Leadership Lessons from a 33-Year-Old Mayor
Newport News, one of the nation's oldest cities, has one of its youngest mayors.
Phillip Jones knew something terrible had happened. He’d been taking it easy on the first Friday in January, relaxed but excited as he anticipated being sworn in the following week as mayor of Newport News, Va. He went out for a run. By the time he got out of the shower, Jones had received more than a dozen messages from Cindy Rohlf, the city manager.
He started playing out possible scenarios in his head. Given the heavy military presence in the area, he wondered if a ship had blown up, or even a nuclear reactor at the shipyard. He had a hard time processing the actual news even as Rohlf explained it to him. A student had shot a teacher at Richneck Elementary. Not a sixth grader, Rohlf emphasized, but a 6-year-old.
Coping with the reality of a 6-year-old shooter was not what Jones had imagined he was signing up for when he ran for office. “I’ve been planning this for three or four years and I had, you know, my Harvard Kennedy School notebook that in the first 100 days we’re gonna do this and we’re gonna do that,” Jones says. “Then four days before I was sworn in we had this school shooting. I realized you can have all the plans but things happen and you have to be able to pivot.”
The fallout has been considerable, with criminal charges and a change in superintendents. Nearly five months later, Jones reflects that the event, aside from traumatizing the community, imposed costs in terms of the city’s image. “What keeps me up at night is the brand,” Jones says. “We have everything we need, but we haven’t quite figured out how to put it together.”
Even before the shooting, Newport News had a reputation problem. The city of 185,000 — part of the Hampton Roads area in southeastern Virginia, where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean — last year had a murder rate that was double the national average, including three double homicides. Jones is well aware that when families move to the area, whether to serve at one of the area’s military bases or otherwise, they’re often advised to live somewhere else.
When he moved back to run for mayor three years ago, his own real estate agent recommended that he should look in neighboring York County instead. The same thing happened to his girlfriend. “When she went for her job interview,” he says, “they’re like, ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to live in Newport News.’”
There are limits to what Jones can do to turn things around. The city has a council-manager form of government, meaning that the mayor occupies just another seat on the City Council. Much of the land in the area is controlled by the Defense Department and even within the city the mayor and the City Council have no formal operational control over the schools. “I spend the majority of my time dealing with things that I don't really have agency over,” he says.
Jones believes all that will change. He thinks he can, in time, convince voters to amend the charter and switch to a strong-mayor form of government. Over the longer term, he believes it’s inevitable that the multiple jurisdictions in Hampton Roads will merge to form one big city.
None of that may happen, but Jones himself already represents a change in leadership. He succeeded a mayor who had served for a dozen years and followed another mayor who’d been in the job for 14 years. Such long tenures are not unusual in Hampton Roads, where mayors are kept in place long enough that entire generations are sometimes blocked from service. (McKinley Price, the most recent mayor, is 40 years older than Jones.)
Now, there’s starting to be a noticeable turnover in leadership, not just in government but some of the major private companies. Jones was one of four new members elected to the seven-member City Council last year. “Before us, the average age of the council was 65,” says Curtis Bethany, the 31-year-old vice mayor. “Now, it’s about 40.”
Young, Scrappy and Hungry
Jones spent part of his childhood in Newport News — both his parents served in the Air Force — and served on the city’s planning commission prior to winning election as mayor last November. He moved back to Newport News with no political experience but a glittering resume.
He graduated from the Naval Academy — which he describes as a “leadership laboratory”— and served several years in the Marines. He received a combined master’s degree in public policy and business administration from Harvard University in 2021, before working in private equity. “It came down to the definition of leadership,” Jones said in a Harvard Business School profile. “Other schools make managers, but HBS has an ethos of making leaders who make a difference in the world.”
Reflecting his education, Jones is deliberate, mapping out his ideas on whiteboards. Despite his lack of experience, he believed he had the right background to run in a city that’s predominantly Black and Democratic and has a heavy military presence. But he knew the fact he had lived most of his life outside Newport News could hurt him, as would his age. “He told me he intended to run for mayor,” recalls state Sen. Mamie Locke, “and at the time I told him he looked about 10.”
Jones was persistent, with Locke and others. Although he was running against three members of the City Council, only one had been elected citywide. Jones outraised them all financially. He finished 16 percentage points ahead of his nearest competitor. “For a young man with no political background, he could not have run a more effective campaign,” says Alan Witt, dean of the business school at Christopher Newport University and a former member of the City Council. “Nobody wore out more shoe leather during that campaign.”
