Former Democratic lawmaker Vernon Jones challenges Kemp in GOP primary

210416-Atlanta-Vernon Jones announces he is running as a Republican for Governor during a press event Friday morning, April 16, 2021 at Liberty Plaza at the State Capitol. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

210416-Atlanta-Vernon Jones announces he is running as a Republican for Governor during a press event Friday morning, April 16, 2021 at Liberty Plaza at the State Capitol. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A former Democratic state legislator who switched parties after he endorsed Donald Trump launched an insurgent challenge Friday against Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, setting the stage for a race that will test the former president’s influence in Georgia.

Vernon Jones aims to tap into GOP anger at Kemp for resisting Trump’s demands to overturn Joe Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia in November, though his long record as an elected Democratic official seems certain to complicate his bid to win over Republican voters.

At a sparsely attended kickoff event outside the state Capitol, Jones delivered a roughly 30-minute speech where he called Kemp a phony conservative and pledged to replace Georgia’s voting system, which came under attack by pro-Trump conspiracy theorists after Biden’s victory.

As he signed autographs for a small group of supporters, Jones refused to answer a question about how he can attract GOP support as a lifelong Democrat or say whether he expects to receive Trump’s endorsement.

The former president has repeatedly promised to back a primary challenger to Kemp, though it’s not yet clear whether he’ll side with Jones, who gained national attention after he publicly supported Trump’s reelection campaign a year ago. Jones formally switched to the GOP in January, after his term in the Legislature expired.

Even with Trump’s help, Jones faces a steep challenge with the Georgia GOP electorate. Though recent polls show Kemp has been damaged by his falling out with Trump, the first-term governor’s outspoken support for a controversial package of new election restrictions has helped him rally the party’s base.

In recent weeks, Kemp has been a mainstay on conservative cable TV shows and enjoyed raucous receptions at grassroots meetings across the state, seemingly dissuading better-known Republican rivals such as former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, whom Trump once recruited to run.

What’s more, Jones must answer for a long history of controversy in public office that includes allegations of sexual assault that he has denied, along with votes that could alienate Republicans such as Jones’ opposition to a strict anti-abortion “heartbeat” measure that Kemp signed into law in 2019.

Gov. Brian Kemp's strong defense of Georgia's new voting law has won him improving support among the state's GOP base, although he still faces heavy criticism from former President Donald Trump for refusing to overturn the outcome of last year's presidential election. File photo. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images/TNS)

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Kemp and his allies are eager to portray a contrast between the state’s first lifelong Republican governor since Reconstruction and a party-switching Democrat who only endorsed Trump last year. Bobby Saparow, Kemp’s campaign manager, recited a list of Jones’ stances that included his support for Barack Obama, backing of firearms restrictions and opposition to anti-abortion legislation.

“He is not a Republican, and he is certainly not a conservative,” Saparow said. “Assuming he actually stays in the race, we look forward to contrasting Gov. Kemp’s successful conservative record with Vernon Jones’ liberal, corrupt tenure in public life.”

But Kemp still faces deep challenges with some elements of his party’s base who mistrust him after Trump’s repeated attacks, as evidenced by a growing push to “censure” the governor at several county-level GOP conventions. And an expected rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams still looms for Kemp if he regains his party’s nomination.

Jones’ rally on Friday was attended by a few dozen activists, including some who pointedly noted they hadn’t yet decided to back him. Also there was Bernard Kerik, the dishonored former New York City police commissioner who was recently pardoned by Trump.

“The left better get ready for this right hook and a right uppercut,” Jones said to a smattering of cheers. “Because we’re coming.”

A record of controversy

Though Jones’ endorsement of Trump in April 2020 captured headlines, it was far from surprising to partisans from both sides of the aisle who have long seen him as a uniquely polarizing figure in state politics.

Jones launched his political career in the early 1990s in the Georgia House before winning the first of two terms as DeKalb County’s chief executive officer 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 his angry outbursts and clashes with other local officials dominated headlines, as did some serious allegations.

For much of his second term in office, Jones battled an accusation of rape that he said was a consensual act between three partners. Prosecutors said at the time that they dropped the criminal investigation because the alleged victim didn’t want to go through the trauma of a trial. Her lawyer said she stood by the accusation.

And a wide-ranging special grand jury report released in 2013, after Jones left office, recommended an investigation against him and other DeKalb officials into possible bid-rigging and theft when he was chief executive, painting a picture of a culture of corruption that spanned from his office to workers and contractors in the watershed department.

Then-District Attorney Robert James later said that after a review of the grand jury’s findings, he found there wasn’t enough evidence to bring charges against Jones and several other officials highlighted in the report. Watchdog groups protested the decision.

While in political exile, Jones mounted unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House and DeKalb sheriff before his victory five years ago in a DeKalb-based House seat returned him to the state Capitol.

After he regained office, Jones quickly became a pariah to fellow Democrats as he aligned himself with Republicans on controversial measures, including co-sponsoring a proposal to crack down on unauthorized immigrants. His social media posts crackled with positive messages about Trump.

In March 2020, he called a fellow Democratic lawmaker an 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.

After he endorsed Trump, Jones gained immense popularity among supporters of the then-president, and he began rubbing shoulders with state GOP officials who once vilified him.

Vernon Jones, then a Democratic legislator, crowd-surfs during an October rally in Macon supporting Republican Donald Trump's presidential reelection campaign. (Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

He crowd-surfed at a Trump rally in October and was awarded a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention, where he said Democrats confine Black voters to a “mental plantation they’ve had us on for decades.” He also headlined “Stop the Steal” rallies and promoted fraudulent pro-Trump conspiracy theories, such as alleging the November election was “tainted.”

Once rumored to run for a lower-profile statewide post, Jones’ attention has shifted to Kemp as more popular GOP figures have declined to challenge the governor.

In recent weeks, Jones’ social media feeds have filled with exaggerated pronouncements on Twitter, such as the false assertion that Trump would still be president if Jones were governor.

“The governor’s office has failed to fight for you and for me,” Jones said Friday. “He failed those of us who hold dear our freedoms, our Constitution and the right to a free, fair and transparent election.”