John Jenkins is a former mayor of Lewiston and Auburn, an ex-state senator, a motivational speaker, a teacher and a member of the World Martial Arts Hall of Fame.
Now he’s eyeing the state’s top job.
Jenkins said Friday he’s preparing to run for governor as an independent “provided that things fall in place,” mostly related to whether he can put together a core campaign team soon.
“I can’t just willy-nilly throw myself out there,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins, 65, said the pieces are coming together “for a legitimate, full-time campaign” and he hopes to announce his decision “as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, he’s engaged in a listening tour that has taken him across the state, Jenkins said. Encouraged by the response from ordinary people, he’s also focused on the common themes he’s hearing from them, including the necessity of dealing with the opioid epidemic and developing programs to help employers fill good jobs that are going begging.
One job with no shortage of applicants is governor. There are a dozen candidates from the major parties alone and more who are still eyeing their prospects.
“I realize that half the state of Maine is running,” Jenkins joked.
Jenkins, who lives in Auburn, tried an unusual tactic in the last gubernatorial race when he entered the fray late as an an independent write-in candidate, hoping to catch fire with voters.
Jenkins has faith in the write-in process despite the seemingly impossible odds because he emerged with an improbable write-in win in 2007 for mayor of Auburn. “The citizens of Auburn proved it can be done,” he said.
But it didn’t work. He wound up with fewer than 3,000 votes out of more than half a million cast in a contest won by Republican Paul LePage.
Now he’s ready to try a more conventional approach, counting on the many Mainers who have met him or remember him to elevate him past the regular political crowd.
He said that if he presses ahead, he’s counting on voters to appreciate a candidate who’s running “without any spin or campaign slogans,” just a willingness to work hard and offer them realistic answers for the problems Maine faces.
“My concept is there’s no middle guy” between him and the voters, Jenkins said. He calls the voters “his boss.”
On his listening tour, he said, he’s hearing from people about what they think are the challenges facing the state and what they’re looking for in their next governor. One thing he said he’s learned is that “people are struggling” throughout the state.
“There are no quick fixes,” Jenkins said. “We have work ahead of us.”
LePage is nearing the end of two terms of service as the state’s leader. Because of term limits, he is not allowed to run next year.
There’s no doubt that Jenkins’ personal story is inspirational.
An African-American, he grew up in hard circumstances in the tough streets of Newark, New Jersey, where his best friend died after getting caught in a gunfight. He might have been standing there, too, except that his mother kept him busy with karate and Boy Scouts.
At the time, he said, he “never dreamed there was a place like Maine.”
But Bates College recruited him through an Upward Bound program, and he not only discovered a new environment, he fell in love with it.
At Bates, Jenkins became a world-class martial arts expert, winning international competitions and earning wide recognition for his skills.
While still a student at Bates, he started working at what later became the John Jenkins Academy of Personal Development, teaching martial arts and gymnastics.
In 1993, he leaped into politics at the urging of friends and wound up winning the Lewiston mayoral election by a wide margin. During his second term as mayor, he ran for state senate and again came out on top.
Jenkins was the first African-American to win a state Senate seat in Maine’s history.
A decade later, he won election as Auburn’s mayor, the first person to serve as the leader of both of the Twin Cities.
After his gubernatorial bid in 2010 fell short — though he did manage to collect 4 percent of the vote in Androscoggin County from voters willing to write in his name — Jenkins focused on business.
Calling himself “a working-class guy,” Jenkins said he keeps busy with a variety of occupations, from giving speeches to teaching at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle to teaching martial arts.