You probably know Alabama’s new senator, Doug Jones, because he narrowly won a special election last year against a man accused of molesting underage girls. But there are probably quite a few things you don’t know about him. His first name is actually Gordon, and he is left-handed, hitches his head a bit when he’s making a point and is what experts on emotions might call an “active listener.”
That last point dawned on me while I was sitting in the back of an SUV as he praised the virtues of the peanut butter factory we’d just been to — “the technology!” — and we jostled along a central Alabama road on a late May afternoon. Throughout a sweaty, hair-netted tour, he had nodded and peered into things and patiently asked questions. (I, meanwhile, had strained to hear over the nut-rumbling din and contemplated a literal death by peanut butter underneath some sort of hot, belching still that smelled unnervingly like cookies.) The visit was a reminder of just how much the life of a politician is filled with interactions that are mundane for him but momentous for the other person; the conscientious officeholder knows that a bit of attentive listening can go a long way. That’s perhaps doubly the case for Jones, an Alabama Democrat wading through his state’s overwhelmingly Republican politics. Sometimes, he might not agree with what people have to say to him, but, by God, Jones will smile, nod and hear them out.
There are some exceptions, of course. We drove by a yard overflowing with tchotchkes and an unmistakable sign of the South. “I would probably not stop right there at the house with the Confederate flags waving,” Jones conceded in a creaky drawl that’s faintly reminiscent of another southern Democrat, Bill Clinton. “Probably not much point of me going there.”
Jones is the first Alabama Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate since 1992 (and that guy later became a Republican). His election in December 2017 came in no small part because of the strength of the black community’s vote. Black voters made up 29 percent of the electorate in the 2017 Alabama Senate race, matching their turnout for Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election (notable enthusiasm for a special election in an off-cycle year), with 98 percent of black women — who made up 17 percent of the electorate — voting for Jones. Jones also won independents and made inroads with liberal and moderate Republicans, groups that Obama performed poorly among. Jones’s coalition is disparate, to say the least.
Jones is a Democrat and a Democrat with pretty standard Democratic positions — he’s pro-abortion rights, for gay rights and the Affordable Care Act, and supports protections for illegal immigrants who arrived in the country as minors. But in tone and style he’s a moderate, and a moderate so convinced of the power of his moderation that he says his candidacy was actually hurt, not helped, by the molestation accusations against Roy Moore, his Republican rival. “We would have won by a larger percentage had those allegations not come out,” he told me. “Once those allegations surfaced, the level of interest increased, and the race became very tribal.” (Before the Moore allegations were reported by The Washington Post on Nov. 9, 2017, the race had been holding steady, with Jones at 42 percent and Moore at 48 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. Three days after the allegations became public, it was a 2-point race.)
But two years away from standing for re-election, Jones is faced with the reality of what it means to govern as a Democrat in a blood-red state in a country divided by tribal politics. President Trump won Alabama with 62 percent of the vote, and Jones’s tenuous coalition rests not only on the support of the black community, but also on those independents and Republicans — many of whom are white in a state still riven by racial tensions.
And that’s meant that Jones has had to become a culture warrior of a different sort, preaching peace, love and understanding to both his liberal base and his more circumspect constituents unused to voting for a Democrat. Call it the gospel of moderation. In today’s politics, a certain temperament is required to be a part of the center that’s barely holding. Most people would tire of centrist sermonizing and turning the other cheek, but Doug Jones swears by it. His re-election rests on whether Alabamians buy in.
Much of Jones’s time is spent toggling between Alabama constituencies. He assures some that their interests will receive the attention they’ve long gone without. With others, he’s feeling out how far he can push a Democrat’s agenda before turning them off. But with everyone, he’s preaching the power of forbearance.
That’s why on an evening in late May, Jones got up to address a crowd gathered for a public health fair in Lowndes County, a place where he won 79 percent of the vote, and apologized.
“At the end of the day, we’re all to blame, somehow, some way — we’ve all neglected this area,” he said. The statement could have covered any number of slights. Lowndes is part of what’s known as the Black Belt, a rural strip that stretches across the state and is known for its rich farming soil and its large population of African-Americans. It also has a public health crisis: Many residents don’t have proper sanitation systems.
