Jones’ GOP ties feed rumor mill

Vernon Jones enters his Democratic Primary Election watch party for the United States Senate on July 15, 2008. Mikki K. Harris / mkharris@ajc.com
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Vernon Jones enters his Democratic Primary Election watch party for the United States Senate on July 15, 2008. Mikki K. Harris / mkharris@ajc.com

Credit: Mikki K. Harris

Credit: Mikki K. Harris

This story was originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on April 9, 2003.

DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Vernon Jones fashions himself as a man who marches to the beat of his own drum.

Since taking office in 2001, Jones, a Democrat, has often courted prominent Republicans --- raising eyebrows in a county that consistently pulls more Democratic votes than any other county in Georgia.

The latest example of Jones reaching out to Republicans came last week when he hosted a book signing for J.C. Watts, the former congressman from Oklahoma who once led the Republican Conference in the U.S. Congress.

Two days after Sonny Perdue was elected governor last November, Jones appeared with the Republican at a DeKalb public school. At Jones' invitation, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, then a Republican congressman, visited DeKalb twice during his successful U.S. Senate campaign. President Bush praised Jones as a "rising star" in Georgia when he came to DeKalb in March 2001.

All this has left some political observers speculating about Jones' motives and if he may switch parties. His perceived bipartisanship, they say, could make Jones a more attractive congressional or statewide candidate.

"I think a more moderate and conciliatory set of politics would certainly be a good approach," said Clark Atlanta University political science professor William Boone.

Jones said he has no plans to become a Republican. He said he is simply trying to work with people who can help DeKalb County.

"I truly believe most people want their elected officials to work in a bipartisan effort," he said. "I'm not going to wait for the next Democrat to be elected before I ask for help."

Jones credits Chambliss with bringing DeKalb $650,000 last year to hire 50 police officers and $250,000 for the county's homeland security efforts. Jones believes his ties with Bush helped DeKalb put together a conference on faith-based initiatives and get the county block grants for affordable housing.

'Ambidextrous' politics

Oliver Brown, who has been active in DeKalb Democratic politics, believes Jones is attractive to some Republicans because he has embraced GOP programs such as faith-based initiatives and because there are few prominent GOP leaders in DeKalb. Elaine Boyer is the lone Republican on the seven-member DeKalb County Commission. Of the 31 men and women who represent DeKalb in the state Legislature, just four are Republicans.

"Most people think Vernon is a closet Republican," Brown said. "They treat him as such."

Many DeKalb Republicans, though, say there's nothing Republican about Vernon Jones.

"As far as we're concerned, [Jones] is not a friend of Republicans," said Dale Ranta, whose term as chairman of DeKalb's Republican Party ended last month.

The DeKalb GOP endorsed Jones in his 2000 campaign for county CEO, believing Jones was committed to using all sales tax funds for property tax relief. Last year, Jones proposed taking a portion of those funds to pay for new sidewalks and other road improvements.

Jones describes himself as politically "ambidextrous." A day after his event with Watts, Jones met with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is running for president as a Democrat.

Jones says his dealings with Republicans are a byproduct of his political maturation. As a freshman state lawmaker in 1992, Jones said he voted in lockstep with the Democratic party, but he changed his perspective when Democrats supported bills he opposed.

Brown says Jones' cozying up to Republicans could spell trouble when he runs for re-election next year, particularly among black Democrats. He says some Democratic party leaders are angry with Jones for allegedly encouraging state lawmakers to support Larry Walker, Perdue's unsuccessful candidate for House speaker. Jones denies the charge.

Other observers say Jones' actions are no different from those of Sen. Zell Miller, a Georgia Democrat who has been a strong supporter of several Bush initiatives.

Practical approach

Jones echoed the complaints of many black Democrats who say they have supported Democrats and often gotten little in return.

"What I'm trying to do is get people to take the blinders off and not be wedded to a particular party," Jones said.

Henrietta Turnquest, a Democrat who represented a majority black DeKalb district in the state Legislature from 1991 to 2002, supports Jones' approach.

"We have needs, and we need more access," said Turnquest, who is black. "I think he's doing the right thing."

Boone said Jones is being practical by linking himself with Republicans since they are in control of the White House, Congress and the Governor's Mansion.

"If [Jones] were able to put forward the case that I'm doing this to make sure your property taxes do not rise, they will say OK," Boone said.

Brown is skeptical. “We’ll see next year,” he said.