Georgia’s own Vernon Jones spoke tonight at the Republican National Convention. Jones, a Black Democrat — party affiliation in air quotes at this point, I suppose — extolled the virtues of Trumpism to a national audience.
But in the well-heeled suburbs of the county Jones once led, Jones is loathed, considered the avatar of urban corruption and political malfeasance. And those suburban, relatively affluent Republicans are the ones that the party has been hemorrhaging.
So what gives? Why give Jones airtime? One wonders if Donald Trump woke up one morning a few weeks ago, saw Jones on “Fox and Friends” talking about how much he loves Trump and put him on the speaking list without much more consideration or political advice. It would be par for the course, suggesting that the national campaign either doesn’t know what it’s doing here — or worse, that it can’t keep from being undermined by the thrashing attention deficit disorder that is Trump himself.
“Democrat politicians have personal security. Why don’t they give up their security and replace them with social workers?” Jones asked rhetorically at the RNC, and every Republican in the county must have done a double take. Vernon Jones spent hundreds of thousands on personal security, over the very loud objections of Republicans in DeKalb County as wasteful spending.
All politics is local, as Tip O’Neill said. A question, then: Does Trump gain anything by airing Jones, and is it worth the loss of respect of these local voters who once formed the Republican base?
Let us dispense with the idea that Jones can, somehow, convince Black voters in any real numbers to vote for Trump. He has no meaningful political authority with Black voters, either locally or nationally. He withdrew from his reelection campaign to the state House under a legal challenge to his residency, facing both a strong primary challenger and the censure of his party. The last time he ran for a countywide seat in DeKalb County – which is 70 percent Black – he lost 3 to 1. It is better to think of Jones as a Black face on a convention led by a party composed primarily of white voters who want to be able to show it has Black support.
But the effect of affront to Republicans on the local level will be quite substantive.
“As a lifelong Republican, I cannot explain this. … Are we just so on the outs with national Republicans?”
Jones’s old stomping grounds in DeKalb has about 50,000 regular Republican voters. Trump won Georgia in 2016 by about 210,000 votes, and the race looks tighter now than it did then, particularly after the close gubernatorial race in 2018 between Stacey Abrams and now-Gov. Brian Kemp. There are two competitive U.S. Senate races in Georgia this year, either of which would be sensitive to a shift in voter sentiment in Atlanta’s politically mottled suburbs. But neither the campaigns of Sen. David Perdue nor Sen. Kelly Loeffler appear to have influenced Trump’s decision to give Jones the mic.
“As a lifelong Republican, I cannot explain this,” said Anne Blanton, a Republican activist from Brookhaven, in north DeKalb. “Why would you want somebody to come over to our side like that?”
Blanton, 54, lives in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, captured in 2018 from Republicans by Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath. Given the presumed closeness of that race, Blanton wonders why no one from the campaign of Karen Handel, McBath’s challenger, sent up warning flags to the Trump campaign.
It’s not the first time Republicans muffed local sentiments in Georgia recently.
“Are we just so on the outs with national Republicans?” Blanton said. “Kemp has been embarrassed by Trump, and he helped push [Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms] to the national spotlight with the lawsuit on the masks.” Kemp sued Bottoms — then on Joe Biden’s vice presidential short list — to attempt to block a city mandate to wear masks, two days after a visit by Trump. Kemp subsequently dropped the suit two days after Biden named U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate.
I am, perhaps, understating how much local Republicans dislike Jones. Here’s the background.
Before Jones became a spokesperson for Trumpism, he served as CEO of DeKalb County from 2001 to 2009, the top elected official for the county. Among his many failures while running county government, Jones’s hiring practices caused his administration to be found responsible for creating a hostile work environment and racial discrimination.
Jones was personally fined $27,750 in punitive damages by a court in 2011. The county lost over $3 million in damages and legal costs fighting the case.
A 2012 grand jury described Jones’s administration as corrupt, recommending that he be investigated for bid-rigging and theft. “Mr. Jones had an opportunity to assist this Special Purpose Grand Jury in its efforts to address and make right the many flaws of his administration. He failed to rise to the occasion,” the grand jury wrote. Also among its observations: wholesale corruption of the kind that gave a million-dollar tree-trimming contract to a company that didn’t even own a chainsaw. Nothing happened.
One would also think that the someone in the RNC’s ranks would have flagged Jones’s connection to the late, shamed megachurch leader Rev. Earl Paulk. A woman sued Paulk for sexual abuse in 2005, and Jones was set to testify in the case. His appearance was called off when Jones’s fraternity brother and current DeKalb Superior Court Judge Mark Anthony Scott ruled the case frivolous and awarded $1 million in attorney’s fees to Paulk – a bizarre ruling overturned on appeal.
The Republican enclave of Dunwoody, in DeKalb’s northern third, so detested the regular reports of corruption and Jones’s race-baiting response to criticism that they formed a new municipality in 2008 — the city of Dunwoody — in order to minimize their contact with county government.
“Vernon Jones has gotten himself out of more jams than Smuckers,” said Mike Hassinger, a political strategist in Georgia and a longtime observer of DeKalb politics. “The only reasons so few politicians get a second act is because Vernon Jones stole them all.”
His increasing appearances in national politics began a couple of years ago when he spoke at the National Rifle Association convention in Atlanta. Since then, it’s become increasingly apparent that he had burned all the bridges left at the local level and was trying to find some purchase in the national conversation.
“Seriously, the great opportunist rises from the ashes,” said former state Sen. Fran Millar, a Republican who represented the northernmost district in DeKalb for decades. “Twenty years I battled with him, but like Biden he is resilient.”
In full disclosure, Jones and I have a little history. I’ve been writing about corruption issues in DeKalb County for about a decade. Jones has regularly been accused of corruption in office. And Jones has taken issue with my commentary and the commentary of others in fairly personal terms before. As he was losing his race for county sheriff in 2014, he suggested that I was drinking Clorox — a racial insult — and then likened me to the house slave played by Samuel L. Jackson in the movie “Django.”
This is par for the course for Jones. Over the last couple of years in the legislature, he has managed to offend and insult much of the Democratic delegation in DeKalb, journalists, and observers, in similarly stark terms. Jones likes to be offensive. Perhaps that’s what Trump sees in him.