“I literally had déjà vu the first time I stepped out of the van in one of these situations because it had the smell and the heat and the humidity — it was just like being in rural Vietnam or Cambodia or Haiti,” said Mark Elliot, who’s an engineering professor at the University of Alabama and has researched drinking water and sanitation issues in developing countries. The region’s clay soil can make septic tanks — which many residents of the impoverished area can’t afford to begin with — ineffective. Some people install straight pipes that send sewage directly into the ground only to have wastewater rise back up, puddling in yards.
Jones offered some extremely Jonesian advice to the assembled crowd to get state officials (implicitly he seemed to mean Republican officials) to respond to their needs. “Don’t argue, don’t get mad, don’t get angry, don’t shake your finger. Just say, ‘We need help,’” Jones said. “That’s the way we move forward.”
Jones is not an outsized personality, but he is a decent-sized one. A former federal prosecutor, he can talk, though not in an overly charming, anecdote-strewn way. It’s more that he just sort of says what he’s thinking into a microphone. It is this unassuming quality that dominates the Jones aura. He is not particularly tall, is neither skinny nor plump and has the balding pate of so many other 64-year-old men. He wears sensible shoes with support. Perhaps the one notable thing about his appearance is his pale blue eyes.
After the health fair, Jones and Rep. Terri Sewell, the only other Democratic member of Alabama’s congressional delegation and its sole black member, toured a National Park Service memorial to the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches. Sewell and Jones are a practiced political duo — all chummy side hugs and comfortable banter.
When I asked her if she was surprised to have a fellow Democrat in the congressional delegation, Sewell turned to look directly at me. “I worked my ass off for this,” she said.
“I told him this could happen as long as we didn’t nationalize it — it came on the heels of the Ossoff election, and it was really important that we kept everything local.” (In one of the first special elections after the 2016 vote, Democrat Jon Ossoff lost what looked like a promising seat pick-up in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District after huge media and ad dollar attention to the race.) Jones tried to keep his distance from national figures and the media firestorm surrounding Moore — as much as was possible.
Jones’s real viability as a Democratic senatorial candidate was always going to inspire some excitement. In one recent year, the left-leaning parts of the Alabama electorate didn’t even have an official candidate: In 2014, Jeff Sessions — whose seat Jones now occupies — ran unopposed, receiving 97 percent of the vote. Jones, of course, benefited from a disillusioned moderate Republican electorate in his 2017 race and from the enthusiasm of Democrats who saw at long last a candidate who actually had a shot at winning. But Trump is still wildly popular in Alabama, and he’ll presumably be on the ballot in 2020, when Jones will be seeking re-election. “A lot of it has to do with suburban voters,” Giles Perkins, the 2017 campaign’s “Yoda” (in Jones’s words — “campaign chairman” in others’), told me about what the senator’s 2020 re-election prospects rested on. “We also have to grow our support in the more rural areas as we focus on rural hospitals and small banks and things that are essential to those communities.”
Turnout is always higher in presidential election years, and Jones will likely have to battle for his seat in front of an electorate filled with enthusiastic Trump voters who might want to vote a partisan ticket, aka anyone but Jones, the Democrat.
Jones’s appeal to black voters in Alabama remains key, and it might lie not just in his existence as an actual factual Democratic senator who got elected, but in his moderation. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, the share of Democrats overall who identify as “liberal” has grown to 48 percent (up from 33 percent in 2008), but only 28 percent of black Democrats identify that way. A plurality of black Democrats, 40 percent, call themselves “moderate,” and 30 percent say they are “conservative.” Jones, for one, is well aware that he owes a huge debt of gratitude to the black voters of Alabama.
“I do think there is a sense of obligation for me to pay careful attention because they have been neglected, and I want to make sure that folks know that I appreciate their support and I want to be there for them,” he said. “I also want them to know that I’m talking about that message in other parts of the state.”
The next day, in another part of the state (one county over), at another rural health-care event, Jones was pitching himself to a very different crowd. It was a mostly white group that had gathered in a room at L.V. Stabler Memorial Hospital in Greenville, a small town in Butler County, where both Trump and Jones had won.
