A Conversation with Senator Doug Jones

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In the early 2000s Doug Jones did something many viewed as impossible. He prosecuted and secured the convictions of two Klan members responsible for the 16th Street Church bombing.  Four young black girls were murdered during that terrorist attack. Their names were Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair.

In 2017, Doug Jones did the seemingly impossible once again when he won election to the Senate from Alabama, replacing former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and defeating his Republican rival Roy Moore in a special election. Doug Jones became the first Democrat in a quarter century to win an Alabama Senate seat and his razor-thin margin of victory was secured in part on the strength of the black vote and black women in particular. He’s got hopes now for re-election in 2020, but it will not be easy and some analysts say it’s not even likely.

1A guest host Todd Zwillich interviewed Doug Jones about the reelection campaign, Alabama’s new law that will effectively ban abortion, and more.

The Most Vulnerable Democrat

Todd Zwillich: They say that you are the most vulnerable Democrat in the United States Senate. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s Joe Manchin of West Virginia, but you’re running for your first full term in one of the reddest states in Americ.  According to 538, 27 points more Republican than it is Democrat, only this time President Trump is on the ballot. He wasn’t the last time when you won in 2017. Are you feeling vulnerable these days?

Doug Jones:  No. I don’t feel vulnerable at all. In fact I feel very good. You know we hit the ground running. You know I had three weeks between the election and getting in to Washington, getting sworn and building a staff. We put together a great staff. We’ve been diving into the issues and we’ve been doing exactly what I said I would do and that is look at those kitchen table issues — the issues that people talk about everyday at their kitchen table whether it is their health care, whether it’s jobs, whether it’s trying to lift their wages, whether it’s education for their kids, bringing in good jobs to this state. We’ve been doing those things. And wherever we go we get a very, very positive response. Not everybody’s going to agree with everything I do. I get that and they shouldn’t. But that’s why we are having dialogues, not the kind of monologues you see primarily in these political roles these days. We’re talking to people and, more importantly, we’re listening to people.

African-American Women Are Essential

Todd Zwillich:  The analysts say that Doug Jones has no chance in Alabama unless African-Americans, and especially African-American women, come out in droves in this election. Do you think that’s true?

Doug Jones:  The analysts have never seen a Democrat in the last 20 years that’s done the kind of things, been on the ground the way that we have been on the ground, reaching people and talking to people.  That have been doing the kind of town halls like we did in Florence, Alabama this week. Like we’ve done at Auburn University. They are just sitting in a little room somewhere writing and trying to look at historical data, which we threw out the window in 2017. And so I feel good about where we are.

Now getting back to the specifics… One of the things that unfortunately politicians often do is they get elected and they have these constituencies out there and they say, well, we’ll see you next year, four years or six years [from now] when the election rolls around.  We haven’t done that. We have been back in those communities trying to do all that we can to help again. Healthcare is as important in the black community in Alabama as it is anywhere else, perhaps more so.  Black women are twice as likely to have difficulties in pregnancy than white women.  They’re more likely to die during a pregnancy. We’ve been doing things for maternal health and trying to study the health of a particularly women of color.

We’ve been doing a lot for our HBCUs. You know, historically black colleges and universities have often got a short shrift on a lot of the funding.  We secured a 14% funding increase for HBCUs. Alabama has more HBCUs than any state in the country, and that 14% increase was huge because they are also the lifeblood of those communities.

Alabama’s Abortion Law and the Charges Against Marshae Jones 

Todd Zwillich:  Multiple states have passed new laws restricting individual’s right to abortion, including your state  where the Republican governor Kay Ivey signed a bill into law that makes performing an abortion procedure a felony punishable by up to 99 years in prison after a certain point. You’ve come out against that, but there’s another issue in your state as well. Marshae Johnson is a black woman from Alabama who is being charged with the death of her fetus after she was shot in the stomach during an altercation with another woman. This case has made national news. You’re pro-choice. But how do you feel about charging Ms Johnson in this case?

Doug Jones:  I spent eight years as a prosecutor, four as an assistant U.S. attorney and four as the U.S. Attorney [for the Northern District of Alabama].  I would have never charged her.  That law protecting the unborn has been on the books for a long time in Alabama. But I think it’s a real stretch to charge her with manslaughter based on a law that has been on the books for a long time. I just think it’s wrong.  Hopefully the local district attorney here will have a change of heart.

(EDITOR NOTE: Hours after this interview was recorded District Attorney Lynneice Washington announced she was dropping the case against Marshae Jones.)

Todd Zwillich:  It won’t be news to anyone that abortion is a huge issue in your state.  Alabama is very conservative when it comes to abortion, so a lot of those people won’t vote for you anyway. But does it make it tougher that these new restrictive laws have become such a marquee issue in states like yours?

Doug Jones:  No.  I really don’t think it is. I think it’s a wakeup call for most people in Alabama because while the state generally considers themselves pro-life, they also were pro-choice when it comes to certain exceptions to these abortion laws. This abortion law is so extreme the people of this state, everything that we have seen, everything we’ve heard – whether it’s polling, whether it’s our own work – says that the people of Alabama overwhelmingly reject a law that is this extreme.  What this law represents is really a gerrymandered legislature that only answers to a small fraction of the voters in their particular districts. It doesn’t represent the people of this state. They are generally pro-life, but they also do not like the extremes. I think that this gives us a really interesting opportunity to really let people understand that abortion in this country has become a political weapon. It’s become a weapon for the right, has become a weapon for the left. What we need to be doing is focusing back on health care issues that are important to this state. Health care issues for infants, for children or for the unborn.  We need to expand Medicaid. We need to give women better access to health care. We need to do those things that will reduce the number of women who have to make this most difficult of choices. This gives us an opportunity to talk about that and not use it as a political weapon.

Listen to the full interview for more on: 

Will Jones become a Republican to stay safe politically?

His thoughts on a potential rematch with Roy Moore

How will he confront President Trump’s popularity

Firearms as a health issue

What to do on the Southern U.S. border