his job, too. Jones couldn't bear the thought.
These days Jones bounces back and forth between Mexico and Provo, where his wife and daughters — mostly grown up now — live. They came to the states to escape the violence and accommodate health needs. Jones, who, despite the unrest, spends most of his time in he country of his birth, is writing a book about his experiences as a politician and working to develop private equity funds in Mexico.3 comments on this story
"There's a great deal of creativity in Mexico, but it's difficult to get financed," he said. "One the reasons we don't have a lot of jobs is because we don't have a mechanism for capitalizing small and medium sized businesses."
He calls his little dabble in Mexican politics "a little detour," but Jones has always felt he owed something to Mexico and its people.
"I feel a sense of mission there," he said. "I believe God puts us where he needs us."