The Vox Senate interview: Doug Jones on how Democrats can win in the South

Despite representing the most Trump-friendly state in America, Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) has stubbornly been his

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Despite representing the most Trump-friendly state in America, Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) has stubbornly been his own man in Congress.

Jones certainly touts his bipartisan work with Republicans, but he has also voted against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation and voted to convict President Trump during the Senate’s February impeachment trial.

“He’s going to be the senator he wanted,” said Alabama Democratic strategist Zac McCrary. “He’s not going to twist himself into a pretzel, he’s going to do his own thing.”

If Jones wins a very tough race for his reelection, he plans to go his own way even if there’s a Democratic administration headed up by former Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime friend of Jones’s.

“I think people know I’m not a rubber stamp for Donald Trump, but I’m not going to be a rubber stamp for my friend Joe Biden,” Jones told Vox in a recent interview. “He knows that; he and I have talked about that.”

Democrats have expanded the number of paths they have to flipping the Senate. If they manage to get a trifecta, with Biden in the White House and House Democrats keeping their majority, Jones says the first thing that must be tackled is the economic fallout from Covid-19. Though unemployment numbers are falling, millions of people are still out of work in the United States, and the economic crisis has disproportionately hit workers of color.

Jones speaks to a reporter after a vote on May 14.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

“I still believe our first priority is going to be to get out of this health care, economic, and racial inequality crisis that we find ourself in,” Jones said. “At some point, as we get on the back end, we’ve got to start focusing on the economy. That’s going to involve federal government programs to some extent — putting federal dollars in infrastructure and roads and bridges and schools. Broadband is going to be a key issue.”

Vox spoke with Jones about whether he’d be willing to eliminate the filibuster if Republicans are in the minority and hold up bills, his surprise 2017 special election win, how he plans to replicate it even in a state where Trump remains popular, the new wave of Democratic candidates in the South — and why he rejects the term “Southern Democrat.”

“We had a solid Democratic South in name only,” Jones told Vox. “It was never solid Democrat, it was a bunch of different factions of something called the Democratic Party. I think Democrats for too long in the South decided they really weren’t going to be Democrats and stand up for working people.”

Our interview is below, edited for length and clarity.

Ella Nilsen

You surprised folks in 2017 with your special election win. But many people in both parties assume Alabama is simply too Trump-friendly and too Republican for you to win again. Is there something you know that they don’t?

Sen. Doug Jones

Yeah, there’s a lot that I know that they don’t. I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve seen the changes that Alabama has gone through, I see the changes that we’re in the midst of now, and I know what’s going on on the ground. Alabamians have always had an independent streak. They vote for a president that they like, but they also vote for a senator that they like. They vote for a senator that’s going to have their back and not necessarily the president of the United States. We’ve seen that throughout in our history in Alabama.

What I think we’re seeing now is just a seismic shift in the way people are looking at their senators, their members of Congress. We’ve got demographic shifts, we’ve got age differences, folks that have come up a different way are seeing different things happening in the world. And so what they’re looking at now — and I think we started this in 2017 — is that people are looking at issues and who can best represent them to actually get things done in Washington, DC.

And that’s where we have a huge advantage because we have represented farmers, we’ve represented teachers and health care professionals. A member of [the] Armed Services [Committee], I’m strong on military defense. So we’ve been able to truly represent one Alabama, throughout my two and a half years, almost going on three now, as the United States senator. And therein lies the big difference.

Ella Nilsen

When it comes to your record in the Senate, I’m curious how you’ve decided to pick your battles on certain issues. You certainly have a bipartisan track record working with Republicans, but you’ve also taken some tough votes on impeachment and [confirming Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh. There are times when you’ve been a reliable vote for the Democratic caucus. What part of the Democratic caucus do you see yourself in?

Doug Jones

I think people tend to see this as a loyalty test for either Democrats or Republicans, and I don’t see it that way at all. I don’t pick and choose battles. I have votes that come to me on the floor of the Senate that Mitch McConnell picks for me, and some of those are tougher votes than others. Not because of the politics, but simply because it requires a great deal of research, a lot of work on our part to do what I think is best.

[My] Senate staff knows that they are to look at these issues, the pros and cons, and we will weigh those; we will argue with each other. But at the end of the day, we’re going to do what I believe is in the best interest of the people of Alabama, and do what I believe is consistent with my principles. Sometimes that means I am not voting with a majority of the Democrats; sometimes it means I am. It just really is going to depend on the issues.

