Tom Crawford: Vernon Jones is the worst possible Democratic candidate to run for the U.S. Senate in 2008.
I never thought Georgia’s Democrats could do worse than they did in fielding candidates for top-of-the-ticket races in the last two election cycles. You had Denise Majette giving up a safe seat in Congress to run for the Senate in 2004 because, she said, God told her to. Majette must have had a bad connection, because she pulled 40 percent of the vote in her landslide loss to Johnny Isakson. Then there was Mark Taylor, who ran possibly the dumbest statewide campaign ever seen in these parts in the 2006 governor’s race. He drew a whopping 38 percent of the vote against Sonny Perdue. Can Democrats stoop any lower to find a weaker candidate for the premier statewide race of 2008, the challenge to first-term Sen. Saxby Chambliss?
Yes they can, and that person is Vernon Jones, the dapper CEO of the DeKalb County Commission who unofficially launched his campaign for the Senate last week. Jones is a presentable candidate who dresses in expensive designer suits and takes a moderate stance on most of the issues. True, he’s an African-American politician in a conservative, white-dominated state, but Georgians have shown they will vote for black candidates like Mike Thurmond and Thurbert Baker. Jones has some problems, however, as could be seen outside the front door of the DeKalb County bar where he made his kickoff speech. A small group of protestors held up signs calling for an investigation of an old rape charge against Jones and handed out a thick stack of police reports detailing some of the past allegations against him.
You don’t need to read through the reports to know that Jones is a man with personal issues that will hang over any campaign he runs. As has been well reported in the media, Jones has been accused of pointing a pistol at a woman and of physically shoving a female county commissioner. DeKalb police looked into a complaint filed by a Lithonia woman who said Jones sexually assaulted her when she visited his home in December 2004 (the investigation was dropped when the district attorney said Jones’ accuser “wanted to avoid further trauma to herself and her family”).
And we haven’t even started talking about the federal lawsuit that accuses Jones of trying to force out white county employees so that he could replace them with a “darker administration” in DeKalb, or the hundreds of thousands of dollars he spent on a personal security force, or… well, you get the idea.
There were some Republican operatives at Jones’ kickoff, including a Chambliss aide, who laughed gleefully through much of the event. You can understand why they were enjoying it so much: if this is the best opponent Democrats have, Chambliss will cruise to reelection. Remember that Chambliss upset Democratic incumbent Max Cleland in 2002 after running a nasty TV spot that equated Cleland with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. If Chambliss would do that to a decorated military veteran who lost three limbs fighting for his country, imagine what he’d do to an opponent who’s been accused of rape, ethnic cleansing, and violence against women. The attack ads write themselves.
The Democratic Party is in bad shape right now as a new chairwoman, Jane Kidd, tries to rebuild it as a viable political organization. But even in its current condition, the party can do better than this. Macon Congressman Jim Marshall, a Democrat so conservative that even Zell Miller hasn’t turned on him, would be a worthy opponent for Chambliss. Jim Butler, a successful Columbus trial lawyer and a committed environmentalist, would have the financial resources to mount a credible campaign as well. They might even be capable of drawing more than 40 percent of the vote, which would be a refreshing change for the party. The concern, however, is that the presence of Jones in the race will discourage other candidates because of Jones’ support among black voters who make up an increasingly larger percentage of the Democratic Party’s base.
This is the real test for Jane Kidd and her colleagues. If Democrats allow someone with Jones’ shabby background to scare off any other credible candidate in the most important statewide race on the ballot, they have lost the right to be taken seriously as a political party.