State Rep. Vernon Jones bucked his party Tuesday and endorsed President Donald Trump, making him the first state elected Democratic official in Georgia to back the Republican's bid for a second term.
The lawmaker drew a backlash from Democrats who accused him of betrayal at a time when state and national figures were rallying around former Vice President Joe Biden. Top House Democrats responded by endorsing Jones’ primary challenger, while others cast him as a narcissist.
Long a polarizing figure in Georgia politics, Jones told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he views Trump as a transformative president whose policies have helped African American voters, military veterans and farmers.
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“It’s very simple to me. President Trump’s handling of the economy, his support for historically black colleges and his criminal justice initiatives drew me to endorse his campaign,” said Jones, who added that he had no immediate plans to switch parties.
“There are a lot of African Americans who clearly see and appreciate he’s doing something that’s never been done before,” Jones said. “When you look at the unemployment rates among black Americans before the pandemic, they were at historic lows. That’s just a fact.”
State Democratic officials tried Tuesday to disown Jones, a former chief executive of DeKalb County, Georgia's biggest Democratic stronghold. State Sen. Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the state party, called him an "embarrassment" who doesn't reflect Georgia values.
“Never has that been clearer than this moment, when he chose to stand with the racist president who has made an all-out assault on black Americans, who has tried to rip away American health care and who has failed our country in its greatest time of need,” she said.
In a conference call with the AJC, the Georgia House's three top Democratic leaders backed Rhonda Taylor, a community activist who is challenging Jones in the June primary. House Minority Leader Bob Trammell said he is sending her a check immediately.
"We're not sure what was on Vernon's mind. It's antithetical to what we believe in," said state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, the chairman of the party's House caucus. "We can't support an ideology that's diametrically opposed to who we are and what we value."
State Republicans were overjoyed at the development, which offers Trump’s campaign an African American surrogate who has won the top office in one of Georgia’s most populous -- and left-leaning -- counties. (Trump captured just 16% of the vote in DeKalb in 2016.)
The Gwinnett County GOP promoted the endorsement on social media and asked supporters to chip in a few dollars “to keep our state red.”
And Brandon Phillips, a Republican operative who was chairman of Trump’s campaign in Georgia in 2016, said Jones has been chewing over the decision for years.
“Vernon has been a Trump fan for a while,” Phillips said. “Glad to see him putting Georgia first over party.”
Jones launched his political career in the early 1990s in the Georgia House before winning the first of two terms as DeKalb County’s top executive in 2000. His stint was marked by controversy.
His administration shepherded rapid development and more than $350 million worth of funding for parks and infrastructure. But he drew intense scrutiny for angry outbursts and an accusation of rape that he said was a consensual act between three partners. No charges were filed.
A special grand jury in 2013 recommended an investigation into allegations against Jones of bid-rigging and theft when he was CEO, but the then-district attorney said he lacked evidence to show any crimes had occurred.
While in political exile, Jones mounted unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House and DeKalb sheriff before his victory in a DeKalb-based House seat returned him to the state Capitol four years ago.
Since he regained office, Jones has routinely allied himself with Republican lawmakers in the Legislature, including co-sponsoring a measure this year that would crack down on unauthorized immigrants. And his social media posts crackle with positive messages about Trump.
While he has promised a gentler political approach, he’s remained a divisive figure who is often at odds with many of his Democratic colleagues.
In March alone, he called a fellow Democratic lawmaker a "chicken (expletive)" and was accused of making transphobic comments to a Doraville City Council member who Jones said tried to draw a comparison between being black and being gay.
State Rep. Scott Holcomb, a DeKalb Democrat who represents a nearby district, summed up his reaction to Jones' endorsement of Trump with seven words: "They're both incompetent narcissists. This isn't surprising."
It’s not yet certain how Jones’ endorsement will affect his re-election chances. The last time he faced a challenge, he defeated Taylor and three other Democrats in a 2016 primary before capturing nearly three-quarters of the vote against a GOP opponent.
This year, however, he faces an ethics complaint alleging he doesn't live in the district as well as a rematch against Taylor, a paralegal who issued a plea for support upon learning of Jones' endorsement: "Democrats around the country deserve better."
Jones, who dismissed the ethics complaint as “baseless fake news,” told the AJC he was prepared for blowback from fellow Democrats and portrayed his decision as a stand for his First Amendment rights.
“A philosopher once said, ‘One courageous man in the crowd is a majority.’ I’ve got the courage to express my convictions,” Jones said. “I believe that Donald Trump is the best person to lead this country going forward.”