DeKalb Democrats explore punishing Vernon Jones for endorsing Trump

State Rep. Vernon Jones faced swift blowback after he became the first state Democratic official to endorse President Donald Trump: His colleagues called him a traitor, the party chair cast him as an "embarrassment" and House leaders endorsed his primary challenger.

The Lithonia Democrat might soon face further repercussions for his decision. The DeKalb County Democratic party is exploring whether to take official action to discipline him, perhaps by issuing a reprimand or formally endorsing his opponent, Rhonda Taylor.

“We are going to take every step we can under our bylaws,” said John Jackson, the county party’s chair.

“We do not stand for President Trump. It’s Jones’ right to vote for who he wants, but when you get elected as a Democrat, you’re a part of the party leadership.”

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It was part of a broader wave of criticism that crashed upon Jones, a former DeKalb County chief executive, after he broke party ranks to back the Republican.

Jones said he was prepared for the onslaught and described himself in an interview as a politician who has "the courage to express my convictions." And in a video posted to Twitter Wednesday, he suggested he could switch parties.

“Let me be clear about one thing: I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left me,” he said. “But one would say, ‘Why would a black man support Donald Trump?’ I would reverse that. Why wouldn’t a black man support Donald Trump?”

Jackson also faced calls to oust him from the county's party, much like Athens-Clarke County Democrats did in 2017 when the mayor endorsed a Republican statehouse candidate. But because Jones is a state legislator, not a county official, Jackson said the local party lacks the authority to do so.

It’s unclear whether state Democratic leaders will consider similar steps, though the party’s bylaws prohibit endorsing a candidate in a contested primary before the vote. Still, party chair Nikema Williams said Jones “does not stand for our values” and her top allies seconded her stance.

"He was never a Democrat but is gaming the system to win. He's a wolf in sheep's skin," said Adrienne White, the state party's vice-chair for recruitment, who encouraged Jones on social media to switch to the GOP.

‘Everything in our power’

The fallout intensified on Wednesday as the political arm of Fair Fight, the voting rights group founded by Stacey Abrams, said through a spokesman that it will also support Taylor’s primary challenge.

"No supporter of a racist president who is actively trying to suppress the votes of eligible Americans will receive the backing of Fair Fight,” said the spokesman, Seth Bringman.

Though the impulse to sanction Jones might be hard for Democrats to resist, it could yield long-term challenges if the two-term lawmaker holds on to his seat in November. Democrats are battling to flip 16 seats in the 180-member chamber to gain control and might need every member they can get.

“If it comes down to one seat and Jones is still in the House come 2021, the Republican Party will do everything it can to get him to switch,” said Fred Hicks, a veteran Georgia political operative. “The best course would probably be to help his Democratic opponent and avoid that decision.”

That’s exactly what Democratic leaders aim to do. House Minority Leader Bob Trammell stroked a check to Taylor, a legal services staffer who hails from the Rockdale County part of the district. And grassroots activists lit up social media with pleas to help Taylor, who narrowly lost to Jones in a 2016 runoff.

That campaign taught Taylor some hard truths about DeKalb politics. Her campaign signs went mysteriously missing, she said, and forums got unexpectedly rowdy as she faced an experienced opponent quick with cutting comebacks.

Her biggest challenge was a precinct surrounding New Birth Missionary Baptist Church where older retirees with fond memories of Jones from his time as the county’s leader proved difficult to persuade.

This time, she’ll make sure that those voters – along with the rest of the district – are made aware of his endorsement of Trump.

The district is overwhelmingly black and overwhelmingly Democratic; even with his knack for controversy, Jones won more than 70% of the vote in 2016 to defeat a Republican challenger.

“Every resident should know how their representative feels about the president,” she said, “and we’ll do everything in our power to make sure all 56,000 of them get mailers, calls, texts and postcards to remind them of this endorsement.”