Doug Jones spoke to Lexington in Mobile, Alabama, on November 10th. The previous day the Washington Post had published a report alleging that Roy Moore, his Republican rival for an Albama Senate seat, had a history of pursuing and molesting teenage girls. Mr Jones, seated in the office of a friendly law firm and wearing his trademark “Doug Jones: US Senate” white sports shirt, was enjoying a pit-stop between a Veteran’s Day parade and joint appearance before a black crowd with Congressman John Lewis. He seemed a bit warier than a more seasoned politician, but was engaging nonetheless.
The Economist: What is at stake in this contest?
Doug Jones: I think there is a lot at stake for Alabama. People put it in a broader context but I think for Alabama, in particular as it stands now, Alabama has a choice of either going forward or backwards in my opinion. My campaign has been built from the very beginning even in in the primary on having dialogues not monologues, built on trying to bring people together, to have a unifying voice, reaching across the aisle, because I truly believe that as a state and a country we need to try to bring people together to try to find some common ground. We’ve been talking about that right from the beginning, and that is still what our campaign is about. Now I’ve got issues that I want to do that with, but at the end of the day in order to move any issue forward you have to find common ground with people who might take a different approach.
What is there to persuade you there are enough people in Alabama who are receptive to that, who don’t want division?
I think people are very tired of the gridlock, very tired of the fighting, they see nothing but chaos, nothing but that people cannot get things done. And they are beginning to realise…the healthcare debate that really has been going now since January, I think the healthcare debate has allowed people to focus on issues. Because they see a system that is not working the way it’s supposed to be, some would say it’s broken, but the responses have been more political than they have been caring. They’ve been political, repeal and replace, or they have been, no, we’re not going to do any of that. And so, what they want to see is, look, this is my life, our healthcare is such a fundamental issue for us, we want people to talk to each other, try to get something done that’s going to help everybody.
Well, this may be what you and I think, what the pundit class thinks, but another reading of politics in the last couple of years is that, actually, issues don’t matter.
I agree with that, but what I’m saying is this health-care debate has to some extent, at least in Alabama, changed that. You’ve seen it in polling, you saw it in Virginia the other night, when the number one thing people voted on was health care. I think that this issue has helped people do what I call a political reset button and start looking at issues and they want to see something done. In Washington, DC right now you’ve got one party that controls the presidency, the House and the Senate. Nothing’s getting done. And it’s not getting done in part because the parties are fighting and will not try to find common ground.
So your pitch is a bipartisan pitch?
Yes and no. I’m running as a Democrat, because my belief system is more consistent with working-class people and I try to do things to help people and lift all boats. But at the same time I recognise that to get anything done progress has got to be made on both sides of the aisle. You’ve got to find that common ground.
Are there any Republicans you wouldn’t work with?
In the Senate? No. But at the same time it’s a two-way street, it’s not just me running around and knocking on doors up there and saying, ‘Hey will you work with me?’ I hope that a voice like mine, a Democrat voice from the south, will be able to reach across that aisle and find that common ground and that middle ground.
How would it help that you’re from the South?
I think it helps because so many of the divisions in this country started in the South. It doesn’t matter what you talk about, politics or whatever. Many of the divisions started in the South decades and decades ago. So when you’ve got someone from the South trying to heal those, and try to to bring people together, people take notice.
Give me an example of a particular division?
I’m talking about anything.
You’re talking about race?
I’m talking about race certainly, but I think about any issue that addresses the people of the country, the folks that need health care, that need jobs, I think you don’t necessarily expect that voice to come from the South, a voice that’s going to be right there talking to everyday people, no matter where they are. I think the people of this state have more that unites than divides us. I believe the people of the country do too, but we’ve just got to find it. We’ve got to find it. And right now the reason we’ve had a problem so much is because our politics are defined by issues that divide us. Roy Moore wants to do that, Roy Moore has consistently used divisive issues to try to polarise people.
But isn’t that a pretty successful template?
It has been, but it hasn’t always been. You know, it has been, but that doesn’t mean it has to be every election. So, you know, we’ll see. It may or may not be for this election cycle, but I can tell you this: We’re getting a hell of a lot of traction in this state. On that float today, in Mobile, one of the most conservative cities in this state, to see the number of people of all races and all ages giving me the thumbs up and saying, “Go for it, I’m voting to you, I’m for you, go for it.” You would see we have traction.
How much is Roy Moore an advantage for you?
I think it is an advantage, I’d be silly to say he wasn’t. The contrast between Roy Moore and myself couldn’t be greater in terms of working with people. My history has been one of reaching across political aisles, but also to try to help all people, treat them with dignity, respect, try to make sure all people are treated equally in the eyes of the law. And that has not been his history. It’s been just the opposite. If you’re not part of that class of people that Roy Moore is OK with, then you’re just a second-class citizen—you don’t have certain rights, your conduct may be considered illegal, all of those issues. He is a divider, and has been a divider. Now he’s got his supporters and I get that and understand that, but I just think that’s not who the people of Alabama are.
