Doug Jones, the former United States attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, spent last week campaigning in Birmingham, speaking to young Democrats on Tuesday and opening his Birmingham campaign headquarters on Thursday night. During his time as U.S. attorney, Jones prosecuted Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry, two of the individuals behind the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
“The next election, the one that is facing us, is always the most important election,” Jones told the Birmingham chapter of the Alabama Young Democrats, explaining that those interested in the direction of the country cannot afford to sit out any major elections in the future. Jones described Governor Kay Ivey’s decision to schedule a special election for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions and currently held by Luther Strange as an opportunity “that was beyond our wildest imaginations.”
“When originally this election for the U.S. Senate seat was set in 2018, Democrats were wringing their hands. They weren’t sure what to do. People had been looking to run for governor, for lieutenant governor, for secretary of state, for attorney general,” he said. “When she moved that election up, it has given us an opportunity to focus on one election, the first [open] Senate seat in the Trump era.”
Jones, who the week before had been awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Alabama Young Democrats for his years of public service, reflected on the history of the Democratic Party in Alabama, saying that for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Democratic Party’s dominance of the state was so complete that Alabama Democrats did not need to create a cohesive platform or ideology.
“The Democratic Party here for so many years was really not a party. Everybody was a Democrat when I was growing up,” he recalled, “which meant on the one hand, we had Democrats who stood for civil rights and human rights, and on the other hand, they stood in schoolhouse doorways. Well, that’s not a party, that’s just a confederation of people trying to run under one banner, and when you’re doing that, you don’t really have to develop a philosophy. When Republicans started to gain ground, they did have a philosophy. They did have a cohesive strategy and a party. Democrats failed to recognize that we were becoming a two party state.”
This upcoming special election, Jones argued, represented a chance for the Democratic Party in Alabama to demonstrate its members’ commitment to the principles of progressive politics. He framed the race as an opportunity especially for younger Democrats to become involved in politics, and encouraged those present not only to register to vote themselves but to take part in efforts to register other voters in the state.
Jones brought up the law recently signed by Ivey that clarifies the definition of “crimes of moral turpitude” as creating “another whole class of folks who are going to get to vote for the first time.” The Alabama Constitution of 1901 mandates that individuals convicted of felonies involving “moral turpitude” lose their right to vote, but does not define which crimes constitutes “moral turpitude.” Discretion was left to county voting registrars to determine, resulting in inconsistency and confusion across the state. In 2008, former Governor Bob Riley and former Attorney General Troy King’s respective offices sent state officials conflicting lists of “crimes of moral turpitude;” the governor’s list included 480 felonies that would result in disenfranchisement while the attorney general’s listed only 70. In May, the Alabama legislature passed a bill with wide bipartisan support that defined 42 felonies, including murder, kidnapping, and theft, as crimes “involving moral turpitude.”
“There are people out there — a lot of people — who have been denied the right to vote because a registrar said, ‘You’ve been convicted of a felony,’” Jones said. Since the new law has reduced the number of crimes that merit disenfranchisement, “we need to be out there seeking those people” who can now vote again, he argued.
“We need Democrats out there beating the bushes. I obviously am running, and I want everyone in this room to get out there and beat the bushes for me — but the most important thing is, we need to make sure we keep the energy level going that we know is out there,” he concluded.
Two days later, Jones spoke again to a crowd of Birmingham Democrats, this time at the kick-off event for his Birmingham campaign headquarters in Avondale. Former Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington introduced Jones, describing the candidate as well-suited to represent the vast majority of Alabama’s citizens who are not partisans of either side.
“We are in a great political divide in this country right now, and so we have an opportunity to strike a blow for some moderation for Alabama, for jobs, for building the state that we are part of, for education, for healthcare, for all of these things,” Arrington said.
Jones expanded on the theme of finding moderation in the midst of partisan rancor when he took the stage, beginning by acknowledging the shooting of Louisiana Representative Steve Scalise.
“What struck me in the aftermath … was the speech from Nancy Pelosi and Speaker [Paul] Ryan and others that were talking about unity and talking about the fact that we have let our political discourse often turn into hate. We have shown now … hate has no place in American politics, American society. Hateful rhetoric knows no boundaries either right or left of the political spectrum,” he said, adding that it is “time that people of goodwill had more conversations, more dialogues instead of just monologues talking at each other.
“I am standing here today because I really believe there are more issues that are in common among the people of Alabama than there are that divide us,” he said. “Our job over the next few months is to get through the political noise that we’re going to hear, to get through all of the background noise and the politics of people who are going to try to divide us, and to focus on those issues.”