The personal is political, as a saying popularized by second-wave feminism goes. It’s relevant to many political causes — and certainly to congressional candidate Mondaire Jones.
“For me, policy is personal,” says Jones, who’s running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from New York’s 17th Congressional District and could be the nation’s first out gay Black member of Congress. (Another Black gay man, Ritchie Torres, is running in the neighboring 15th District, so he and Jones could be the first two.)
Jones, 33, is one of seven Democrats running in Tuesday’s primary in the heavily blue district, which covers Rockland County and parts of Westchester County, in the suburbs of New York City. The seat is open due to longtime Rep. Nita Lowey’s retirement, and given the district’s makeup, whoever wins the Democratic primary is pretty much guaranteed a win in the November general election.
Jones’s decision to run for office is rooted in his life story, he says. He grew up within the district, in Spring Valley, as the son of a single mother who worked three jobs. They still needed financial assistance, though, in the form of housing subsidies and food stamps. His mother became seriously ill when he was a toddler, and his grandparents helped out — his grandfather was a school janitor, and his grandmother cleaned houses, then worked in a school lunchroom, staying in the job into her 70s to cover health care costs.
“Now I get to run to represent the same people whose houses my grandmother cleaned,” Jones says.
On his way to his congressional run, he has demonstrated a passion for social justice. While in high school, he served on the Spring Valley NAACP Youth Council, leading efforts to register and mobilize voters. At age 19, he chaired a committee on the NAACP’s national board of directors. He attended Stanford University in California, and when the police chief of nearby Palo Alto made comments endorsing racial profiling, he organized student protests, which led to the chief’s resignation and departmental reforms.
After graduating from Stanford, he joined President Barack Obama’s administration. At the Department of Justice, he worked on judicial nominations, including that of Elena Kagan, now a Supreme Court justice. He also coauthored a report for Attorney General Eric Holder on how to help people released from federal prisons rejoin society.
Jones then went to Harvard Law School. After completing his degree, he took a job at a law firm, where he did extensive pro bono work, frequently investigating discrimination claims. Most recently, he was an attorney in Westchester County’s law department. He’s cofounder of Rising Leaders, a nonprofit that teaches leadership skills to underserved middle-school students.
All these experiences have informed Jones’s policy positions, he says. He supports universal health care through a “Medicare for All” plan, a program to assure that all Americans have housing, a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free public college, cancellation of student debt, sweeping criminal justice reform, and combating climate change through a so-called Green New Deal, emphasizing renewable sources of energy.
“I will fight tooth and nail for those things Democrats say they believe in,” he says, adding that “corporate Democrats” have sometimes failed to embrace these causes.
His proposals go further than those supported by some Democrats. He’s the only candidate in the 17th District race who supports Medicare for All, he says. And former Vice President Joe Biden, who’ll be the party’s presidential nominee, wants to expand coverage under the Affordable Care Act rather than enacting Medicare for All.
Asked about his differences with Biden on this point, Jones says, “I have tremendous respect for Vice President Biden, and I think he needs encouragement. I plan to be that encouragement.”
Criminal justice reform has become a national topic of discussion given recent police killings of Black men, and Jones points out that he’s been a longtime activist on this issue, with his experience in Palo Alto and as an NAACP youth organizer. Also, he notes, as a Black man, “People like me are overpoliced, overarrested, overprosecuted.”
He calls for national standards for law enforcement, such as banning chokeholds and training officers in de-escalation. He wants an independent body to investigate and prosecute killings by police.
“We also need to radically reimagine our criminal legal system,” he says. For him, this includes legalizing cannabis, eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing, investing in alternatives to incarceration, and ending cash bail.
For the LGBTQ+ community, he supports “a broad conception of equality,” he says. That means not only passing the Equality Act but addressing the many aspects of life where LGBTQ+ people face disproportionate challenges, such as health care, education, and housing, and Jones says the various programs he backs will go far toward doing so.
The COVID-19 crisis has exposes many of the inequalities of American life, he notes. It’s made political campaigns shift gears too. “Not being able to knock on doors has been a huge challenge,” Jones says. But his campaign has adjusted by hiring a digital organizing director who’d worked for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, holding online town halls, making a lot of phone calls, and sending text messages.
Warren is one of three former presidential candidates who’ve endorsed Jones; the others are Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro. He also has the endorsement of several current House members, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Katie Porter, David Cicilline, and Mark Pocan. The United Auto Workers union has gotten behind his campaign, along with various other progressive groups.
LGBTQ+ organizations endorsing him include the Human Rights Campaign, Equality PAC, and LGBTQ Victory Fund. Polls indicate the 17th District race is a two-way one between Jones and State Sen. David Carlucci, says Elliot Imse, Victory Fund’s senior director of communications. Carlucci, he says, “caucused with Republicans in the state legislature and blocked many of the progressive bills Mondaire wants to fight for. Mondaire is a voice we do not have and that we certainly need in the U.S. Congress — and his impact will extend far beyond just his one vote when he is elected.”
Another poll, by Public Policy Polling, showed Jones leading the field with support by 25 percent of respondents; former Department of Defense official Evelyn Farkas and former federal prosecutor Adam Schleifer each had 14 percent, and Carlucci 11 percent.
The New York Times recently endorsed Jones, calling him the best choice to succeed Lowey. “Jones is a candidate who can finally bring representation to every part of this diverse district,” which “includes great wealth as well as pockets of deep poverty,” the Times editorial board wrote. Jones is “the most promising and the most prepared” of the candidates, the Times added.
Of his support by so many prominent people and organizations, Jones says, “It’s really surreal, and I’m so honored.”
“Growing up poor, Black, and gay,” he notes, “I never imagined someone like me could run for Congress. … I’m not running to make history, but it’s not lost on me, the power of representation.”
“We need more people in office for whom policy is personal,” he adds.