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“My life literally flashed before my eyes”: Freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones on a jarring start to his first term

January 27, 2021

Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY) was among those on the House floor when rioters stormed the Capitol on January 6. The newly elected Congress member was listening to remarks during the certification of the presidential election results — typically a routine, even somewhat dull proceeding in the transfer of power — when security abruptly announced the building had been breached by a mob. Jones, along with dozens of other new Democratic and Republican members, had been sworn in just three days earlier.

“My life literally flashed before my eyes, and I know that’s true for many of the approximately 200 other members of Congress who were [there] at the time,” Jones told Vox.

Jones has had a disquieting first few weeks. By their 10th day on the job, he and other new members — including Reps. Cori Bush (D-MO), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), and Marie Newman (D-IL) — had endured the Capitol attack, helped finally certify election results after two months of baseless objections, and impeached the president for an unprecedented second time.

It’s been a “jarring” beginning, Jones, 33, told Vox, emphasizing that the riot — and the role some of his colleagues played in inciting it — has only strengthened his resolve to enact serious progressive reforms that “will ensure that members of Congress are sane and responsive to the American people.”

Jones, who is one of the first openly gay Black men elected to Congress, is part of a new wave of progressives elected to the House, signaling just how energized the left-leaning wing of the Democratic Party continues to be. Since the election of “the Squad” in 2018, when members including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) upset longtime incumbents — in part by running on policies to the left of more centrist Democrats — this young, diverse group of new lawmakers are bolstering their numbers on the Hill. Jones, campaigning on a progressive platform that won the endorsement of Ocasio-Cortez and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, beat out competitor Adam Schleifer, a pharmaceutical heir, who outspent his campaign five to one.

As their ranks continue to grow, “progressives in Congress are more powerful than they have ever been,” Jones says. A former staffer at the Justice Department during the Obama administration, Jones previously told NBC News that his trajectory has come as a surprise — and that he never thought he’d get elected to Congress “growing up poor, Black and gay,” in the district he now represents.

Jones, who was elected by his peers to represent the first-term members in Democratic leadership, will also be a key advocate for the new lawmakers, and a spokesperson for their concerns in weekly meetings. As their envoy, Jones makes sure Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others are aware of where the class stands on different subjects, including impeachment.

Jones spoke with Vox about what it means to be a Capitol Hill newcomer in a strange time, and why he’s so focused on democracy reforms.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What has it been like to join Congress and have to process the attack on the Capitol, as well as the impeachment of President Trump, within the first two weeks of being in office?

It’s been a jarring experience. I had expected to be giving my first floor speech in connection with the For the People Act, or the Covid-19 relief bill that Joe Biden has unveiled. But instead, my first speech was in connection with the second impeachment of Donald J. Trump, after having nearly died the week before, at the hands of not just the president of the United States but his Republican co-conspirators in the House, who helped to incite last week’s violent insurrection.

Could you talk about your experience the day of the Capitol attack and what was going through your mind that day?

I was on the House floor with the Democratic leadership team, listening to debate during what historically has been a routine proceeding: certification of the November presidential election.

There was an abrupt announcement by security personnel that Capitol security had been reached by the mob outside, and that we would need to lock the doors to the House chamber from the inside. Minutes later, there was a very loud banging sound at one of the doors behind me from a mob of domestic terrorists. We were told to look under our seats and to pull out gas masks in case tear gas needed to be used. We were also told to prepare to lie down on the ground in the event of gunfire.

How has this experience shaped your view of Congress — and how does that compare to expectations you had?

It makes me even more committed to enacting critical democracy reforms, including those contained in the For the People Act, which would help elect better people to Congress. If you pass automatic voter registration to enfranchise an additional 50 million people nationally, you will get more Democrats elected to the United States Senate who will actually legislate in the best interest of the American people, rather than question the need for $2,000 survival checks, as [outgoing Georgia Republican senator] Kelly Loeffler did, because she has no commitment to helping everyday folks.

What does accountability look like to you for the attack on the Capitol?

I am laser-focused on holding Trump’s co-conspirators in Congress accountable both through expulsion and criminal prosecution and public shaming. Because these people need to know that they can never do what they did [this month] again.

Could you talk about the new perspective and ideas you’re most excited to bring to Congress?

We need more people in office for whom policy is personal — whose lives are affected by the policies we are enacting in Washington. I’m Black, openly gay, and was raised by a single mother who relied on Section 8 housing and food stamps just to get by. That’s exactly the perspective I’ve already been bringing to our policymaking discussions.

For too long, our political system has been designed to serve the wealthy and well-connected, but we have a real opportunity under unified Democratic control to change that and fight for a bold agenda that will improve the lives of working Americans throughout this country.

This work clearly has to start by fixing the root of our problems: our broken democracy. The insurrection we saw on January 6 started with the myth of voter fraud, which the GOP is using to lay the foundation for another decade of suppressing the votes of people of color, working people, and young people.

We must pass the For the People Act (or HR 1) to fight back against the ongoing assault on our democracy; that means ending partisan gerrymandering, establishing small-dollar public financing for congressional campaigns, and automatic voter registration. We must also expand the Supreme Court, whose 6-3 hyperpartisan, conservative majority poses an existential threat to democracy itself.

What is the top policy proposal that you plan to focus on as Congress continues to get underway?

COVID-19 relief is the No. 1 priority. And No. 2 has to be democracy reforms. Democracy reforms will ensure that members of Congress are sane and responsive to the American people. And that we get better policies, ones that actually help working people in this country rather than the superrich.

When it comes to Covid-19 relief, could you talk a bit about the provisions that you see as most important for the next bill to include?

Definitely $2,000 survival checks and direct aid to states and local governments. You know, I have been supportive of monthly $2,000 checks for every adult, and monthly $1,000 checks for every child since early last spring.

As someone who has been elected to represent the freshman class and be part of Democratic leadership, could you talk a little bit about what that role entails?

Well, I meet every week with the House Democratic leadership team, and I confirm the needs and concerns and desires of the freshman class, which is a diverse freshman class, both ideologically and in terms of life experience. It gives me an opportunity to advocate for things like the impeachment of this president, when that was still being considered.

I was able to say I’ve spoken to every single member of the freshman class, and they’re all supportive of impeachment. It also allows me to advocate for the freshmen by pushing for them to have opportunities to lead and to legislate, so that they can show their districts that they are getting things done.

Given the ideological diversity that you mentioned, within both the freshman class and the Democratic caucus overall, how do you plan to keep on advancing progressive ideas?

Progressive policies are broadly popular with the American people. And in many instances, representatives in Congress have not caught up with public opinion. Progressives in Congress are more powerful than they have ever been. Our ranks have grown. And so has popular support for programs like Medicare-for-all and student debt cancellation. So I plan to work with other progressives on leveraging our votes to improve legislation.