How can you reassure his supporters that you are not out to take away their religious freedom or their guns, their culture?
I don’t know if I can. I think actions have to speak louder than words, so once I get elected I can try to do it. But look, when you talk about their Christian beliefs and stuff, that’s one thing, but when you talk about their culture, I’m not sure what you mean by that. If culture means that you have to put down people, if your culture means that you would discriminate against somebody, that you would not treat anybody in the same way that Christ would do, then I’m not going to protect that. I’m not going to protect discrimination of any sort, in any way, whether it’s race, religion, sex orientation or whatever. So I’m not going to protect that culture if that’s what their culture is. What I’m hoping to see is that if they are truly religious and they are truly Christian in the same way that I am, that my faith is, well, we take care of everybody. I’ve always believed the culture of the South, the heritage of the South, is of people treating people like friends, of neighbours helping neighbours. You know, when a tornado comes through Tuscaloosa or Hackleburg, or you have a hurricane comes up the Gulf Coast, we don’t start running around asking people who they are or who their fathers are.
Do you think the Democratic Party has nonetheless been tin-eared or unresponsive to voters’ cultural concerns?
I don’t know if they’ve been unresponsive. Again, if their culture is such that it’s a discriminatory culture, if that’s what you mean, if that’s what they do, then I don’t think the Democratic Party or the Republican Party should respond to that
Then the trick is to find a way to appeal to that culture without being discriminatory?
Either appeal to them or just hopefully once you get elected, you can talk to them and you can say look, I’m not going to infringe on that, if you want to believe what you believe, that’s fine, but let’s talk about your health care, let’s talk about jobs, let’s talk about the economy. You and I may never agree on whether it’s OK to discriminate against Muslims, but let’s talk about your health care. I want your kids to get educated, I want you to have a good job, I want you to have adequate health care. So let’s talk about those issues and let’s find the issues that we can find common ground on.
How much of an advantage or disadvantage for you is the Post story?
I don’t have a crystal ball, I have no idea. You know, we’re going to stay in our lane. We have these issues which we believe were gathering steam, that we have the wind at our back on anyway. So I don’t have a clue. All that I know is these are very serious issues he has to answer to the people of Alabama on. We’re going to talk about the issues. It’s all about the people of this state.
But you are also talking about him…
I was talking about him on his issue concerning the moral foundation of law, and on the fact that the people of Alabama elected him twice and on both occasions he was removed from office. I think those are serious, serious issues. And I think the people of Alabama need to understand that. I’ve always said that if you look at his history, it’s all about him and not about the people of the state. I think that that is fair game. This [The Post story] goes beyond that. So we are going to stay in our lane.
You’re not going to talk about this?
No reason to. He will have to answer to the people of the state, not me.
But would you say it frames the choice between you as a moral one?
I’m not going to characterise it as that. I’ve never characterised a political race as framing a moral choice. I think you look at everybody’s record and at the facts and you make a decision on what you believe should be in the best interests of the state. Who do I think can best represent me? Who do I think can best represent the people of this state to try to attract jobs and bring in business? Those are the issues. I don’t put that on a moral plane. Somebody else might.
Why are you a Democrat?
I go way back, I see the Democratic Party in a historical light. I see the Democratic Party of Franklin D. Roosevelt, that brought us out of the Depression and gave us social security. I see it in Harry Truman, I see it in John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson who gave us Medicaid and Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. I’ve seen the party always for being for folks who are hardworking, trying to keep their families safe, trying to provide for their families, and I think that is traditionally what the party has always been. And do it fairly, and across the board, and not treat people in discriminatory ways.
Your grandfather was a coal miner I think?
One was a coal miner, a union organiser, the other was a steel worker.
So they were Democrats?
And they stuck with the party?
My grandad who was the steel worker died in 1969. My dad, who was also a steel worker, has gone both ways. You’ve got to remember that when I was a kid everybody was a Democrat. So it’s fair to say they were Democrats in part because of Roosevelt and because of Truman, but as things started to shift, my Dad would say I’m going to vote for a person not a party. So he always did that, he always split his vote.
Have you voted Republican?
One time, I voted for Richard Nixon, my very first vote. Oh God, I‘ve regretted it ever since.
Would you welcome national Democratic leaders who want to campaign with you?
Well, we’re not asking for a whole lot of stuff.
You’ve had Joe Biden down here…
Well, Joe and I have been friends for a long time, we’ve been friends since my days in law school. He’s always said, “Doug, if you want to do something, let me know.” He was funny, he said, “Let me know and I’ll either come and campaign for you or against you, whatever will help you.”
I wanted him to come down because Joe’s history is also that working-class history. So, we’ll see, today we’ve got Congressman John Lewis coming down, one of my heroes. He’s been a friend since I met him following the church bombing cases. So we’ll have a few things like that coming in. But at the end of the day, it’s all going to be about issues that people in the state care about. You know, that’s what I believe, people are truly setting some reset buttons.
