Georgia Democrat Vernon Jones to speak at RNC to tout Trump

Vernon Jones answers a question during the forum. Jones and other candidates for Georgia House District 91 participate in a debate sponsored by the Rockdale Chapter NAACP and the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce Thursday, May 5, 2016. KENT D. JOHNSON/kdjohnson@ajc.com

The lawmaker is the only Georgian on a lengthy list of GOP convention speakers

President Donald Trump’s campaign wants to counter the Republicans who spoke up for Joe Biden during the Democratic National Convention with some across-the-aisle pizzazz this week. State Rep. Vernon Jones, the only state Democratic official in Georgia to endorse Trump, is set to lead the effort.

The DeKalb Democrat plans to speak on Monday at the kickoff of the four-day Republican convention, officials said Sunday. He’s the only Georgian on a list of dozens of names of speakers released by RNC organizers.

Since he endorsed Trump in April, Jones has become one of the president’s key surrogates in Georgia. He’s trekked to the White House to meet the president, relentlessly promoted him and emerged as a top draw at local Republican gatherings.

“This president – through all of the good he has done – has united our country,” Jones said. “Now, it’s time for our country – on both sides of the aisle – to unite behind him.”

Jones has also drawn scathing criticism from fellow Democrats. His colleagues called him a traitor, the party chair cast him as an “embarrassment” and House leaders endorsed his primary challenger shortly before he announced he wouldn’t stand for another term.

Long a polarizing figure in Georgia politics, Jones told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he endorsed Trump because he views him as a transformative president whose policies have helped Black voters, military veterans, farmers and others he said were squeezed by Democratic policies.

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Democrats quickly noted that he had long been on the outs with the state party, dating back to his vocal support of Republican President George W. Bush in 2004. Soon after his endorsement of Trump, the local county party openly considered whether to sanction him.

“The Democratic Convention included heavyweight Republicans who support Joe Biden out of principle and love for country,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, a Democrat who represents a nearby district. “The Republicans have a washed-up state representative who yields no influence in his home state. Good luck with that.”

Jones launched his political career in the early 1990s in the Georgia House before winning the first of two terms as DeKalb County’s top executive 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. Environmentalists and transportation advocates praised his legacy.

But he drew intense criticism for angry outbursts, claims of mismanagement and an accusation of rape that he said was a consensual act between three partners. No charges were filed.

After he left office, a special grand jury in 2013 recommended an investigation into allegations against Jones of bid-rigging and theft when he was CEO, but the then-district attorney said he lacked evidence to show any crimes had occurred.

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

Georgia Democratic state Rep. Vernon Jones meets with President Donald Trump.

Since he regained office in 2016, Jones has allied himself with Republican lawmakers in the Legislature, including co-sponsoring a measure this year that would crack down on unauthorized immigrants. And his social media posts before the endorsement are filled with positive messages about Trump.

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His endorsement has turned Jones’ one-time critics into proud supporters. State Republicans see him as an important Black surrogate who has won the top office in DeKalb County, the state’s biggest trove of Democratic votes. Trump captured just 16% of the vote in DeKalb in 2016.

‘Country first'

That enthusiasm was on display on Saturday at a DeKalb GOP group’s monthly breakfast in Dunwoody, where he is sometimes known derisively as the city’s godfather because of what his critics saw as mismanagement and corruption as the county’s chief executive.

He met a very different reception at the weekend meeting, and organizers marveled that he helped draw a far larger crowd than usual. Several attendees gave him a standing ovation and Marci McCarthy, the Central DeKalb Republican Women chair, said dozens of new participants joined – some who drove hours to see him.

“He feels that his party has taken for granted their base and forgotten their original core values, leaving them behind in pursuit of voters who support an extreme and progressive platform,” she said.

One GOP state legislative contender said he decided to run partly to follow in Jones’ footsteps. A Republican candidate for U.S. Senate joked that she usually wore red but that she donned a blue outfit to honor him.

After working the crowd like a seasoned politician, Jones assailed Democrats for not more forcefully backing law enforcement or cracking down on protests for social justice that turned violent.

“The party I’m in isn’t doing a doggone thing against it,” he said. “And President Trump is about results. He just wants to get the job done. He’s an equal opportunity offender.”

He reminded the audience of his ties to the president repeatedly and framed Trump as a much-needed muscular personality in the White House.

“Donald J. Trump is a man’s man. He’s strong. When he tells you he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it,” said Jones. “And he’s a nationalist. He’s going to put his country first.”

February 20, 2020 - Atlanta - Rep. Vernon Jones, D - Lithonia, confers with a colleague as the General Assembly returned for the 16th legislative day. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

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