Statewide, Jones won independents, receiving 51 percent of their votes. Even though that’s a slim margin, his support among that group stands in striking difference to the 23 percent of independents that Obama won in 2012. Jones’s appeal to right-leaning voters who were turned off by Moore likely contributed to his victory. He also won 21 percent of moderate or liberal Republicans, while Obama won only 1 percent of those votes in Alabama in 2012.
But Terry Lathan, Alabama’s GOP chair, is skeptical of Jones’s chances, saying that many Republican voters stayed home because of Moore but won’t during a Trump year. “I can tell you the Republican Party and the activists are champing at the bit to get to him in 2020, and he’s got to know that,” she said. “You cannot play political middle of the road and not get run over. You’d better get on one side or the other.”
After a few minutes of remarks, during which Jones bemoaned that Alabama had “left a lot of dollars on the table” by not expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, he took questions from the crowd. One came from a man in the back who introduced himself as “a local peanut man, barbecue man” and who wanted to know why the ACA was a good thing: “Because there’s a lot of people in our community who tell me it’s not.”
It was the gracious version of a question that Jones will be asked again and again over the next two years. And he can be impatient with this GOP line. Jones told me that he’s sometimes frustrated by conservative Alabamians who want his help: “They see the federal government as not being good and don’t really fully appreciate the fact that their public officials need those federal dollars to help their roads, to help their schools, to help save their hospital.”
But Jones didn’t say that to the man in Greenville. Instead, he played the attentive listener, seemingly wanting to know how far to the left his constituents will allow him to go. “Let me qualify this because I don’t want you to think that I’m in favor of single payer like Bernie Sanders, but there is more and more talk about not single payer but a public option that people buy into,” Jones said. “I’m curious as to whether any of you have thoughts.”
People did. Some were open to the idea. Many talked about the high insurance deductibles people face under the current system — they can’t pay them. Dexter McLendon, the mayor of Greenville, a jowly man who wore cowboy boots with his suit and voiced some anti-ACA sentiments during the event, wrapped it up by delivering something of a locker-room pump-up speech: “We gonna sit down here and die and rot on the vine? I mean, I’m not!”
In the car, on our way to the event, I’d asked Jones about the way Southern politics is typically performed. “It’s always been a folksier, back-slapping good old boy kinda thing,” Jones said. “And I don’t mean that in a sexist way — I just mean it in a country way.” The Greenville mayor’s style was definitely channeling that legacy. But he seemed to like Jones, seemed to respect his game. “Let’s give him a hand,” he said, turning to the senator. “He and I don’t agree on everything, but he’s very nice to come.”
The Alabama touches in Jones’s Washington office are obvious. The senator’s preferred seat is a wicker rocking chair covered in white cushions, and the mantlepiece of the marble fireplace is bookended by two signed footballs, one emblazoned with the scarlet University of Alabama “A” (the senator’s alma mater) and the other with “Doug Jones U.S. Senate.”
The space is a visual reminder of how much Alabama and its buffeting political and cultural currents have shaped Jones. His political moderation might be strategically advantageous, but it also isn’t insincere. Jones and his politics are very much of a place and time.
In the center of the office mantlepiece is a picture of a young Jones leaning over to whisper in the ear of an older man at a microphone, Alabama Sen. Howell Heflin, a conservative Democrat who represented the state for 18 years. For a time, Jones served as a staff counsel for the senator. Heflin left the Senate in 1997 and was replaced by Sessions, meaning that Jones now occupies the seat of his former boss. (Perkins told me that Jones was originally considering a run for governor but that switched after a conversation in Perkins’s living room. “His heart had always been in the U.S. Senate,” he said.) Jones fondly recalled that he’d called Heflin during law school, asking if he could work for his campaign. The senator replied that he could if Jones raised enough money to pay for his salary. He did, getting the hang of fundraising calls from an early age.
Jones’s ideological evolution was gradual, although he was always interested in politics. “I don’t think there was an epiphany,” he said. “I didn’t consider myself a George McGovern liberal Democrat. I was not that anti-war at all — very socially conservative at the time.” He voted for Richard Nixon the first time he could cast a ballot but grew disillusioned by Watergate during college. He did field organizing in Alabama for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign and then worked for Heflin. In 1988, when Joe Biden ran for president, Jones served as state co-chair for the campaign.
