Kindler, gentler Vernon Jones set sights on Congress

Vernon Jones does his own driving these days. The DeKalb County security detail that famously carried “Mr. CEO” on his daily and nightly rounds is now far in his rear-view mirror.

What’s in his rear-view mirror just now is a traffic cop lurching into a pursuit on I-20. “We weren’t speeding, were we?” he asks, glancing back. The officer speeds past his SUV to nab another driver.

A year out of public office, Jones rolls more slowly these days. The police officers who once chauffeured him liked driving fast, he says.

He’s heading to the eastern reaches of the 4th Congressional District to meet with the editorial board of the weekly Rockdale News. Jones has set his sights on defeating former DeKalb colleague Hank Johnson, who occupies that congressional seat.

Entering the tiny newspaper office, Jones is effusive, funny, engaging and apologetic — sometimes almost painfully so.

The candidate is aggressively branding himself as Vernon 2.0, a kinder, gentler Vernon Jones, a bridge builder, a fence mender. Asked by a Rockdale editor about his “road to Damascus moment,” Jones laughs. “I got knocked off my donkey,” he says.

For eight years, Jones ran DeKalb County with a bulls-eye sewn on his Armani jacket. His administration oversaw a time of rapid development and more than $350 million worth of funding for parks, sidewalks and roads and libraries. But he may be more known for frequent angry outbursts and a private life that included an accusation of rape the 49-year-old bachelor contended was a consensual menage a trois. No charges were filed.

He was a politician perpetually at odds with the media, courting publicity then parsing every word published, anguishing over every perceived slight. It took months, he said, to let go after leaving office.

Back to a regular Joe

“I was like an animal at the shelter that had been beat up,” he recalled. “I’d see something on TV about DeKalb County and I’d be ready to get on the phone and tell someone how to handle it.”

Then it would hit him: He was a regular Joe, no longer a player in the public arena. “You think about going into office but not going out of office,” he said. He said he took the time to work out, travel, spend time with his ailing mother and do some consulting work. He said he advises businesses how to do business with governments. “People pay for knowledge,” he said. “But I’m not a lobbyist.”

What made his post-CEO landing rougher was that it came after an ill-fated run for U.S. Senate in 2008. After leading in the primary, Jones lost the Democratic nomination by 20 percent in a bitter runoff with Jim Martin. The race featured a bizarre episode in which presidential candidate Barack Obama publicly called out Jones for faking his image on a campaign flier. In the ad, Jones, who voted twice for George W. Bush, appeared to be sharing a stage with Obama.

Jones still insists he would be in Washington now as a U.S. senator if the state’s Democratic Party had stayed out of the race and not supported Martin. And he dismisses contentions he shot too high running for the Senate.

“I had more experience than [former U.S. Sen.] Sam Nunn when he went to Washington,” said Jones, who has never lacked for assuredness. He often refers to himself in the third person.

“Abraham Lincoln was controversial. Mahatma Gandhi was controversial. Jesus was controversial,” he said. “If you call Vernon Jones controversial, then that is a badge of honor. He didn’t want to be liked. He had a vision and did what was needed.”

‘Sympathy for me?’

But then the humbler Jones steps in. Don’t get him wrong, he said; he likes Congressman Johnson, but says he was elected in 2006 because of a sentiment of “ABC” — “Anyone But Cynthia,” referring to former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney.

“I have more experience,” Jones said of his opponent. “I have balanced budgets. I’m one of the few running for Congress who actually ran a government.”

But defeating an even-keeled incumbent will be difficult. Johnson also may benefit from voter sympathy after revealing in December he suffers from the potentially deadly hepatitis C, which caused him to drastically lose weight as he underwent experimental therapy.

Jones looked puzzled when asked about a possible support for Johnson because of his illness. “Where’s a sympathy for me?” he asked. “People say I should have won the Senate.”

Missed opportunities?

Some believe Jones missed his best shot at Washington in 2006, when McKinney’s act had grown thin with voters, especially after her publicized run-in with a U.S. Capitol police officer. Others think he ran in the wrong race in 2008, when Johnson was still new to the office and had little name recognition.

Dwight Thomas, Jones’ lawyer, friend and adviser, said he told Jones in 2006 “the more appropriate thing was to finish his term.”

“They both have strong constituencies,” Thomas said of Jones and Johnson. “There are people who don’t like [Jones] personally but think that he gets the job done. There are people who can hold their nose and vote for him. The controversial side is more his personality and his personal life.”

Jim Coonan, a Democratic consultant who crunched the numbers after Jones’ 2008 defeat, said Jones got just 68 percent of the black vote in DeKalb. “And that was against Jim Martin [who is white]. But now he’s against an incumbent, Hank Johnson, a black incumbent.”

Every one of his campaigns has been tough, contends Jones, a four-term state legislator before winning two terms as DeKalb CEO. In 2004, he beat two state legislators and a DeKalb commissioner without going to a runoff.

In his element

Out on the campaign trail, Jones has a word for everyone. He strolls into the Lou Walker Senior Center in Lithonia, the wildly popular $10 million facility built during his administration, and approaches the front counter. “You got some job applications?” says the man everyone in the building knows is seeking his next job.

He enters the cafeteria. “I know someone’s cheating,” he jokes with a foursome playing cards, drawing smiles of friendly recognition. The seniors here are active, they vote and they love Jones.

Carol McNeil smiles. “Hi, Vernon, I hear you’re running,” she says as Jones put his hand on her shoulder and bends to whisper something. “Of course I’ll help,” she says.

Jones is in his element. “This is what I know best. I love campaigning,” he says.

Outside, back in his SUV, Jones plays tour guide.

“You see that library? That was part of my expansion,” he says of a construction site. “There are still projects coming out of the ground.”

Jones maneuvers his vehicle around a barrier on the Arabia Mountain Trail and drives down the bike path. “We balanced the budget, no layoffs, no tax increase, our bond rating went up, we passed four bond initiatives,” he says, stabbing a long index finger in the air to make points.

Actually, the commission during Jones’ first term voted to spend 20 percent of the Homestead Option Sales Tax on infrastructure projects instead of using it for property tax relief. That led to higher property tax bills.

Ready to move on?

As the road trip continues, he suddenly blurts out that a grand jury had found no wrongdoing with the security patrol he had as CEO. The comment comes out of nowhere, as if he’s been having a conversation with himself.

Indeed, the grand jury found nothing illegal about the $250,000-a-year, five-officer detail, but called it “a very expensive decoration.”

“I never got a free ride,” Jones says. The media picked on him more frequently, treated him more harshly and refused to note his accomplishments, he says.

“If someone would have called and said that I was at Bundy Drive, then I’d be there with O.J. Simpson,” said Jones, referring to the street where Simpson’s ex-wife was killed. “But if someone would call about my record and accomplishments, you wouldn’t send anyone out to cover it.”

But that was then, the new-and-improved Vernon Jones will tell you with a smile. “I’m in love with the media now.”

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