Having said that, we like to get out front on some things. We’ve been very vocal about health care and protecting rural health care, and trying to expand Medicaid in Alabama. I’ve got 21 bills I co-sponsored with Republicans as a lead [sponsor]. Those are the things we got out front for, but those are the easy things for me — I see a need in the state, I believe that there’s people on the other side of the aisle, senators and colleagues, that would agree with me. We find that common ground, and we made those 21 bills happen.

Ella Nilsen

If you are reelected in November, and Democrats are able to flip the Senate and Joe Biden is able to win the White House, what do you think the first priority should be?

Doug Jones

I still believe our first priority is going to be to get out of this health care, economic, and racial inequality crisis that we find ourself in. I think that is going to have to be the priority of the next administration regardless. I know it will be a priority of a Biden-Harris administration. I know it will be a priority of a Democratic Senate should there be one.

Hopefully, by that time, we will have a vaccine either right there on the horizon that we can see, or we would have started to ramp up the distribution of a vaccine. That is going to be incredibly important, to make sure that we get out of this appropriately, to get out of that safely and healthy.

As part of that, we’ve got to deal with the economic fallout. Today, unemployment numbers were announced. They’re down more, but the decrease in unemployment is slowing somewhat, as predicted by most of the economists and the Federal Reserve. We’re going to continue to see relatively high unemployment.

As we’re seeing the back end of the health crisis, hopefully we will also be able to then do stimulus work. That’s going to involve federal government programs to some extent — putting federal dollars in infrastructure and roads and bridges and schools. Broadband is going to be a key issue. But we’ll never overlook the racial inequalities that we’re seeing playing out across this country. It is a historic moment. We can’t let it pass.

Voting rights is going to be a very important part of a Biden-Harris administration, and trying to remove the barriers that still exist of discrimination in this country, whether it is in jobs, education, or health care. I think removing those barriers or discrimination will also be a high priority.

Ella Nilsen

What do you think about this national conversation about race and policing? How do you think Congress should address this issue? The US House recently passed the Justice in Policing Act — is there anywhere it falls short or could be improved?

Doug Jones

I’m a co-sponsor of that bill, and I believe in the bill and what it’s trying to achieve. Having said that, I think we’re all open. Sen. Harris, Sen. [Cory] Booker — everybody is open to input from law enforcement and others in the community about how it can be better. Because the one thing that we want to do is protect our police department. That’s not a “defund the police” bill.

You know, Joe Biden, or me, or Kamala Harris, we don’t want to defund the police. What we do want to do is make sure that we can get more training, get rid of that swath of systemic racism that we know exists. We see it play out in front of us every day on our computers and our TVs, but we also know, as Joe Biden has said many times, that the overwhelming number of law enforcement out there are absolutely dedicated to service to their communities. They’re dedicated to doing the right thing. We need to get their help in trying to make the changes necessary. That means more transparency, and how excessive use of force cases are investigated and possibly prosecuted.

It means more resources to law enforcement, to make sure that we have that transparency, that we have some independent bodies, and that we have more training for deescalation of events, more training about racism, and even the implicit bias that folks might not even know that they have. I think those are the things that we can do.

And that bill is a really good step in the right direction. It could get amended some, but I think folks are open to trying to get something accomplished. I think that would be a really important first step; it would send a great message to the American people that Congress and the Senate is very serious about this. We take it very seriously.

And then we go from there, because I do believe there’s so many things we can do with the Fair Housing Act, with health care. We need to expand Medicaid in states like Alabama that haven’t done it. It would give so many more folks the access to health care: Black and white and brown, as a matter of fact. What we need to do is then start systematically looking at what’s still creating barriers, whether the law itself is creating barriers, or whether it’s the application of the law. Start removing those barriers. I think that’s going to be a real priority going forward.

Ella Nilsen

Given your history as a civil rights attorney, how far do you think Alabama and the nation as a whole have come on race? And how far do we still have to go?

Doug Jones

It’s hard to measure that now. Clearly we’ve come a long way. I grew up in a segregated South, and we are so far removed from the South of the 1950s and early ’60s. But clearly, we have a long way to go. What I think was happening, to some extent, is that we kind of just got soft on it a little bit. We assumed — especially with the election of Barack Obama — that things were just better and things were going to continue to get better. And actually things started getting worse.

