Since he announced his candidacy for Luther Strange’s Senate seat in May, Doug Jones, a former United States attorney who successfully prosecuted two of the individuals responsible for the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, has spent the summer campaigning around the state.
Jones, who opened his Birmingham campaign office in June, recently sat down with Weld to discuss why he considers Gov. Kay Ivey’s decision to hold a special election for Strange’s Senate seat an incredible opportunity for Democrats. He talked of plans to reach out to independents who do not align with either major party. (This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.)
Weld: In the past, you have spoken of Gov. Ivey’s decision to hold a special election as a powerful opportunity for Democrats. What about this election makes it especially important?
Doug Jones: Democrats have conceded too many races lately. We’ve had some good people running, but we’ve conceded a lot of races and we’ve conceded a lot of issues. And by focusing on this one election, without the noise of a presidential election or even elections for a whole slate of candidates, whether its governor or lieutenant governor or whatever, we can focus on what’s happening in the state right now, what’s happening in this country right now, and it gives the Democrats an opportunity to find that voice. And I say Democrats–I think it gives a lot of people, not just Democrats, an opportunity to find, on the one hand, a voice or simply an alternative.
I think there are so many people in this state that don’t really see themselves as strictly conservative or strictly progressive; they’re somewhere in the middle. They like to look at the candidates and they like to look at a broad range of issues. This is that opportunity [to reach out to those voters], and I think that is going to be more akin to what the Democratic Party in this state will be in the future, and that’s why this is such an interesting opportunity to be able to focus like a laser on those kitchen table issues that really mean something.
Weld: What are the kitchen table issues?
Jones: I think healthcare is perhaps the most important issue we’re facing right now. Between what the House has done and what the Senate is looking to do, I think the people of this state are going to get the shaft. I think the administration they voted for in a large margin is basically going to stick it to them. People are going to lose Medicaid. Trying to cut Medicaid is not just an issue for poor people, and it’s certainly not an issue of just people who are too lazy to work. That is just not the case. There are working people who still have to have Medicaid because they’re not getting a living wage. A high percentage of those getting Medicaid are children. If we start losing Medicaid and those federal dollars [allocated to the state for the program], our rural healthcare and hospitals and physicians are going to go away and that is important in a state like Alabama where so much of the state is in rural areas and needs those hospitals and physicians.
So, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I just saw where [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell is going keep the Senate in for two more weeks in August. The troubling thing is that nobody is really talking about how to make this healthcare bill better for people; they’re just talking about how to get to 50 votes, and that’s unfortunate.
Regardless, I think it’s going to be a work in progress, just like I thought when the Affordable Care Act was passed, it would be a work in progress, as opposed to just throwing it out. Whatever comes up now, if anything comes to a vote, is going to be a work in progress. So, I think that healthcare is going to be an issue after the new Senator takes office. That is something that people are concerned about when they sit down at the table.
There are a couple of issues that I would say [are kitchen table issues], and I think those issues [include] both the economy and a living wage as well as education. They’re both related. In fact, I think about everything is related to education. I’m concerned that economy has made a comeback, yet wages are not increasing at the rate I would like them to be. We still have an increasing income gap and it seems like the folks at the bottom of the labor pool are not moving up fast enough. I would like to see an increase in the minimum wage to a living wage. What that number is I can’t say just yet, but I would like to see something. I think we need to have a true living wage and I think we need to take that out of the political arena some.
I’m concerned about what I’m seeing from the Department of Education: the [proposed] cuts in federal dollars going to education. I think that the president’s budget, if it passes the way that he presented it, I just can’t imagine the people in the state of Alabama not thinking, “why did we vote for this guy?” because he is just sticking his finger in our eye.
Weld: How do you reach out to independents, especially those who might be skeptical of the Democratic Party?
Jones: I think you just sit down and talk to them. You run the campaign on the issues and I think that that’s going to be important. Before you get to that point, obviously we have a Democratic primary. And that Democratic primary is going to be between voters who have identified themselves as Democrats. If I’m lucky enough to win the Democratic primary, you’re not going to see a change in what I say. And I think that that’s really important, because all too often people pivot wherever they feel like they need to go. And we’re going to have a pretty consistent message.
And so, I think the challenge for us, if we can be fortunate enough to win the primary, would be to just talk to the people and go to those areas. We’re not going to pull back; I’m not going to focus on any one group or one special interest or anything like that, but focusing on the issues. I’ve always believed that if you can focus on the issues, then the rest will take care of itself. And I think that the majority of these issues that we’re going to be talking to will resonate with the people of this state, regardless of their race, regardless of their past political affiliation or votes, regardless of their religion.
Weld: Why do you feel it’s important to keep your message consistent no matter the audience?
Jones: It’s important because it’s the only way that you can demonstrate the common issues that people have. We don’t do enough of that in this state. Our political leaders don’t do enough of it. They are more concerned about their own political careers, so they want to basically tell an audience what they think they want to hear.
Again, we’re seeing a hell of a lot of that in the Republican primary, as opposed to basically going from one place to the next trying to educate people on issues and listening to people. I think the common themes are the most important thing. Certainly more important than any one election. It’s the common issues that can help us cut across racial lines, religious lines, gender lines, the whole nine yards.