DPCC Communications team member Renay Williams sat down with Carolyn Lewis, Justice of the Peace on the Craighead County Quorum Court for District 3. Because this interview was done in the first quarter of 2021, additional developments on the court may have occurred. The interview below has been slightly edited to increase clarity.
Renay Williams: First off, tell us a little about yourself.
JP Carolyn Lewis: I have been married for forty years to the same guy. I have two children and one little granddaughter who’s eight. I was born and raised right outside of Jackson, Tennessee in a small town called Whiteville. I went to undergrad at Tennessee State in Nashville and graduated from there with a Bachelors in Elementary Education.
I started teaching school, back home in Tennessee, taught for a few years, then got married, and moved to Jonesboro. When I got to Jonesboro, I started at Arkansas State University; I got a Masters in Early Childhood Education and then I got a Masters in Rehabilitation Counseling.
For the last 23 years I started working at Mid-South Health Systems as a Therapeutic Foster care director. I started doing counseling, and then after a year of being there as a therapeutic counsellor, I became the director of the Therapeutic Foster Care Program. Absolutely found my niche there; I loved it. But I retired from Mid-South Health Systems in August 2020. Now I am just trying to dibble and dab with a lot of other things. I was an elementary school teacher; teaching was a love of mine so now I’m subbing and I love it.
RW: How did you decide to run for the quorum court?
JP Lewis: Dr. Asad Khan approached me one day at work. He came into my office and said, “There is a JP position that’s gonna be coming open and I think it’s in your district. Are you interested in running?”
I was like, “Absolutely not! Don’t know anything about doing that!”
He was just like, “Come on! I know you can do it. Don’t say no!” so I said, “Okay, I’ll tell you what I’ll do: let me research it; let me take some time.” I wasn’t really familiar with the JPs and what their duties were.
I took a couple of days, did a lot of research, dug in, and then he contacted me again. He says, “Okay, what do you think? Are you gonna do it?” I said, “You know what, if not me, why not? It’s in my district. I’m a resident of that district. I’ll tell you upfront I won’t know what I’m doing, but I can learn.”
From there, I decided I’m gonna go for it. What have I got to lose? I went ahead and went to the court house, paid my money, and I knew then it was on.
RW: How did you adapt your campaign since it took place during a global pandemic?
JP Lewis: I didn’t get out and canvas as much as I really wanted to because of the pandemic. But let me tell you what I really think was the catapult for my win: the personal touch from over a thousand handwritten postcards. Plus Paul Vellozo [ed. note: DPCC Communications team member] doing the social media for me and my husband knowing everybody in Jonesboro from our barbecue business and him working in government, too. He knows a lot of people; he’d run into people and they’d be like, “We’ve seen Carolyn’s sign! She’s running for JP; tell us a little about that.”
I had people approaching me and I was just like, “You know what, if you see my sign, vote for me! I would appreciate your vote.” I think that’s what did it because I didn’t really get a chance to go door-to-door as much as I would have liked to. I really think it was the personal notes on the postcards that were written.
RW: The personal, grassroots touches helped you get elected?
JP Lewis: Yes. I got a lot of postcards from other candidates that were running—the big candidates—and it would just be their face, their family, a statement. Nothing handwritten, nothing personal, and I really think that that was what propelled my campaign forward.
RW: Now that you’re elected, what have you learned about the job of being a Justice of the Peace since you began?
JP Lewis: Before I had my first meeting, Judge Marvin Day called me and wanted to meet with me, which I thought was awesome because although I did research, I didn’t want to go into this not having any kind of idea of what was expected. I went down and had a great conversation with him. Since then, I have attended four JP meetings, since I was sworn in, and I am on the Transportation and Road Committee. All the JPs are assigned to different committees; they kind of slotted me in that spot when the guy whose place I took lost. The committee is a learning experience.
I have enjoyed being part of the quorum court. Listening and seeing how other people react to different things that are presented is absolutely fantastic, honestly. I am really enjoying it.
We haven’t had any really big, big major issues presented before the quorum court, but there’ve been some interesting conversations in some of our meetings. I like that they’re open to the public. We can be transparent. I love that. I am getting in there and learning!
RW: What are some of the things that you get to do as a JP that people might not know about?
JP Lewis: Out of all the things that we get to do, there are only two things that you get to do alone as a JP: I can administer oaths and perform marriage ceremonies—civil marriage ceremonies. Those are the only two things you can do separately as a JP. Everything else has to go before Judge Day and the quorum court.
RW: That’s pretty exciting! Have you performed any ceremonies for anybody yet?
JP Lewis: I have not, but I am ready to do that!
RW: You are, as near as we can tell, likely the first Black woman to serve on the Craighead County Quorum Court. What does holding that position mean to you?
JP Lewis: I looked back to try and see if I was the first and I am. But you know what? I think it’s awesome for me. I would love to see the quorum court made of more diversity. I would love to see more, not just African-American women on that court, I would love to see more women. We have Barbara Weinstock, who is an older white woman, but as I sit around that table all I see is white men. But when I walk in there, I walk in there proud, head held up, shoulders back. I come in with respect.
I don’t know if it’s because no other women have decided to run or what the deal is. For me, I’m not all about this being a first, but I’m very proud as an African-American woman to be able to sit there on that quorum court and to have a voice. That’s powerful for me, because I’m a servant for the community. I’m in this community and I want to be part of this community. I’m pretty excited about it.
RW: Before you were sworn in, the quorum court cut funding to nonprofits that provided healthcare for kids with serious illnesses and fighting drug addiction here in Craighead County. What are your thoughts on restoring that funding?
JP Lewis: Personally, I was disappointed because I was thinking, “Why cut the funding? If the county’s funds are a little bit limited now, don’t cut out all those funds. Can’t you still give them something?” They’d been giving them funds before, and now all of a sudden they want to stop all the funds. I wouldn’t have been in favor of that, at all.
RW: Are you planning to run for re-election or do you have your eye on another office?
JP Lewis: I want to learn and grasp as much as I can these two years that I’m on this quorum court. I think I’m going to enjoy it. Honestly, I have enjoyed talking to all the men around the table. None of them have been unfriendly. Everybody has been cordial. That’s the way it should be. We are a team.
Of course, I know that I’m the only African-American woman on the quorum court. I am the only Democrat on the court. I’m okay with it. After these two years, I think I’ll get a good grasp of what it’s like and what I’m supposed to be doing. I think I will run again.
RW: I’m there for your re-election campaign. Sign me up.
JP Lewis: That’s awesome! I would love to see more women step out and go for it.
RW: Do you have any messages to other Black women who might be considering a run for office?
JP Lewis: For me, this was a first. I’ve always been a people person. I’m easy to relate to. I have the skill set to sit and converse with anyone. I think it’s just African-American women deciding and making up their minds that they are confident enough in themselves that they can do it and not be afraid to run, and have confidence that they will win. I don’t want to sound boastful, but I was confident in myself that I was gonna win this race. I just felt in my spirit that I was going to win it.
I would just say to any other African-American woman that wants to run for an office: go for it! There are no limitations! Do your research, decide if that’s what you wanna do, look for people that can support you and get behind you, and make it happen!