We saw more hate groups rising up, we saw more hate on the internet, and things started rolling back. All of a sudden, this Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision started the demise of the Voting Rights Act. And states started enacting laws I believe have the effect of discriminating. It’s not because people don’t like Black folks in this country, they just don’t like the way they vote. It’s a political power issue as much as anything else, and that has created some backlash that we’ve got to overcome. It’s hard to measure how far we’ve come, especially since we’ve slid back a good bit, but we clearly have a long ways to go.

Ella Nilsen

There’s this new group of really interesting Democratic candidates in the South: Adrian Perkins in Louisiana, Mike Espy in Mississippi, Jamie Harrison in South Carolina, Rev. Raphael Warnock in Georgia, Cal Cunningham in North Carolina, M.J. Hegar in Texas, and Amy McGrath in Kentucky. Are Democratic politics in the South seeing a revival?

Doug Jones

I do think it’s a trend. It’s a trend because of changing demographics. But it’s also a trend because I think Democrats for too long in the South decided they really weren’t going to be Democrats and stand up for working people. They were going to let Republicans define them on a lot of social issues. They claimed the power. We had a solid Democratic South in name only. It was never solid Democrat, it was a bunch of different factions of something called the Democratic Party.

I think what you’re seeing now is a revival in the sense that people are saying, we really need to be who we are. We need to be the party that looks out for the little guy, the party that is not anti-business by any stretch, because the little guy depends on those businesses in order to have jobs and to have the economy that we need. But we need to make sure that everybody has access to good health care. We need to make sure that everybody does, and we need to make sure people know that it’s the Democrats who often have their back, and we’re going to work with you on all the issues that you care about. Those kitchen table issues that I ran on in 2017? Those are so much more important now.

It wasn’t Doug Jones, but it was kind of the Doug Jones movement we had in Alabama: to be who we are, to care for people, and look out for our neighbors. And to know that we have more in common than we have to divide us, to try to find that common ground and exploit the common ground and not the divisions. Republicans in the South have been great about exploiting the divisions and Democrats have let them do it. No more. We’re going to exploit the common ground that we have among everyone in the South and across the country, by the way.

Ella Nilsen

The segregationist Southern Democrats of the 1950s and ’60s — do you think that lives on in the minds of some Black voters in the South, and has caused any hesitancy to stick with the Democratic Party?

Doug Jones

No, it’s completely changing. I quite frankly reject the term “Southern Democrats” to some extent because of the connotation. We’re Democrats in the South, and the connotation earlier I think has gone away.

They only have to look at somebody like my history of doing the church bombing cases, standing up and working in the Black Belt, and trying to get down in the weeds to make sure all people and all boats are lifted. I don’t just go down and talk to Black churches in the Black Belt and say one thing and then go up to the Chamber of Commerce in Huntsville, Alabama, and say something different — those messages are the same. Now, everybody’s got their local issues, but the messages are still the same about what it’s going to take to move Alabama forward.

The South has been the place of so many divisions in this country. It started right here in the South, so many of our divisions. The South should be the epicenter for where the healing begins. I absolutely believe that we can do that — and I believe we are doing it, slowly but surely.

Ella Nilsen

What do you think people who are kind of on the outside looking in don’t understand about campaigning in the South and politics there?

Doug Jones

Well, it is complicated. It’s gotten more complicated, because I think Democrats didn’t compete in the South for so, so long — trying to be Republican-lite or whatever you call it. They just didn’t compete. There is a conditioning almost where people have been voting Republican so long, it’s surprising to them and there’s a hesitancy to cross over, but it’s happening more and more.

If you look at demographically how the South is changing, we’ve got more businesses coming into the South, people from all over the country are moving [here]. That’s young folks, it’s college-educated folks. We’re trying to keep our folks in our rural areas where they are as well and not lose our rural areas. The last thing I want to do is see our rural areas go by the wayside, but the South demographics are changing.

You’ve also got a younger generation that is now coming of age, not just voting age. They’re getting engaged more in their careers and their businesses, some are owning their businesses. They grew up at a time that’s different than the time I grew up. They grew up at a time where they went to school with people of a different race, they went to school and had friends who were gay. And so a lot of those social norms, they don’t see it the same way.

Ella Nilsen

The conventional wisdom is that President Trump is still quite popular in Alabama. Do you think his standing in the state has diminished at all?

Doug Jones

I don’t think there’s any question his standing has diminished. I don’t think anybody should discount the fact that Trump won so many states in the South by as much as he did, because there was a dislike for Secretary Clinton. Just that simple. We’ve seen it time and time again, we saw it play out in 2016. I’ve seen it in the polling and numbers throughout the South and in Alabama, since I started polling in my race in 2017.