By that time, Jones was a successful lawyer, although he had yet to try the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing case, which received national attention for convictions of two KKK members for the decades-old crime that killed four young black girls in Birmingham. After he won the case, Jones considered running for the Senate. “People forget that I was going to do that in 2001,” he said. “I was coming off the church bombing case. It was Jeff Sessions’s first re-elect coming up — I really felt like there was an opportunity and so that summer after I left the U.S. attorney’s office, I started going around meeting folks, raising a little bit money, not a lot. And then 9/11 hit.” After that, Jones said, everything changed. It was too hard to run against an incumbent Republican in a deep-red state during the post-attack atmosphere. He’d wait another 16 years for a shot at the seat.
Jones’s sense of history was on display during his maiden Senate speech in March, when he invoked something Heflin had written: “Compromise and negotiation — the hallmarks of moderation — aimed at achieving moderate, centrist policies for our country, should not be viewed as negatives.” Jones took to the floor to cite these words a month after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He spoke about the need for better gun regulations, called for senators to support his Democratic colleagues’ bills, but also said this:
“Frankly, I also enjoy guns. I enjoy shooting them. I like how they are made, their power, and their history. I own many of them, all stored in a locked gun safe that is, quite frankly, larger than what my wife initially approved a number of years ago. And collecting them and shooting them at the range or hunting is a bond I share with my son Christopher and many of my friends.”
Though the American South, especially in 2018, can be a much-maligned place in the eyes of many liberals, Doug Jones is a man of his culture. And he talks about it.
Jones certainly seems more at ease in Alabama. In D.C., he was still getting used to the senatorial pace of life, or, as he put it, “still drinking from the fire hose,” with constituent meetings and staff briefings done in “West Wing”–esque walk-and-talks on the way to committee votes. But back home, he was looser. After an evening event, he couldn’t wait to drive to an old Montgomery seafood place — “Jubilee! Jubilee! It’s Jubilee!” he shouted to members of his staff, jubilant that they had remembered the name of the restaurant after collectively blanking on it. In the car on our drive, he ribbed me about the state of football in my home state, Ohio (Jones is an SEC man through and through and has tickets to the Alabama games that entitle him to lockers in the stadium where he can store adult beverages of his choice to sip on, a nice perk, since alcohol sales are banned by the league), and proved most animated when talking about the history of Alabama politics, of which he seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge.
I asked him about segregation — Jones was born in 1954, the same year that Brown v. Board of Education officially ordered that U.S. schools be integrated.
“For me, segregation didn’t really mean anything,” Jones said of his early childhood. “It was just not something that as a child and growing up that you think about.” He acknowledged he grew up “fairly sheltered,” a white boy in an all-white neighborhood, though Jones said “it was not a hateful neighborhood — no one was out burning crosses.” Fairfield, a town outside Birmingham, where Jones grew up, is home to a U.S. Steel mill, where Jones’s father worked until he was 80 years old. I asked if his family had supported George Wallace, the Alabama governor who ran for president on a segregationist platform.
“Hell, everybody in Alabama supported George Wallace, sure!” Jones said. “Everybody was a Democrat too. The thing about the Democratic Party at the time — and I say this a lot when people say they want to bring the Democratic Party back — I say, ‘Hell no we don’t! Not the rooster!” A white rooster was the old symbol for the Alabama Democratic Party, and the logo was often accompanied by the slogan “white supremacy for the right.”
“I’ve tried to think back a lot to those days, and I remember some of the Wallace stuff. But in the back of my mind, there’s also something telling me that my dad was kinda a Ryan deGraffenried supporter,” Jones said. DeGraffenreid Sr., a candidate for governor, was a relative moderate by Alabama standards — meaning that he was still a segregationist — but he condemned Wallace’s inflammatory rhetoric. “I’ve never really talked to dad about that over the last few years,” Jones mused. “He might remember that — he’s got dementia, so you tend to remember things from far back.”
Jones’s long political memory is a reminder that while he is a new senator, he’s no political naif, but someone with a full life experience and a certain confidence in his decision making.
