Alabama Sen. Doug Jones said after his unexpected win in a historically Red state that people want officials to come together and find “common ground” on the issues they care about. (Dec. 13)
WASHINGTON — Before Doug Jones was even sworn in as Alabama’s newest senator, Sheila Tyson and a coalition of women in the state wrote a letter asking to meet with him. They want to talk about expanding health care for the poor, addressing racial profiling and increasing the minimum wage.
“We want a face-to-face conversation with Doug Jones,” said Tyson, who helped lead a get-out-to-vote campaign across the state last month. “We’re going to put our ask on the table … and see exactly what he could do to help us.”
Tyson represents one of an array of Democratic groups trying to make their case to Jones in hopes that he will support their causes. The Alabama Democrat pulled off an upset last month, beating Republican Roy Moore in a special election for the seat of former GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions. Sessions is now the U.S. Attorney General, and Jones is the first Alabama Democrat elected to the Senate in more than two decades.
Jones was sworn in Jan. 3, narrowing the Republican majority in the Senate to 51-49. He could be a crucial swing vote as Congress wrestles with a potential government shutdown, immigration and terrorism threats.
Catrena Norris Carter, founder of Women of Will, an organization in Alabama that helps train women to run for office, said now that Jones is elected it’s important to track his record.
“What we normally don’t do is hold them accountable,” she said of lawmakers.
Jones said he hasn’t felt pressured by groups — yet.
“It’s still a honeymoon,” he said recently. “Everybody right now is being very nice and cordial. They know that we’ll be here for a little bit.”
Jones only recently learned of his committee assignments, which include Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, Homeland Security, Aging and Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP).
And he’s still navigating his way around the sprawling Capitol grounds. One recent Tuesday, the senator got turned around looking for the room where Democrats hold their weekly policy lunch.
“We’re still learning our way around,” he said as he headed in another direction.
But advocacy groups say it’s not too early to lobby the newcomer.
Tyson and a coalition of groups in Alabama urged voters, particularly black women, to go to the polls for last month’s special election. Black voters are credited with helping Jones win.
“Of course he owes us the conversation. Number one – we are his constituents,” said Tyson, a Birmingham city councilwoman and convener of the Alabama chapter of the Black Women’s Roundtable. “Even if we didn’t get him in office, he’s supposed to treat all of us the same. He needs to make sure that we get a meeting with him.”
Sam Coleman, a spokesman for Jones, said the senator hasn’t met yet with the Black Womens’ Roundtable or other groups from Alabama.
“We’ve been getting staffed up and ramped up,” he said. “The priority moving forward is to engage with Alabama constituents and Alabama groups.”
Cliff Albright, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, which helped fund get-out-the- vote efforts in the South, said his group recently wrote to Jones reminding him of the importance of the black vote to his victory.
Albright said the group urged Jones to advocate for more health care and to restore a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“We want to continue to press and push him on these accountability issues,” he said. “It’s really a kind of baseline request.”
Rickey Hill, chairman of the Political Science Department at Jackson State University in Mississippi, said Jones will face a challenge trying to balance the views of many voters back home in his red state and those of mostly black Democratic voters who supported him in droves.
“If he goes to Washington and basically jumps on the Republican bandwagon, the Trump bandwagon and votes because he believes the red state of Alabama expects him to vote the same way (Sen. Richard) Shelby votes …. then he’s going to have a hard time getting re-elected” Hill said.
Shelby, a Republican, is the state’s senior senator.
Since Jones was elected to complete Sessions’ term, he will have to run for re-election in 2020.
Jones has said he can’t be expected to vote solidly in support of Democratic or Republican positions.
“I’m going to talk to people on both sides of the aisle,” he said on Fox Sunday News earlier this month. “I don’t think anybody should depend on being able to count on my vote for anything.”
Democratic lawmakers agree that Jones can’t be counted on all the time to support party positions.
“He’s a Blue Dog,’’ said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus’ political action committee, which endorsed Jones. The “Blue Dogs” are a caucus of of centrist Democrats in Congress who have seen their numbers shrink dramatically over the past 20 years.
“Do I expect him to vote exactly the way I vote – absolutely not? His district and his state is not like New York state. I expect him to vote like an Alabamian would vote,” Meeks said. “But I do think that he’ll stand on some high moral positions that his opponent would not have and I think he’ll represent Alabama better.”
Still, Meeks and others said Jones will be held accountable.
Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell, whose district includes Birmingham, said her constituents were key to Jones’ win. Sewell campaigned across the state with Jones stopping in black churches and campuses of historically black colleges.
She also urged some fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus with ties to the South to join Jones on the stump.
“You can’t galvanize the African American vote and not feel obligated and accountable to that vote,” she said. “There’s definitely ways that he can show that. I think he’s off to a good start.”
Sewell and others praised Jones for naming Dana Gresham as his chief of staff. Gresham, a Birmingham native, is the only African-American chief of staff in a Democratic Senate office this Congress.
“But we have to at every turn — staff hires, policies that he promulgates, the fight that he champions — make sure that we hold him accountable,” said Sewell. “And I do believe that Doug is up to that task.”
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