When Mondaire Jones was growing up in Spring Valley, New York, the way the world worked already seemed clear to him: “People like me don’t get close to the halls of Congress,” he said. But his mother taught him he could be anything he wanted. “It was a radical idea,” Jones wrote on Medium.
After completing his studies at Stanford University and Harvard Law School and working at the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama, the world looks different to the 32-year-old. Jones is now a candidate for New York’s 17th Congressional District, and if elected, he could be the first openly gay black man elected to Congress. (The other potential first, fellow New York Democrat Ritchie Torres, would also be elected in 2020.)
The way he tells his life story to voters, as seen in a recent campaign advertisement, draws from his background as the son of a family that fled the South to escape the persecution of Jim Crow — and links that to the Trump administration's response to the deadly 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Jones opens with a story about his grandfather walking to school in segregated Virginia, as white students rode by in a school bus that only they were permitted to ride. "And they would spit on him through the school bus windows as he was walking a dirt path on his way to school," Jones says in the ad over images of a child drawing.
"For me, policy is personal," Jones told NBC News.
'We cannot be compromising on values'
While working for the Obama Justice Department, Jones said that part of his job was vetting candidates for federal judgeships. “These were folks who would have had no problem saying on the record during the Senate confirmation hearing that they agree with the decision in Brown v Board,” Jones said, referring to the recurring issue of Trump-nominated judges declining to take a public position on the landmark desegregation case.
“I was part of the administration in the early years, when we were having an extremely tough time getting judges confirmed by the Senate,” he said. “That’s because, respectfully, we were not fighting hard enough."
Jones lamented that it took continuous GOP obstruction of judicial nominees before Democrats changed the rules of the Senate so that judges could be confirmed by a majority vote.
“I think that should have been done at the very beginning of the administration when it was clear that Republicans were not going to engage in reasonable behavior," Jones added. “I think there was this naïveté, not felt by myself, but certainly naïveté among certain decision makers early on in the Obama presidency,” Jones said.
He said his experiences in Washington showed him that Obama’s middle-of-the-road, bipartisan approach won’t cut it in the face of GOP intransigence. “The Republican Party of today is very different from the Republican Party of even a decade ago,” Jones said. “And certainly it is different from what it was three decades ago when my member of Congress first took office.”
For Jones, that means that the way he wants to fight for his political goals puts him more in line with his progressive neighbor, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a fellow Democrat, than Nita Lowey, the incumbent Democrat in NY-17 who was first elected in 1988.
“I’m part of a generation that stands to inherit a planet that's devastated by climate catastrophe,” Jones said. “For me there's no alternative to a Green New Deal, we have to be fighting for a thing that will make our planet inhabitable for ourselves and our children and their children.”
“In broad strokes, my generation recognizes that in 2021, when I hope to take office, we need to bring an energy to the role of Congress member and president of the United States that is that of a fire,” he added. “Someone who is going to fight tooth and nail for the things we say we believe in as the Democratic Party.”
'Struggling with my self-acceptance'
“I’m proud to be part of a movement of young people, including young people of color and young queer people and young women,” Jones said. But he added that coming out as gay was "hard."
Jones never imagined he could run for office, in part, he said, “because it would mean that I had to be my authentic self.”
“Not only had I not yet come to terms with that aspect of myself, but I certainly doubted that other people would be accepting of it,” he said. “But so much has changed over the past decade, and even over the past five years.”
Jones ended up coming out when he was 24 years old. Now, people come up to him and thank him for running as an openly gay candidate.
“Growing up — struggling with my self-acceptance — if I had been able to look to an example like what I would provide, someone who is a respectable individual, an openly gay black man in Congress, life would have been a lot better for me," Jones said.
The race and the district
After he announced his candidacy in a June Medium post, the race for NY-17 became a contest among Jones and Lowey, NARAL Pro-Choice America leader Allison Fine, Assembly member David Buchwald, state Sen. David Carlucci and former Department of Defense official Evelyn Farkas. The primary takes place June 23, 2020, but for a district like this, the winner of the Democratic primary is likely to win the general election.
And as of last month, it’s a primary race that is wide open after Lowey announced she would not be seeking re-election.
“I have tremendous respect for her and her legacy,” Jones said of Lowey, “and frankly she has made it easier for women and minorities like myself to run for office because she's been such a trailblazer.”
New York’s 17th Congressional District straddles the lower Hudson River and contains all of Rockland County and part of Westchester County. Its neighboring district to the north, NY-18, is represented by out gay Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, another Democrat.
Mondaire Jones’ district is a historically wealthy, former Republican stronghold. But since Lowey was first elected in 1988, the district has swung sharply to the left.
“We had a 13-4 Democratic majority on the county board of legislators and now it’s a 15-2 Democratic majority,” he said of the Westchester County Board of Legislators, the county-level government. “We have an overwhelmingly Democratic voter registration advantage and we have a Democratic county executive.”
With statistics like that, Jones can tout that he is a "true progressive" and “the only candidate in this race not accepting corporate PAC money” and still hope to pull off a win.
He said he’s focused on local issues, like undoing the $10,000 cap imposed on the state and local tax deduction, a tax change that impacted residents of high-tax states like New York that Jones said “crushed families in Westchester and Rockland.”
And if Jones were to win, southern New York’s congressional districts could transform into a progressive bloc represented by some of the most diverse members in the country. Just several miles away is Ocasio-Cortez’s NY-14 District. And Ritchie Torres, a current New York City Council member who is also gay and black, is running to replace Jose Serrano in NY-15. Both Torres and Jones would be the first black gay men elected to Congress if they were to prevail Nov. 3, 2020.