Jones takes a similar approach to governance, turning routinely to other mayors for advice. He studied with former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter at Harvard and stays in touch, while counting Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney as a “helpful ally.” He regularly reaches out to other Black mayors in cities such as Columbia, S.C., and Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., as well as former Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Nan Whaley, to find out how they’ve handled particular problems.
“I talk to mayors all the time because as a prior consultant, I know you don't need to recreate the wheel,” Jones says. “People have already tried what you're going to do, and they may have succeeded or failed, so why waste half of your time as mayor trying to do something when a city did that 10 years ago and it did not work?”
He also sometimes turns for advice to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a former South Bend, Ind., mayor whom Jones met during his presidential run. Buttigieg told the Harvard student that he’d have no trouble succeeding in New York or Washington, but he could make a bigger difference back home.
One Big Metro
City Hall has had water damage, so Jones has been working out of an office in a mixed-used development called City Center at Oyster Point. One of the city’s earliest bond issues, passed down from mayor to mayor, hangs above his desk. His table is littered with serious books about war and shipbuilding, alongside fat biographies of Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Jones will tell you which prior mayor made the Oyster Point development happen. He knows that fostering more development will be one of his key jobs, but that’s more easily said than done. The city is shaped like a banana, long and skinny — roughly three miles by 23 miles — and hemmed in by other jurisdictions and the James River. “Anything that has to be done is redevelopment,” says Witt, the business school dean. “It’s not new development, and that is economically challenging every time you try to do it.”
Unlike many larger cities, Newport News has not emptied out, the military providing a steady jobs base. Rising real estate values are a boon to city finances. The new Tech Center Research Park, anchored by an Energy Department laboratory, will eventually encompass 900,000 square feet. But the airport takes up 1,800 acres and sees relatively little use – just four flights to Charlotte a day. Passenger traffic has dropped by more than half over the past decade. A former director was convicted in 2020 on nearly two dozen counts, including money laundering and misappropriation of funds. The commission that runs the airport is operating at a deficit and could run out of money this year, which would put taxpayers on the hook. “That is one of our biggest assets,” Mayor Jones says, “and right now, it's a liability on my balance sheet.”
“We’re Greek city states that just need to be merged by Philip of Macedonia,” Jones says, referring to the 4th century ruler who created a federation of Greek states. “You combine Hampton and Newport News, you get a city over 300,000 — that’s a Cleveland, that’s a Pittsburgh. Then, instead of us arguing about who gets the Wawa or who gets the Whole Foods, it’s bigger things.”
The Mayor’s True Power
Jones talks fast but he’s an intent listener, giving serious eye contact and attention and punctuating the other person’s comments by repeatedly saying “yeah” and “got it.” That not only shows he’s listening, but gives the other person an impression of agreement.
He knows his job is all about persuasion. Even when mayors have little power, they have a title that makes people assume they’re in charge. His “true power,” Jones says, is convening — that if the mayor calls a meeting, everyone will show up.
Jones doesn’t get a vote, but he shows up to nearly every school board meeting anyway and has the superintendent on his list of standing meetings. He intends to spend a fair amount of his time in the fall in classrooms as a substitute teacher, hoping to bring added attention to the schools.
At Richneck Elementary on Jan. 6, he walked past the parents anxiously waiting outside by the barricades, assuring them through a bullhorn that no children had been harmed in the shooting. Kids were sitting cross-legged in the gym. Jones sat down and one little girl put her head in his lap, told him she was scared, and started crying. “The saddest part, which no one actually talks about, is at the end of the night there were probably a half-dozen kids whose parents had not come and gotten them yet,” he says.
Like a lot of today’s Democrats, Jones is concerned not just with what happens after a gun goes off, but the conditions that lead to violence in the first place. He has increased funding for the witness protection program, in hopes that more people will be willing to testify, but also talks about the need to improve after-school programs, housing and workforce development as tools necessary to reduce gun violence. “He has taken a holistic approach to public safety in Newport News, implementing community-level programs to stop violence before it starts and investing in the city’s first responders to improve services,” says Jonathan Dworkin, vice president of NewDEAL, a network of pro-growth progressives that tapped Jones as a new member earlier this month.
Despite the city’s problems and his own limited authority as mayor, and despite the shocking tragedy that kicked off his tenure, Jones believes he can help Newport News unlock its true potential. “What Phillip Jones brought was a level of energy that individuals saw,” says state Sen. Locke, “and they felt he would bring a new level of vision to the city.”