But I also think there are a lot of people in Alabama that traditionally voted Republican who voted for Donald Trump. They didn’t particularly like what they were seeing and hearing but always assumed that once he became president, he would be very presidential and they haven’t seen that. There’s a lot of Trump fatigue; they’re tired of the tweets, they wish he would govern instead of just tweeting. They wish he would follow the science and listen to health care professionals, instead of insisting that he knows everything about everything. There’s a lot of that out there.

He will carry Alabama for sure for a lot of factors, but I do not believe that he will carry Alabama anywhere close to the way he carried it in 2016.

Ella Nilsen

What do you think of Joe Biden’s idea to enroll people who are in the Medicaid expansion gap into his public option proposal, given that Alabama is a state that hasn’t expanded Medicaid?

Doug Jones

Look, if that’s the way to get my people insured, then I am all for it. I’m not for Medicare-for-all, and neither is Joe Biden. I’ve said that very clearly. Too many people like their health insurance plans through their employers; too many unions have fought for those health insurance plans. But we do have that gap in Alabama — we didn’t expand Medicaid.

Before this pandemic, we would have had 326,000 Alabamians who would have been eligible for Medicaid that did not get it. They make too much money to be eligible for Medicaid as it exists in Alabama now, yet they didn’t make enough money to get good health insurance. We need to help those folks as best we can and giving a public option — or if not going that far — just giving the states the incentives to expand Medicaid.

I think if we could pass my bill, the SAME Act (States Achieving Medicaid Expansion) to give states that three-year window of 100 percent reimbursement [from the federal government], I believe Alabama would do it. They see their sister states like Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri doing it. They see the billions of dollars we’ve lost. I think Joe’s proposal is a good one. I still would love to see the Affordable Care Act tweaked instead of dismantled and do it some way through the Affordable Care Act.

Ella Nilsen

I wanted to get your thoughts on filibuster reform. Do you think that’s an option Democrats should pursue if you are in the majority in the Senate but you’re dealing with an obstinate Republican minority?

Doug Jones

I know there’s a lot of talk about that. And also know, if Joe Biden is president of the United States, Biden has a 40-year history of working with Republicans. And no matter what happens during the election season, they all like him; I’ve heard that time and time again. Joe is the kind of guy that’s a Senate institutionalist. I really believe he will want to work with Republicans to try to get things done. This ability to just go from one Senate majority to the other with or without the president, it’s not good for the country.

I think the filibuster rule is a way that you have to reach out. That’s what I do every day when I’m in the Senate, and sometimes I have to reach out within my own party to try to pull people together. I think Joe’s gonna give this a chance, and I’m very hopeful that Senate Republicans will take the opportunity to move together.

Let’s get the Senate back to some regular order where we can debate the issues of the day, have amendments on the issues of the day, vote on them up or down, let the president do what he’s going to do. But give the president an opportunity to find that common ground.

It is by finding common ground that we move forward, not by just doing it by simple whim of who happens to be in the majority, because then you’re gonna see, just like we’re seeing with executive orders playing out — a new president comes in, gets rid of all his predecessor’s executive orders, those new ones that we don’t need to see that’s happening with legislation.

We need to see some consistency. I think filibuster rule, the 60-vote margin, is a way to do that.

Ella Nilsen

Alabama is one of the states that is now seeing a spike in coronavirus cases with colleges and universities going back. From talking to your constituents, how is the virus impacting their daily lives?

Doug Jones

Well, that’s a pretty complicated question you just asked, Ella. Alabama’s numbers are actually improving. Yes, we have seen some spikes on a couple of college campuses. But overall, we are seeing a decline in the number of new cases, the number of hospitalizations, a decline in the deaths. We are cautiously optimistic about where we’re headed.

University of Alabama students move onto campus in Tuscaloosa on August 15.
Vasha Hunt/AP
High school football has returned to Alabama, in another test of whether crowds may worsen the coronavirus pandemic.
Vasha Hunt/AP

Wearing masks got so politicized back in the summer, and people just ... refused to recognize that it would help. It forced our governor [Kay Ivey] — and I was very proud of her for doing it — the only Republican governor in the Deep South to issue a statewide mask order. People started getting it, they started wearing their masks more. And lo and behold, it’s starting to work — our numbers are going down. I’m hoping people will see that it still works, because the virus is still out there.

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