OPINION: Crazy? Genius? Democrat Vernon Jones’ right-wing exit strategy

Vernon Jones, surrounded by news media outside the federal court in Atlanta  on April 1, 2010. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)
Vernon Jones, surrounded by news media outside the federal court in Atlanta on April 1, 2010. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Earlier this month, former Republican congressman Paul Broun owned the Internet when he brandished an AR-15, blasted off a few shots and talked about keeping the "looting hordes from Atlanta" at bay with superior firepower.

His campaign video made sense, since he’s running for an extremely conservative North Georgia district and is going up against connected — and likewise conservative — Republicans. Gun play and bold words just can’t hurt.

A week after his stunt, DeKalb County’s finest, Vernon Jones, looked around and said, “Hold my beer, watch this!”

In a grainy video that he put on Twitter, the longtime Democratic politician announced that he was supporting Donald Trump. It was the Vernonism heard around the world. When last I looked, his video had been viewed 1.1 million times and he was getting all sorts of MAGA love.

Jones, of course, is the former DeKalb CEO who now represents a state House district seat that stretches from east DeKalb into Rockdale County. And he may even live there. Or not. His residency is the focus of a court challenge to knock him off the ballot.

Aside from that, Jones is feeling the heat in his very Democratic, very African-American district. He has a solid challenger, Rhonda Taylor, who went to a runoff with him in 2016. They face each other in the June 9 Democratic primary.

Now, one could scratch one's head and wonder the logic, or sanity, of a Democratic candidate publicly pushing for Trump in a district that Hillary won 74% to 24%. And that 74-24 was in the general election. I'd wager Democratic voters in the upcoming primary would be at least 90-10 anti-Trump.

In his video, Jones said he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, “the Democratic Party left me,” doing his best impersonation of Zell Miller, the old dyed-in-the-wool Georgia Dem who stood on the stage of the 2004 Republican convention and sang the praises of George W. Bush.

Georgia Democratic lawmaker endorses Trump’s presidential bid.State Rep. Vernon Jones bucked his party on Tuesday and endorsed President Donald Trump.Jones is the first state elected Democratic official in Georgia to back the Republican’s bid for a second term.A polarizing figure in Georgia politics, the DeKalb legislator told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was not switching parties.Jones said he views Trump as a transformative figure who has helped African-American voters, military veterans and

Vernon, too, voted for Bush, a move that backfired in his Shot at the Big Time, the 2008 Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat. Jones was coming off two terms as DeKalb’s CEO and was facing Jim Martin, a former legislator who is white. Jones finished ahead of Martin in the primary, 40% to 34%, but was blown out by 20 points in the runoff.

Part of his shellacking came because civil rights icon the Rev. Joe Lowery dissed The Vern, saying that Democrats could not “afford to send to the Senate a zig-zag, so-called conservative Bush supporter.”

Jones is an ambitious pol who once had a future, but it has been squandered in controversy, race-baiting, allegations of corruption and just general unpleasantness. In 2010, two years after getting thumped by Martin, U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson thumped him more than 2-1. Then voters dismissed him again in 2014 when he ran for DeKalb County sheriff.

Vernon Jones  announced his campaign for DeKalb County sheriff on the steps of the old DeKalb County Courthouse in Decatur on Feb. 20, 2014. (JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)
Vernon Jones announced his campaign for DeKalb County sheriff on the steps of the old DeKalb County Courthouse in Decatur on Feb. 20, 2014. (JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)

Out of better options, Jones ran for a state House seat in 2016, the place where he started 24 years earlier. But his time in the Legislature since hasn't been spent resuscitating his image. He's been fighting with fellow Dems and working hard to scuttle an ethics board in DeKalb County.

So why not try something new? Hence, the endorsement.

In Jones’ recent video, he said, “President Trump’s handling of the economy, his support for historically black colleges and his criminal justice initiatives drew me to endorse his campaign.”

Support for Jones was immediate and overwhelming in the right-wing media and social media. He was called "courageous," "a patriot" and a "great American." He tweeted that he was set to be interviewed on the OANN, the news site that makes Fox News look like bed-wetting liberals.

Of course, such appearances won’t help Jones in a Democratic primary in a district that Hillary carried 3-1.

Dems were quick to hit back at Jones, who has always enjoyed just about any attention afforded him.

State Sen. Nikema Williams, who heads the Georgia Democratic Party, called him an “embarrassment” for choosing to stand with a “racist president.” When I reached her, she was on a conference call with other Democrats who are considering pulling Jones’ D-card, although that is up in the air.

Jones hasn’t said whether he wants to switch parties. When I emailed him several questions, he simply replied, “My priority is the interest of the people.”

John Jackson, chair of DeKalb’s Dems, said, “We’ll find out on June 9 if Vernon Jones’ name is more popular than Trump is unpopular.”

ajc.com

Jones’ move is largely an exit strategy. In reality, the ever-ambitious Jones has run out of runway with the Democratic Party in Georgia. He’s seen as a pain in the keister and few want him around. There really is no future for him there.

David Shafer, the head of Georgia’s GOP, didn’t want to get into hypotheticals about Jones switching parties. “We certainly welcome his support of the president,” he said.

State Rep. Scott Holcomb, a DeKalb Democrat, said Jones’ endorsement of Trump, “is a ploy to ingratiate himself to the Republicans. If the president gets elected, maybe he’ll be appointed to something.”

“He’s useless in Georgia because people in both parties know him,” said Holcomb. “But he can pull the wool over other people’s eyes. He could be a unique asset to the Trump campaign.”

A black Democrat stumping for Trump is always a good thing for his campaign to use against calls that Trump is a “racist.” It’s the old “I-have-a-black-friend” retort.

And Jones could make a flurry of media stops on the right-wing, non-FakeNews circuit. He can be engaging and media savvy, although, I must say, he usually isn’t.

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