The three progressive Democrats who ousted more moderate House incumbents in 2020 primaries have understandably garnered the most attention in the lead-up to the new Congress.
But new arrivals like Mondaire Jones, a progressive who won an open Democratic primary in New York’s 17th Congressional District, are also a major reason the makeup of the House Democratic Caucus is moving incrementally to the left.
Together with fellow incoming New York Rep. Ritchie Torres, Jones, 33, is one of Congress’ first two openly gay Black men.
Jones was originally challenging veteran Rep. Nita Lowey, who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, in the Democratic primary. Then, in October 2019, Lowey announced plans to retire, sparking a scramble to succeed her that Jones eventually won. He went on to handily win the affluent, liberal-leaning district in New York City’s northern suburbs in November.
Jones, an attorney who grew up in poverty, ran and won as an unabashed progressive with the usual list of ambitious priorities, including enacting “Medicare for All,” a Green New Deal, and far-reaching police reforms. He nonetheless stopped short of some of the left’s more controversial stances and slogans, eschewing calls to both “defund the police” and support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
Jones’ freshman colleagues also unanimously voted to make him their representative to House leadership, putting him on a path to power on Capitol Hill.
HuffPost spoke to Jones about what he hopes to achieve in Congress, whether he differs from the “Squad” of left-wing women, and what it means for a progressive to represent a suburban constituency.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why is it important to you to have secured a spot on the House Judiciary Committee? What do you hope to focus on?
I am thrilled about joining the Judiciary Committee because I have centered and see an urgent need for democracy reforms in this country. We talk a lot as progressives about big structural changes ― Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, housing as a human right and policies that would reflect that. But none of that stuff is possible unless we root the corrosive influence of money out of our politics. And also, draw congressional districts in a way that will cause members of Congress to be responsive to the American people.
So much of that, and more, is contained in H.R. 1, [the For the People Act], which is a great piece of legislation. It doesn’t contain everything I would have in there. Election Day, for example, should be a national holiday. But it would be transformative to enact that incredible piece of legislation.
It is also the case that the Supreme Court poses an existential threat to democracy itself due to the 6-3 hyperpartisan, conservative majority that runs that institution. We have to expand the courts to unrig our democracy.
And then, of course, the greatest protest movement in a generation, the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice should compel every member of Congress to prioritize the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act ― and more, to obtain racial justice in this country once and for all through reforming our criminal legal system.
Do you plan to vote for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to become speaker of the House again?
Literally no other Democrat has announced their candidacy for speaker. The question then is: Am I going to do something that would empower the Republican leader Kevin McCarthy? The answer is obviously no.
Given the narrow margin Pelosi is expecting, though, people might be in a position to ask things from the speaker. New York Rep. Kathleen Rice, a former enemy of Pelosi’s, got a seat on a choice committee.
What are progressives asking for? Do you have your own things that you’d like to see?
You’ve seen in recent days a very effective move by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Pramila Jayapal, to obtain transformative amendments to PAYGO ― exemptions to COVID-19 and climate change-related legislation that will really liberate Congress to do the real work of the American people and enact the big structural changes that the American people understand we need to get us out of this once-in-a-century pandemic and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression
You’re coming into a Congress that has a lot of bold-face progressive names, including some new folks. There’s talk of the four-woman “Squad” growing in size.
Do you identify as a new member of the Squad?
It is a great honor to serve with people like Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, Marie Newman and so many others in what I call the greatest freshman class in U.S. history.
I view myself the same way everyone else views me: as an outspoken progressive who is laser-focused on delivering results for the people of New York’s 17th Congressional District. That means I am going to work with members of the Squad, as well as progressives who are not members of the Squad, centrists and, yes, even conservative Democrats and Republicans.
Andrew Garbarino, who is the successor to [former Republican Rep.] Peter King, is someone who I’m becoming friends with. We’ve spoken about working to restore the SALT deduction, which you’ve identified in your writings as something that people like Katie Porter and I support because it’s important to our districts.
So I’m really looking forward to just getting stuff done. And for what it’s worth, I think the media has really exaggerated the dissension within the Democratic caucus. Obviously there are ideological differences. But when I speak to the 15 members of the freshman class, we just want to work together to get things done.
As a suburban progressive, do you feel that there are any ways in which your approach differs from some of your most outspoken progressive colleagues?
I ran on the same issues that progressives all over the country, including in New York City, ran on: Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, making sure that we treat housing as a human right in this country.
I am also cognizant, as someone who lives in the suburbs, that the demographics of our district are different. And that’s a beautiful thing, because it shows that progressives can win anyway.
It also means that my style, my approach, may be different as it concerns certain issues. Again, the SALT deduction is important to New Yorkers. It may not be as important in Missouri, for example, where property taxes are lower.
My district has not had an outspoken progressive represent it in the United States Congress. And so I’m looking forward to showing my district that I’m going to work with everyone if it means improving the lives of my constituents.
You’ve also been tapped to become a member of House leadership.
I’m the youngest member of House leadership. And I have a responsibility to every member of the freshman class to represent their needs and their concerns. So my role is a little different in that way from the role of the progressives in the caucus who don’t have those responsibilities.
New York state is looking at massive spending cuts due to the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has been especially devastating for New York. And even this latest relief package does not include more assistance for state and local governments.
How important do you see that being going forward? And do you also support the push to raise taxes on the super-rich in New York state?
I absolutely support the movement to raise taxes in New York state on the super-rich. That should have been done early this year when it was immediately clear that we could not rely on the federal government under Donald Trump to deliver the state and local aid that was needed.
I’ve got mayors who are struggling to fund essential services. I’ve got teachers who were contractually promised annual pay raises.
It is devastating ― as well as the small-business owners who haven’t been able to afford the cost of rent for months. There is a hair salon owner in Peekskill, who, at the time that I spoke to her, had gone seven months without paying rent.
I think you’ll see Democrats continue to push for state and local aid. Perhaps the greatest deficiency of the COVID-19 relief package that was enacted into law was the absence of direct aid to state and local municipalities.
So another relief bill is essential?
Yes, I know that to be true.
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