It’s been almost two months since Doug Jones took office as Alabama’s first Democratic U.S. senator in more than 20 years, and the international spotlight that accompanied his surprising win has faded somewhat.
Jones’ December upset against far-right candidate Roy Moore, who had been the favorite to win before allegations of sexual misconduct derailed his campaign, was seen by many as a bellwether of America’s political future, both in 2018 and in 2020.
“If a Democrat can win in Alabama,” CNN’s Chris Cillizza said after Jones’ victory, “a Democrat can win just about anywhere in the country.”
Now, the novelty of his victory has worn off, and with it Jones has shifted from a political symbol to a centrist lawmaker. As he promised during his campaign, he doesn’t follow the party line. Instead, he’s aligned himself with a bipartisan group of moderate senators, the Common Sense Coalition, which some commentators have credited with ending last month’s government shutdown. A less successful effort by the coalition, on which Jones worked, was a bipartisan immigration bill that failed earlier this month.
But Jones remains optimistic that “common ground” — a favorite phrase of his — can be found on that issue and others. He believes agreements can be made even on hot-button issues such as gun laws, in the wake of Feb. 14’s Parkland, Florida, shooting.
“If we continue to have dialogues, not monologues, and continue to find common ground,” he said at a rally on Sunday, “we can help empower the kids of Parkland, Florida, to lead the next tipping point.”
Jones, who has been visiting Alabama during the congressional break, spoke with BirminghamWatch about his first weeks as a senator, the viability of centrism in a polarized political landscape, and Alabama’s possible future as a two-party state.
BirminghamWatch: Because your election received so much nationwide attention, when you entered the Senate last month, you were already one of its most famous members. How has that dynamic played out? How have you been received by your fellow senators?
Doug Jones: I’ve been received very well. It’s been very nice. Everybody has been very cordial, very helpful, on both sides of the aisle. … Obviously people in the media, they see me as kind of like the unicorn up there, the Democrat from Alabama. (We) do exist! But it’s been great. We tried to (be) low-key and not do too much. I think we played it really good, to try to get my feet wet, let me find my voice, get to know some people. But my Democratic and Republican colleagues have just been great. That’s why I enjoyed working on this bipartisan bill (with the) Common Sense Coalition. I got to know some folks, and it’s been very, very good.
BW: The Common Sense Coalition is sort of an anomaly. It’s a bipartisan, centrist group of senators operating in the middle of a highly polarized political climate. How viable of a political philosophy is centrism in a divided 2018?
Jones: I think if you see what’s happened in the last six weeks, since I took office … . You’re always going to have divisions, but let’s just look at the budget, for instance. Yeah, the government shut down for three days. But at the end of the day, you saw a bipartisan budget resolution that’s now going to be put in an omnibus bill that’s going to fund the government for the next two years — this year and next year. That is unheard of in the modern era, in the last few years.
If you look at what’s in that bill, it was the very things that have divided people in the past, but (then) they just didn’t have the ability to come together to talk about it, to find common ground. Now, all of a sudden, in a 51-49 Senate — with the newest members talking about reaching across the aisle, talking about doing things, progressing, moving forward — we get a bipartisan bill that accomplishes a lot. I mean, people sat down and found common ground.
Now, to accomplish that, we took one issue out of the budget process. We took immigration and DACA out of the budget, because if that had stayed in there, we would still be deadlocked. It’s allowed the Senate to go back to what we do, regular order, to start debating that bill. I was really disappointed that the agreement that we had failed the other day, but I’m still hopeful that we can get something done.
But think about the fact that we’ve got this budget resolution done, which is really the only must-pass bill that we do. Now we can focus on other, bigger and important things. There’s a lot out there. There’s immigration, DACA, border security, banking reform, all manner of things. The whole issue of school safety and guns has now hit us again really hard. I do worry that that could take us back to those divisions, which is why I talked today about continuing to talk to each other and not dividing people, trying to get past the political rhetoric and the emotion and talk turkey about what we can do.
BW: You just touched on some issues — immigration and guns — that are very hot-button issues for Alabama voters. For those issues, it seems that you have to balance between the more liberal parts of your voter base and the conservative majority of the state.
