Politics & Government

As a Democrat, then a Republican, Walter Jones has never followed the party bosses

North Carolina congressman Walter Jones is an American original.

In an age when most members of Congress seem stamped out by an ideological cookie cutter and engage in fierce political tribalism, Jones has always been his own man.

U.S. Rep. Jones, 75, who is now in hospice care, is beholden to no political party, no establishment, and no special interests. For someone who has served in Congress for nearly a quarter of a century, that is no small feat.

But the Republican from Pitt County has paid a price for his independence. Despite decades in the U.S. House, he has never held a committee chairmanship, the spigot of campaign funds out of Washington was long ago cut off, and he is sometimes seen sitting alone at the Capitol Hill Club, a GOP social club, two blocks from the Capitol.

Jones has long perplexed both political parties. I got to know Jones when he was a conservative Democrat in the General Assembly, where he championed campaign finance and lobbying reform.

It was in Raleigh where he first demonstrated his maverick tendencies. He joined 18 other Democrats in a coalition with 46 Republicans in a coup to overthrow powerful House Speaker Liston Ramsey, a New Deal mountain Democrat, in 1989. The maneuver resulted in the election of the more independent Joe Mavretic, a Democrat who led a bipartisan House coalition.

In 1992, Jones sought to move up to Congress to replace his father, Walter Jones Sr., a longtime Democrat and powerful committee chairman who served from 1966 until his death in 1992. But the 1st Congressional District was redrawn to favor an African-American candidate and Jones lost to Democrat Eva Clayton.

Jones switched political parties and ran for the adjacent 3rd Congressional District – much of which had been in his father’s old district – and was elected in 1994. He defeated four-term Democratic incumbent Martin Lancaster, who had helped Democratic President Bill Clinton pass a budget and tax package. Jones ran a TV ad showing footage of Lancaster jogging with Clinton. “How’d Martin Lancaster get so out of touch?’’ said the ad. “Well, look who he’s running around with in Washington.”

As it turned out, Jones refused to run around with anybody in Washington. Although elected as part of the so-called Gingrich Revolution in which Republicans took the House, Jones would never be a conservative foot soldier, even if he had a mostly conservative voting record.

Jones, a Southern Baptist who converted to Catholicism, has been a social conservative: a leading abortion opponent, a foe of same-sex marriages and gays serving in the military, and an opponent of pornography. He has been a special favorite of the Religious Right, and when he visits the small-town and country churches that dot Eastern North Carolina, he speaks in language that is more likely to come from the Bible than from a political consultant or poll.

An early supporter of U.S. military involvement in Iraq, he helped convince the House in 2003 to rename the French fries served in the House cafeteria to “freedom fries,” after the French government balked at joining the American-led coalition.

But Jones broke with the Republican establishment in general and the Bush administration in particular, over the course of the war. Representing a military-heavy district that included the Marines’ Camp Lejeune, he was one of the first Republicans to voice skepticism about whether the venture was worth American blood and American treasure.

To pay penance for voting to authorize the war, Jones has signed more than 11,000 letters to families of American servicemen killed in Iraq (sometimes sending letters to multiple family members.) In the hallway outside his office in the House Rayburn Building are the photos of more than 500 Marines who had been stationed at Camp Lejeune Marine Base who have been killed.

“For me, it’s a sacred responsibility that I have to communicate my condolences to a family,” Jones told The Associated Press in 2017. “And it’s very special to me because it goes back to my regretting that I voted to go into the Iraq War.”

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. looks at pictures of the soldiers killed this century based in Camp Lejeune along a hallway leading to his office on Capitol Hill, on Oct. 25, 2017, in Washington. Andrew Harnik AP

Although soft-spoken and self-effacing – The Washingtonian magazine’s annual survey of congressional staffers frequently lists him as one of the nicest people in the House – Jones can strip the bark off the tree on occasion.

“Congress will not hold anyone to blame,” Jones told a Libertarian group in Raleigh in 2013 (as reported by hundreds of news outlets including The News and Observer). “Lyndon Johnson’s probably rotting in hell right now because of the Vietnam War and he probably needs to move over for Dick Cheney.”

Jones has often bucked his party’s leadership, and the more they pressured him to conform, the more he got his back up.

He angered many conservatives for his votes against the Republican tax cut and against repeal of the Affordable Care Act among other things.

Although his colleagues do not regard him as a deep thinker, there has always been an ideological consistency to his positions. Jones believes in protecting life – whether it is the unborn or young men sent into battle for optional wars.

As a deficit hawk strongly influenced by libertarian ideas, Jones is not only a critic of big government spending, but thinks GOP efforts to cut taxes equally added to the red ink.

The election of Donald Trump, another proclaimed outsider, did not impress Jones. While many Republicans were loath to criticize a president who is very popular with the GOP’s core conservative constituency, Jones called on Trump to release his tax returns and joined Democrats in calling for an independent commission to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The knock on Jones, of course, is that politics is a team sport, and legislative bodies could not function if every individual went off in their own direction. A Congress full of Walter Joneses would be chaos.

But Jones has also followed a long American tradition of individualism.

As 19th century American writer Henry David Thoreau wrote: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”

Rob Christensen, a retired political columnist for The News & Observer, can be reached at robchristensen1920@gmail.com