Wanda Jones didn’t expect to make much noise in November when she ran for a seat on the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court.
Facing 28-year incumbent Judge Daniel Gaul, the Solon attorney ran on less than $5,000. Jones, who became a lawyer after spending two decades as a mail carrier and banker, had just over the required six years of law experience. She thought it’d be a learning experience to build on for future races. Maybe even earn her an appointment from the governor.
But in September, Serial catapulted the race into the local and national spotlight. The second episode of the podcast’s third season, which used the Cuyahoga County justice system as a case study for how criminal justice works across the nation, detailed the ways Gaul colored outside the judicial lines, including the use of racially charged nicknames and unconstitutional threats. Endorsements from the Plain Dealer and other entities swung the Republican candidate’s way and donations came from as far as New York and California.
“I was able to afford yard signs,” says the self-described introvert. “The attention came out of nowhere, but it was good attention.”
While well-funded Gaul prevailed, a tight race proved Jones worthy of an appointment by then-Governor John Kasich to a recently vacated Common Pleas seat in December — right next to her former foe. In January, Jones joined three other African-American judges — the most ever — on the first majority-female Common Pleas bench in Cuyahoga County’s history.
The milestone is a continuation of the groundwork laid by the likes of Sara J. Harper, an African-American woman who went from public housing projects to serve on the Eighth District Court of Appeals, Ohio Court of Appeals and as president of the Cleveland NAACP.
“She’s been my idol since I met her when I was 13 years old,” says Jones. “It’s really important for people who come in the courthouse to see people who look like them and that the bench would represent the people that are coming in the courts.”
The Glenville High School and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law graduate shared her thoughts on Serial and her agenda before running for re-election in 2020. Here are a few snippets from our conversation.
On how her upbringing shapes her approach: “I lived in the inner city, I lived in Cleveland, I lived in outer ring suburbs, I lived in the inner ring suburbs. Each of those areas has different needs. The values are the same. At the core everybody wants the same thing. You want to be safe. You want to be able to have freedom to do the things you want to do without bothering other people or harming other people, and you want be able to raise your family, go to work, make a living and be productive. And I think that's the same. But there are different needs. And so I do think having experienced that does make a difference."
On lessons learned from her mother: “My mom was a single mom. She had three of us by the time she was 21. She was a high school dropout. But she had a really strong work ethic. I don't remember her taking days off work. She went back to school, got her GED and got a job as a school bus driver. She had to get her [commercial drivers license], and became an RTA bus driver. She did that for years. And then she retired from there and started a business, a day care center. Bought two homes. She owned that business for a number of years before she retired. Seeing that, when someone's saying they don't have a high school diploma, I know for sure that's not a barrier. It's a challenge, but it isn't a barrier. It's not insurmountable. So that the idea of that, I know it. I lived it. So I know that it's possible and I think it helps.”
On serving next to Gaul: “I have to give credit to Judge Gaul. We ran a very respectable race. I’m proud of that. As a matter of fact, I’m glad we did. Had we not, it would make things pretty awkward for us to work together now. We’ve talked, and at the end of the day you can have your differences, and as long as you’re respectful of one another, you can work together.”
On Serial bringing “good attention” to a judicial race: “We really do need to get to that place [where it’s not] ‘I have a good last name.’ I’ve been told Jones is a good last name to run for judge. But it shouldn’t be like that. It should be that you’ve got a good temperament and you’ve got what’s needed. You have the experience and the background to be able to do a good job. That’s what should be important.”
On Judge Gaul’s behavior, as highlighted by Serial: “I don’t want to say anything negative about another judge. It’s actually forbidden by the rules. I’m focused on treating people with respect. Even if they’re in an orange jumpsuit. Even if they’ve done bad things. Even if they have tattoos all over their faces. Everybody deserves to be treated equally under the law. I've been making a practice every day when I zip on the robe to say to myself certain affirmations so that I remember any personal biases that I may have — because we all have them.”
On what listeners should take away from Serial: “Yes, it was set in Cleveland, but it’s not unique to Cleveland. I hope that’s not really what people got from it. The issues raised are issues that have been going on for generations. They go on in every major city across this country.”
On what she hopes to accomplish: “I’m really interested in domestic violence issues because if you can address that, you can really stop a whole cycle. Drug abuse, homelessness — all of these things come into play when domestic violence is involved. It’s not an easy fix, but there are things you can put in place like swift accountability whenever there is any sort of violation of a protection order and help, resources.”
On her chances of getting re-elected in 2020: “As an African-American Republican running in Cuyahoga County, I don’t know if I would say it’s a good shot, but I will say I have a shot. I didn’t really raise money the first time around. Most of that came from me. I have two years here to be able to make a difference so that I can say to voters ‘See what I’ve done? Now vote for me.’ ”