Jones: They’re voters, for sure. But I’ve told people in my campaign, “Don’t expect me to pass a litmus test for one side or the other.” I continue to get asked, “Are you liberal, conservative, moderate, progressive, what?” And I say, “Don’t label me! I’m Doug, and I’m going to vote the way I feel. I’m certainly not going to pass the far left’s litmus test any more than I’m going to pass the far right’s litmus tests.
I think there are some common-sense approaches that we can take. I think that we’re beginning to see people find some common ground on background checks, tightening that up. I think we’re going to see some things separate from the gun issue with school safety itself. If we can just throw a little cold water on everybody and say, “Wait a minute now, let’s just talk!” And I’m not talking about those kids in Parkland who lost their friends and their teachers, because they speak out of emotion, and they should.
But those of us in public policy don’t need to be accusing people. We don’t need to be screaming at people. We don’t need to be taking the NRA’s approach and accusing the media of wanting these massacres because it’s good for ratings. We don’t need to be taking the far left’s approach that we have to ban all these guns. We just need to talk and find the common ground, because I believe that the more steps you take, the more common ground that you can find, then everybody can be satisfied, and we can maybe do some positive good for the country.
BW: But is there a tightrope you do have to walk with those two constituencies, since you have an abbreviated term and will be up for re-election in 2020?
Jones: Look, I kind of reject the notion that I’m walking a tightrope, and here’s why: It implies that I’m trying to do what I’m doing with an eye toward my re-election. That’s not true. I’m doing what I do because I believe in it. I’m going to ultimately vote the way I believe after hearing all the information, educating myself, learning and understanding and trying to get both sides of the issue to come in.
I think one of the problems is, when people talk about finding common ground, they also conflate it with walking a tightrope because of the politics. I want to do the right thing, and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not putting my finger to the wind every day. I know the wind blows in shifting ways. I just think that if we find the common ground to try to move forward and bring people together, the rest will take care of itself, and I’ll be fine with it no matter how that goes.
BW: Looking specifically at DACA, because it’s the main immigration issue left on the table …
Jones: Well, actually, it’s not. DACA is the main issue for the left. Border security is the main issue for the right, and then there are some things in between that get a little mushy. What we did in this bipartisan bill, we satisfied DACA and the Dreamers.
And on the right side, for the president, he proposed a $25 billion border security plan. I’ve got to tell you, I was very skeptical of that. (But) I sat down in a briefing with his Homeland Security people and I saw that it didn’t start with the political people in the White House. It started from the boots on the ground at Homeland Security, career people that have been there for a long time. The only issue in that was how you pay for it and when and whether Congress can continue to have its constitutional authority of oversight.
So I think that there is still a lot that we can do, and we accomplished it, but it got pulled to the wayside by a more comprehensive issue on which you do get some really serious divisions.
BW: So what is the next priority for you, now that one of your key campaign issues, reinstating funding for CHIP, has been achieved?
Jones: That was a main focus. We still have to work on community health. We still have to work on making sure Medicaid and Medicare are funded appropriately … .
Infrastructure is going to be an interesting proposal (from the White House). I want to make sure Alabama gets its share if an infrastructure bill … . We’ve got bridges, roads, water systems that need building. Those are very important to Alabama and the people in Alabama.
All of those are going to be the priorities that I have. Obviously, to some extent, the immigration issue and the guns are going to control the headlines right now. But I also think that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in the other areas, and we’re going to try to do that. There’s just a lot of stuff. We’ve got the Higher Education (Act) reauthorization that’s coming up. There are still judges that have to be confirmed. So we’re trying to make sure that I’m getting my hands on just about everything, to get my arms around it, to see where we are.
BW: How is your relationship with the president? You met with him and Senator Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, at the White House last month.
Jones: He was very nice. He called me after the election. His daughter called me after the election. After we voted to reopen the government, he called me and Senator Manchin to come over and we had a wonderful chat. I was probably in the Oval Office for about 45 minutes, just talking. It wasn’t a negotiation or anything like that. It was just a talk. “This is where I think we need to go, this is what I think I need to do.”
I talked about some of the water bills in Alabama, the water infrastructure, where we’ve got unsanitary conditions that are causing hookworm problems in Alabama. They didn’t know that. (Trump Chief of Staff) John Kelly was very interested in that. I don’t know, we’ll see how that goes. I think it remains to be seen.
