Editorial: Walter Jones Jr. legacy -- An unpredictable independent

Posted February 13, 2019 5:00 a.m. EST

CBC Editorial: Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019; Editorial #8390
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company

Walter Jones Jr. was quite literally, born into North Carolina public service. His father was mayor of Farmville, a member of the General Assembly and then was appointed to the U.S. House of Representatives where he was re-elected to serve 13 terms. He was a conservative, “yellow-dog” Democrat, much in the mold of politicians of the day from the eastern part of the state.

Jones Jr., who died this week, led a political life that reflected the political evolution of the area and state he represented. He started as a Democrat and then transformed into a stalwart of the state’s Republican Party establishment. Through it all, he did cling to a streak of unpredictable independence.

During his five terms in the state House as a Democrat representing Pitt County he amassed a record as a moderate conservative who was a persistent advocate of campaign finance and legislative lobbying reform.

More significantly, he was part of a 1989 group of 20 disaffected Democrats who forged a coalition with Republicans to dislodge the entrenched and domineering House leadership. Another young Democratic legislator in that coalition was now Gov. Roy Cooper.

In 1992, when his father announced his retirement from the U.S. House, Jones ran for the 1st Congressional District seat. He lost the Democratic primary to Eva Clayton – the first African-American woman to represent North Carolina in Congress.

Two years later, Jones switched to the Republican Party and ran in the 3rd Congressional District, defeating Democratic incumbent Martin Lancaster in the 1994 Republican wave. He was subsequently returned every two years and this fall he was re-elected without a general election opposition.

During the 13 terms in the U.S. House his service largely reflected the Republican Party line. He had a lifetime 82.65 rating from the American Conservative Union. But his independent streak marked his partisan pitfalls and moments of personal integrity that made him unique.

He represented a district with significant military operations – including Marine Camp Lejeune. Jones gained wide notoriety in 2003 for his initial fervent support of the conflict in Iraq – pressing the House cafeteria to change “French” fries to “freedom” fries on the menu after the French opposed the U.S. invasion. Within two years he soured on the military involvement and war and regularly voted for legislation to end it, coming to believe that involvement had been based on faulty intelligence.

As a personal statement of opposition to the nation’s military involvement, Jones wrote personal notes to every service member killed in action in the conflict, a form of penance “asking God to forgive me for my mistake,” he told NPR in 2017.

He was such a federal deficit hawk, long a steadfast GOP position, that he opposed the 2017 tax cuts because they’d add to it. He backed increasing the federal minimum wage, shepherded a law to protect the wild horses of Corolla and – hearkening to his positions in the state legislature – opposed spending on pork barrel projects.

From 1965 to 2019, with the exception of two years, there was a Walter Jones representing North Carolina in the halls of the U.S. Capitol. It was more than a half-century of service that saw, and reflected, the state’s shifting and diverse political environment.

It is the end of a remarkable era.

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