Would you welcome Barack Obama if he offered to come?
You know, we’re not seeking anybody, haven’t talked to anybody like that. I don’t know.
I’m not sure. What we want to do is this, we want to run our race, if people fit into that race, then absolutely. Why…
Why am I asking the question? I’m asking because I’m interested in whether it’s possible to separate your candidacy from the brand of the Democratic Party which is not strong in Alabama.
It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t really matter. Only the people in the media are asking me those questions. There’s nobody in Alabama asking me, “Are you going to bring in so and so? Are you going to stay away from this or that?” The people I’m talking to in Alabama are saying, “What are you going to do for my health care? What are you going to do about this?” They’re not trying to get into my head about the campaign and how we’re going to strategise the campaign. They want to know what we have to say about the issues. There may be people that are specific experts on issues that I might reach out to, to say, “Hey, you’re the expert on this…” But don’t ask me the follow-up, because that just came out, I don’t have anybody in mind. We want to make sure this is an Alabama-based race. We have a national party, we’re a part of the Democratic Party, I understand that and it cuts both ways, because at the end of the day there are still a lot of Democrats in this state. There’s a lot of people in this state fed up with the Republican Party, because if you ask people in this state about the Republican Party. They’ll say, “Which part? The Steve Bannon part or do you mean a more moderate part?” So I don’t think anyone wants to nationalise the race much, because it’s an Alabama race.
Just going back to your family briefly, you said your grandfathers were Democrats…
I would say they voted Democrat. They were never active politically, they were voters.
Sure, but then, your cousins and wider family? Most of them have become Republicans I suppose?
Most of them, I would assume. Most everybody voted Republican more than they voted Democrat in the last few years.
Do you think that helps you get across the aisle, get in the mind of conservative Republicans?
Look, I’m not trying to get in the mind of conservative Republicans, I’m not trying to get in the minds of anybody. I’m running this race based on my personal belief system, it’s what I think is also consistent with what deep down a lot of people in the state also believe. If it reaches people, fine. If it doesn’t reach certain people, what I hope to say is, Look, we’re not going to agree on every issue… That’s the other thing I think: politicians in this country try to be all things to all people, say diff things to different groups in order to try to reach those groups. We’re not doing that. We’re saying, this is our message, and at the end of the day, we’re not going to agree with people on everything. I’m just not going to agree with everyone on every issue. But what I want to do is this, I want to sit down and talk about these issues, and we will find common ground.
You mean on health care and jobs?
Health care, jobs, education, you name it, we will find common ground. And if we can’t find common ground, let’s just agree to disagree and move on to some other thing that we can find common ground on. I don’t think you have enough public officials or politicians that take that approach and I’m pretty tired of listening to people that tell me it’s their way or the highway. I think that’s a problem with both political parties these days.
You say you don’t need everyone to agree with you on everything. It’s in fact pretty striking that you’ve stuck to your guns on some issues, choice say. Was that much of a decision for you?
Why not? It’s poison isn’t it? Campaigning in Alabama as a pro-choice Democrat?
No, it’s absolutely not. I absolutely do not believe it is. At the end of the day, my position, which has been consistent with the law for decades is what deep-down most people believe. So I don’t think it is. But regardless—when my wife and I first talked about this race, we said the one thing we did not want to do is move the needle on positions based on polls or whatever. People need to be transparent, people need to be authentic. There’s not enough authenticity in our political leaders these days. And that’s the one thing I’ve always prided myself on being. We can agree to disagree, but what you see is what you get. And I’ll give my point, but what I’m also going to do is say, “We may not be able to agree on that issue, I know you have beliefs on that issues and I respect those beliefs, but let’s talk about something else, let’s move on from that for a minute and let’s talk about your health care.”
But that’s not all you’re saying is it? Your prosecution of the abysmal Klan case, that is your USP with the black community, so that’s what you’re going to talk about with it…
I’m running ads on it in the white community, too. I said the same thing in Fyffe, Alabama, where there were just 350 people up there and only a handful of black folks. I’m proud of that. I’m proud for the state of Alabama that were able to do that, because at the end of the day, it was not Doug Jones who convicted those guys, it was a jury of black and white, young and old, male and female that did the actual convictions. So our messages are the same. There are always local issues. But, by and large, my platform is the same, and the church bombings case is part of it, because for someone to be able to do that 37, 38 years out of the chute, it takes a lot of passion, just hard work and things coming together for you, and I’m proud of that, and I want people to know about that, and I want people to know this too: It was a damn good thing for the state of Alabama that we were able to convict those guys, because I travel all over the country and this is what I hear. It was good for the state and good for business in the state that we could show we were excising some of the demons we’ve had here.
Thank you very much.
Thank you. I enjoyed it.