Look, to be honest with you, the president is really kind of unpredictable with his relationships, and I’m going to do what I feel like is in the best interests of Alabamians. I’ve said all along, if the president has proposals that I feel like help this state, I’m going to be right there with him. That’s not political, that is what’s best for the state. On the other hand, some of his budget proposals are not going to be good for the state. He wants to roll back Medicaid and Medicare… I’ve got some problems with that. I’ve got some problems with the education stuff.
But there are some other things that I think can be positive. I like what he’s doing with military spending. It’s good for Alabama, whether it’s NASA, the Army Missile Command and Army Materiel command up in Huntsville, and also shipbuilding in Mobile. There are some good things that he’s put in that budget, but there are some others that just made me cringe.
BW: One of the criticisms you received during your first weeks in office came from your “Trump Score,” a metric used by statistical website FiveThirtyEight to show how often you vote with or against the Trump administration’s positions. For the first several weeks of your administration, your score was 100 percent, which worried many of your left-leaning supporters; right now, it’s at 55.6 percent. How do you think people should look at that score?
Jones: I think that’s a stupid poll, OK? The first few votes were (confirmations of) noncontroversial judges. The only people that were really voting against them were people who were looking for political gain. I’m not criticizing them for that; they felt like they’ve got to oppose the president at every turn. I have voted my conscience, and I have voted with him when I thought it was right to do on nominations. Most of our votes have been on nominations. There have been very few that I have opposed, but those were significant, like Sam Brownback and others. (Brownback was narrowly confirmed in January as an at-large ambassador for international religious freedom.)
One of the problems that we have in this country today is that that poll attempts to judge me, a Democrat, on how my votes are with the president on a numerical (scale), and not really what’s best for the state or what I’m really doing in my heart. It’s really dumb to do that, I think, because I look at every vote. I’ve got an incredible staff; every vote I take, I have a memo with the pros and cons. And we talk it through, even on nominations. Some of them are easier than others. At the end of the day, we’ll talk it through, I will make up my mind based on what I feel like is the right thing to do, and I’m not going to let a poll or anybody else tell me how to vote. I’m just going to vote based on the pros and cons and the merits of the situations.
BW: Alabama has a swath of elections coming up this year, and there will be a much stronger Democratic presence on the ballot than there has been in recent statewide elections. Do you think Alabama’s moving toward being a two-party state? Are Democrats a viable party statewide?
Jones: I think you’re looking at the viability of Democrats. The viability of Democrats is not dependent on a candidate. It’s dependent on the issues and how they present those issues to the people. I’ve always believed Democrats can be viable. I’ve always believed Republicans, even when Democrats dominated the state, could have been viable with the right message. We flipped (dominant parties) too quick, and we never became a two-party state. The best way to progress as a state is to have a viable, two-party state, and that is going to involve debates on the issues people care about, the kitchen-table issues that I’ve talked so much about: economy, health care, education, those kind of things. (Don’t) let those divisive issues get us bogged down! Let’s progress.
I think the challenge right now, in 2018, is not to just field a candidate in a race, but for those candidates to stay true to who they are, to engage in the issues, and to engage with voters and try to talk and try to bring people out. If we can do that, I think that’s going to help the state.
Hopefully, some Democrats will be elected. There will be Republicans elected. But if we can make it to where our political system is based on issues that people care about on a daily basis, we’re going to skyrocket. This state has so much potential, but we are being held back because of a dominant party, be it Republican or Democrat, whose sole purpose has been to stay in office rather than to do things for the people.
Look at where we are. Republicans came into power in 2010 on an anti-corruption platform. Look what we’ve seen! We’ve had a chief justice, the governor, the speaker of the House and his deputy (removed from office). So forget that!
And the whole time that was happening, we still have the highest obesity rates, diabetes. We’re still the unhealthiest state. Our poverty is still one of the highest in the country. Nobody’s doing anything about that because they want to focus on their little gerrymandered districts. So I’m hoping that by now, people are finding their voice and can talk about the issues. We have shown, voters want to get past that, to elect candidates who can get things done and not simply sow chaos and be one extreme or the other.