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George on Georgia: The Miseducation of Vernon Jones

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George on Georgia: The Miseducation of Vernon Jones

Vernon Jones
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DeKalb County, GA – Diamond and Silk have a new guest Tuesday: State Representative Vernon Angus Jones. 

I am going to watch this so that you don’t have to. 

Jones represents a district that voted about four-to-one for Clinton in 2016. Endorsing Donald Trump looks politically suicidal. But I’ve written Jones’ political obituary before and I’ll not make that mistake again; political reality doesn’t always work right in the dumb timeline.

Still, I think it’s important to say that Jones — like Donald Trump — is a hell of our own making. And like Trump, Vernon Jones generally does what is best for Vernon Jones.

Jones left office as DeKalb County CEO under a cloud. He subsequently lost kamikaze campaigns for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House and DeKalb sheriff — a job for which he was utterly unqualified. But he maintained name recognition and has money, and that scares people who understand that this is usually all it takes to win a local election.

Also, he is very tall. Which is nice. 

The Democratic Party has long failed to muster the political will to confront Jones in a way that matters. In this, Jones is a symptom of a larger problem; the disconnect between the political class and the American public that gave us Trump in the first place. In a sane world, Jones would never have been able to win a statehouse seat in 2016, given his unusually questionable track record.

Jones started turning legislative delegation meetings upside down immediately upon returning to public office four years ago. His fellow state representatives from DeKalb bemoaned his abuses privately while presenting a largely united front in public, the better to blunt political attacks from the right. The public never saw most of it, but at times it has devolved into incredibly personal confrontations in the halls of the capitol.

I’m pretty sure Howard Mosby, the former chairman of the DeKalb delegation, lost his seat over this stuff. Mosby comes from a notable political lineage in DeKalb, held his seat for 16 years, and remains well respected among DeKalb’s political class. I really didn’t see a successful challenge coming. But Mosby was also viewed as an architect of the Jones Containment System, and in a rapidly-gentrifying district, it probably cost him his job in 2018.

In a sane world, the Democratic Party would have recruited a challenger to Jones that year as an act of self-preservation. 

Jones was the chief provocateur against ethics reform legislation last year, befitting a career of ethics questions dogging him. DeKalb’s ethics problems are legendary, but elected leaders often resist oversight. The supposed fix that came out of negotiations with Jones and his faction was more than flawed: in a stunning turn, voters rejected the proposed ethics board reform in a referendum, three to two. 

When voters tell you no in an off-year election, there are few clearer signals that something is really wrong.

So this year, the wheels started coming off. The political risks of ignoring Jones finally started to outweigh the risk of confrontation. Thus, we hear about the shouting match between Jones and political activist Marjorie Hall, the transphobic slur he spat at Doraville Councilwoman Stephe Koontz, and more. I would note that Jones and I have a history, but that’s true of anyone who has said or done much around here.

Women candidates in 2018 started with an extra 10 to 15-point electoral advantage, courtesy of the #MeToo movement. When Rhonda Taylor, a Conyers businesswoman with a long record of Democratic Party activism, qualified to run against him, I think it became clear that his time was up. 

On top of everything else, Jones has been accused of rape in the past, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the Associated Press. Jones called it a “consensual” encounter and no charges were filed according to the AJC.

Meanwhile, people finally started to dig again. Faye Coffield, a community activist and private investigator in Stonecrest who happens to live in the 91st district, made a legal challenge to his residency. Jones uses a post office box for his mailing address. Coffield argued that he has actually been living at a house on Moreland Avenue since last year, long enough to spoil his district residency requirement. 

Residency challenges rarely succeed. This one is different. The teleconference hearing was initially set for April 21. Rachel Gage, Coffield’s attorney, said that hearing has been rescheduled to May 8. 

Last week, Jones announced he was resigning, but quickly reversed that decision. Gage notes that Jones’ reversal only pertains to his current term in office. He is still withdrawing his candidacy and won’t be running for reelection, Gage said. 

“He initially resigned his seat and withdrew from the race,” Gage said. “The next day he put out a video saying he reversed course but what actually happened was he withdrew his resignation from his current term, but he continued with the withdrawal of his candidacy.”

So, he never actually resigned. He pulled his name off the ballot but announced that he had changed his mind about resigning a couple of days after informing the Georgia Secretary of State of his intention to withdraw from the race.  I note in passing that ending his candidacy likely moots the residency challenge.

This is the context the national media is missing when looking at our local problem. Jones needs an out. He has dallied with the right before. Notably, he voted for George W. Bush. Even as the NRA was turning into a propaganda arm of the Russian government, Jones addressed their convention in Atlanta in 2017. So why not endorse Trump? He can’t get anything going the other way. 

His political argument is absurd on its face. Jones says Trump got the lowest unemployment rate for black people in history (before everything went pear-shaped). The racial wealth gap is wider than it has ever been, black homeownership is at a 50-year-low and black unemployment has been consistently twice as high as white unemployment. If that holds, black unemployment may be as high as 30 percent today — an all-time record.

Jones argues that Trump has been getting black people out of jail while Biden put them in jail. One has to ignore how Trump abandoned the Obama administration’s rejection of private federal prisons, how Trump disbanded a task force looking at law enforcement disparities, and how his own Justice Department is thwarting the criminal justice reform legislation he signed last year. 

Do I think he actually believes in these positions? Maybe. Sure. Why not. It’s almost irrelevant.

Taking these positions wins attention and name recognition, and when the local political structures are weak, that’s all it takes. It’s a grift. He’s out of other options.

George Chidi is a political columnist and public policy advocate.

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