“He’s a good thinker,” Greg Hawley, Jones’s former law partner, told me. “I don’t think he’s what I would call a collaborative thinker. I think he internalizes a lot of things. He’s good at figuring out things on his own without a lot of input.”
Jones has had to think through some difficult decisions of late, particularly when it comes to Trump Cabinet appointments. He joined the majority of Democrats in voting against Gina Haspel to be director of the CIA but voted for Mike Pompeo’s nomination for secretary of state, one of only a handful of Democrats to do so, despite reservations about Pompeo’s history of anti-Muslim remarks and anti-gay rights policy stances. (Since taking office, Jones has voted in line with Trump’s position 56.3 percent of the time. The only Democratic senator who has voted with Trump more often is Joe Manchin of West Virginia.) Jones got pushback from some of his more liberal supporters for the Pompeo decision, including his son, Carson, who is gay.
“He expressed some disappointment in the vote, and I said, ‘I understand, I got it,’” Jones said.
In a highly partisan atmosphere, with the constant thrum of social media as background to nearly every political happening, it’s impossible not to get pushback on votes or public statements. I asked Jones, who seems preternaturally even-keeled, what does actually push his buttons.
“I’ll tell you what really gets me politically are the people who are disingenuous, who will pander, who are intellectually dishonest just to try to get a vote,” he said. “I try to just hold my tongue and go off by myself and beat my head against a wall. There has to be a certain element of discipline that comes with this job.”
It reminded me of some advice a friend had gotten from his father in moments of frustration: Measure your response by how it serves your goal, not by how it serves your fury. The newly elected senator from Alabama has lived long enough to know that immoderate fury does not serve the goal of the radical moderate.
“I guess I need to show you my picture,” Synethia Pettaway said to me, getting up from the dining-room table in her high-ceilinged, colonnaded home that, as she put it, “was not built for me to live in, but God saw fit for me to be able to purchase.” She meant a black woman wasn’t ever supposed to live in this pretty white house in Selma, Alabama.
She came back with a framed black-and-white photo showing five nuns in old-fashioned white wimples beaming down at a baby. There’s another person in the photo — Martin Luther King Jr. He’s looking at the baby, too, holding her hand.
“His birthday and my birthday are the same, so they wanted him to meet me because I was born on Jan. 15, 1965,” Pettaway said. “They say he told me I would be a civil righter, so I have been out there ever since.”
Pettaway is the head of the Democratic Party in Alabama’s Dallas County and one of a network of black political and civic leaders who helped mobilize voters for Jones. The county, which is 69.5 percent black, went for Jones with 75 percent of its vote. When Sessions ran uncontested in 2014, he received 4,825 votes and no write-in votes in the county. In 2017, Jones got 10,492 votes to Moore’s 3,485.
The black community of Alabama has for many years been underrepresented on the federal level, and its struggles for even a shot at equal representation are ignominious legend: police dogs, fire hoses and nightsticks. Pettaway is sanguine about Jones’s prospects for success — she wants to get things done, like getting funds for a better highway through the Black Belt — but she also cautions that Jones still needs to do work to build a deeper understanding of the black community. When F.D. Reese, one of Selma’s “Courageous Eight” who marched with Dr. King to register black voters, died in April, Pettaway said, Jones never reached out. Things like that would need to change going forward, she said. Still, Pettaway said, she’s one of Jones’s biggest proponents.
“The honeymoon’s going to be over next year — it’s over in 2019,” Sam Jones, the former mayor of Mobile, told me over the din of cocktail party chatter at the 100 Black Men of Greater Mobile gala, where Jones was delivering a keynote address. That’s when Jones would have to make real, serious decisions and be called more publicly to task. “I’d start planning for that right now,” the former mayor said.
For Pettaway, seeing the collective votes of black Alabamians put Jones into office was powerful — on election day, a video of a woman casting the first ballot of her lifetime went viral. In Pettaway’s eyes, the stakes of voting are too often obscured.
“People that you vote for determine where you’re born, how you’re born, who you’re born by,” she said. “They determine how you live, who you can marry and where you are married. When you die, they determine how you can be buried and where you can be buried. … They determine all of it. So voting is important.”
And Doug Jones needs to keep Synethia Pettaway’s vote.