It would seem that Kelvin Jones is tilting at windmills. Actually it’s just one very large, reputable and experienced windmill.
Jones, currently head of the Metro Human Relations Commission, is challenging Ross Alderman in the May 2 election for public defender. Alderman, who has been practicing law almost as long as Jones has been alive—Jones is 37, Alderman has been licensed for 30 years—has spent most of his time since 1979 in the Metro Public Defender’s office, and his résumé reads like something from a John Grisham novel: he’s served as both an assistant U.S. attorney and assistant U.S. public defender, completed programs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, qualified as lead council in death penalty cases, served as the president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and is recommended by 92 percent of his peers in the Nashville Bar Association.
Popular with voters and by all accounts hardworking (he and others say that he regularly puts in 12-hour days) Alderman is the kind of guy you want representing you in a pinch—that is, when you get pinched. When asked why he stays at the PD’s office when he could easily find more money and prestige elsewhere, he says stuff like: “I believe that the guarantee of equal justice without regard to financial ability has to mean something.”
Yeah, a real asshole, this guy. Against this legal superhero comes Kelvin Jones.
Now, Jones is no dummy. He graduated from Howard and had a successful career practicing civil law in Denver and Nashville. In 1999, Mayor Bill Purcell tapped Jones to join his administration as a legal advisor. Since 2004, he has served by mayoral appointment as head of Metro Human Relations Commission, a toothless, feel-good paper tiger of a watchdog that fields complaints from those who feel they’ve been inappropriately discriminated against.
Friendly and armed with a great smile, Jones appears smart and affable. When talking about why he wants to run, he stresses that too many of those who are on the wrong end of the criminal justice stick are poor, young and black. He wants to try and change the system so that rehabilitation and incarceration go hand in hand. It’s not a bad platform; it just makes his campaign methods all the more puzzling. It began when he set off his campaign by playing up his record of hard work under Mayor Purcell. At the time, Purcell had already publicly endorsed Alderman. Jones now claims that Purcell’s snub doesn’t bother him. “The mayor is just another voter,” he says.
But when Alderman’s backers became concerned with the way Jones was portraying his relationship with the mayor, Jones told NashvillePost.com that “Ross (Alderman) is a whiner, and his supporters are whiners.”
Shortly after, Jones claimed that he personally saw Alderman’s wife, Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge Patricia Cottrell, handing out campaign literature on behalf of her husband. Jones claimed that this was a violation of the Tennessee legal canon, though legal experts don’t necessarily agree.
A few days later, a furor erupted within Nashville’s legal community when Jones sent out a campaign mailing featuring a group shot of him volunteering with the Lawyers’ Association for Women at a children’s non-profit. Also featured in the photo were Judge Dan Eisenstein and Judge Mark Fishburn, neither of whom gave Jones permission to use their images.
“I received a copy of the campaign flier in the mail,” Judge Fishburn told NashvillePost.com, “and have sent two letters to Mr. Jones asking him to discontinue using that photo. I have since seen another mail piece with an even larger photo that I am in, yet I have yet to hear back from Mr. Jones.”
When asked about the photo, Jones is unapologetic. “I got permission from the non-profit—which owns the photo—and the Lawyers’ Association for Women, to use the photo in a campaign piece…. The caption reads ‘Kelvin Jones joins members of LAW in volunteering for our kids.’ ”
Despite the letters from Judge Fishburn, Jones won’t cease and desist, adding yet another uncomfortable wrinkle to his campaign.
It all seems very strange for a young lawyer with so much promise. But then the very idea of Jones trying to unseat a virtual legal institution is curious. You don’t have to be Perry Mason to know that criminal defense attorneys practice criminal law, and Jones has practiced very little criminal law and even less in this state. His website features pictures of him standing in a law library, examining a book, with the caption, “Kelvin Jones in action…. Kelvin checking on the laws.”
Last week, at a conference on lending discrimination and affordable housing, the picture was quite different. Jones sat alone in a foyer by the entrance as a speaker took the podium. He wore a crisp black, pinstriped suit, double breasted. His long legs were crumpled under his chair. His head was in his hands. Someone asked him about the campaign. He looked up and his eyes looked spent, vacant. “Oh man,” he said, a bright white smile creasing his face. “It’s tiring.”