Vernon Jones seeks political comeback in House race

In his fourth bid for public office in the past eight years, Vernon Jones is touting himself as an experienced leader who will address real-life problems, like traffic and unemployment, if elected representative of House District 91.

His opponents, however, are working to paint another picture of the former DeKalb CEO. They portray him as a polarizing figure more interested in regaining power than serving the community.

On May 24, voters will decide for themselves.

Jones faces three Democratic Party opponents in the race for the District 91 seat, which represents parts of DeKalb and Rockdale counties. The seat came open because Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, D-Lithonia, is running for state Senate.

After three failed campaigns — for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and county sheriff — Jones is attempting to return to the place where his state political career began. He was elected to Georgia House of Representatives in 1992. He's been out of office since his second term as DeKalb's CEO ended in 2008.

Jones dismisses his challengers, saying they’re amateurs who don’t have what it takes to get things done in the Georgia General Assembly.

“You need a legislator who’s there on Day 1 getting the job done,” Jones said at a recent candidate forum at the Rockdale County Auditorium in Conyers. “Nobody can touch my record. Nobody can touch my experience. Nobody can work as hard as I can.”

His Democratic rivals may not be as polished as Jones, but they say they will work hard for their communities.

They are Charles Hill, who runs a small business renting rooms to college students; Rhonda Taylor, a legal support consultant; and David Neville, a retired educator. The winner of the primary will face Republican Carl Anuszczyk in the November general election.

“Jones is very divisive, very controversial and someone who is, by all intents and purposes, a bully,” Hill said in an interview. “He’s a virtual tyrant.”

Hill said Jones is more interested in serving himself than representing his district. Hill said, if elected, he will focus on lowering taxes for small businesses, increasing public safety and working with the state’s Republican majority to find common ground.

Taylor said she would provide stable leadership, and she said Jones doesn’t have the temperament to build consensus.

“He’s going to come to this position already knowing how the people think. It’s a dictatorship form of leadership,” Taylor said in an interview. “People know me to be a unifier. Mr. Jones has a way about him where he’s going to tell you how it is, and you’re going to follow.”

Taylor said she has lobbied for stronger sex trafficking laws to hold pimps accountable and that she would emphasize public education if elected.

Neville said his 42 years in public education would serve him well in the General Assembly.

“Integrity … that’s what District 91 has had, and that’s what I want to keep,” he said.

Hill questioned Jones’ honesty because he’s been investigated by law enforcement agencies, though never charged.

A DeKalb special grand jury in 2013 recommended an investigation of Jones for bid-rigging and theft when he was CEO, but District Attorney Robert James said last month he lacked evidence to show any crimes had occurred.

Jones told the audience at the Rockdale candidate forum he would look out for them rather than get caught up in politics.

“I want to bring home resources for the real issues that we’re dealing with and not get into foolishness,” Jones said. “My time is going to be spent on economic development, getting these transportation issues addressed and addressing criminal justice reform.”

But Hill said Jones is pandering to a community that feels neglected by government leaders.

“Don’t let anyone trick you or cause you to believe that experience is the only thing that matters,” Hill said at the candidate forum. “You need someone that’s going to have a heart for the people, who has a mind for solving complex problems, that will be humble, that has the ability and capacity to work with anyone.”

If none of the four in the Democratic primary wins a majority, the race would be decided in a runoff July 26.