Cruising to general-election victory in New York’s heavily Democratic 17th Congressional District, Jones made history as one of Congress’s first two openly gay Black men. He became the freshman representative to House Democratic leadership, a deputy whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus and an outspoken voice on the Democratic Party’s left flank.
Jones, a former corporate lawyer raised by a single mother, also distinguished himself as a prolific fundraiser, founding a political action committee with which to support other candidates.
But in May, a court-ordered redistricting threatened to upend Jones’ promising career. His home was drawn into progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s district to the South, and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), the head of House Democrats’ campaign arm, announced plans to run for Jones’ seat without consulting him.
Following a round of public finger-pointing, Jones opted to run in New York’s entirely new ― and unoccupied ― 10th Congressional District rather than take on Maloney or Bowman.
The predominantly liberal seat comprises lower Manhattan and a cluster of contiguous neighborhoods in brownstone Brooklyn, including Carroll Gardens, where Jones moved earlier this month.
The district’s Aug. 23 Democratic primary has already elicited some 15 contenders, among them former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, two New York State Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou and New York City Councilwoman Carlina Rivera.
As a newcomer to the district, Jones faces charges of carpet-bagging and opportunism. But he also enjoys major advantages: the backing of high-ranking Democrats, recurring guest spots on MSNBC and a massive war chest that has enabled him to beat rivals to the TV airwaves.
The morning after a late June night out with New York City Councilmen Chi Ossé and Eric Bottcher at Club Lambda in East Williamsburg, Jones sat down with HuffPost over coffee at a bagel spot in Carroll Gardens.
HuffPost asked Jones how he explains moving to a new district to run, what he thinks has gone wrong in President Joe Biden’s first two years and how he approaches progressive lawmaking.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
“As progressivism comes under assault, we as a progressive movement still have not reached the level of sophistication required to make the durable gains that we want to see and that the American people broadly support.”
– Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.)
When you were running in New York’s 17th Congressional District, you talked a lot about your roots in Rockland County. Having moved to New York’s 10th recently, you cannot make the same argument. How do you justify moving here to run?
There was no candidate in that race who had been serving in Congress and had already been a champion in a progressive way, and in a way that actually delivered results for the communities that comprise the district. That is a key difference between New York’s 17th Congressional District back in 2020 and New York’s 10th Congressional District today in 2022.
My fights to end gun violence in this country, to build a humane immigration policy and to lower the cost of living for working families while stopping the climate crisis are not confined by the boundaries of one or even multiple congressional districts. The work that I’m doing has already been in great service to the people here in lower Manhattan and in Brooklyn.
I was the guy at the table negotiating passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the House version of the Build Back Better legislation would not have passed without my work. (Of course, I did that with some other colleagues who were at the table that day.)
As billions of dollars from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act come to New York State, we now need someone who is going to be effective at getting as many millions of those dollars as possible for this district, having already brought billions to the state. That’s not something that is just for New York’s 17th Congressional District ― whether it’s the Gateway tunnel project or the money that I’m going to be fighting for to build [climate] resiliency on the Lower East Side or on the Brooklyn side here.
This is stuff that I am uniquely prepared to do and have experience doing. I have a track record of bringing money to congressional districts.
When you announced your plans to run here, you mentioned how critical the historic LGBTQ community in lower Manhattan was in shaping your identity as a gay man. Why did you move to Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, then?
I love this community. And the truth is, there are several other communities that I considered living in. But this is a place that feels particularly familial and intimate while having a lot of offerings in terms of restaurants and some nightlife. I recently went to this Korean barbecue place in the neighborhood with [former Democratic New York City Councilman] Carlos Menchaca that has karaoke. My go-to karaoke song is Nelly’s “Come and Take a Ride With Me.”
It’s also an extremely expensive district to live in, which affected my decision. As one of the poorest members of Congress and one of the younger members of Congress, I am acutely aware of the pain of housing insecurity and just general financial insecurity.
It sounds like you have the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Can you confirm that?
Do we even need to speculate about whether the speaker is viewing me as an incumbent? She’s now gone on the record to say that ― and that is the approach being taken by the vast majority of my colleagues. Obviously, with the exception of one who I adore.
I don’t take it personally. More than most senior members of Congress, she’s been particularly complimentary of the work that I’ve been doing over the past year and a half, and I continue to view her as a mentor and as a friend. And that endorsement of Carlina was made under tremendous pressure.
In the brief period when you were deciding whether to run against Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney in New York’s 17th, or to run elsewhere, were there Democratic Party leaders who offered assurances of support if you chose to run in the new, open seat?
Not a single House member I spoke to over that period. I did not know what the final map was going to look like. After I announced, there were people who told me that they would be on our side and to let them know what I need.
I didn’t tell Sean [Patrick Maloney]. Sean didn’t know I was going to be running in the 10th District until after I announced ― contrary to what people have assumed. I did give a heads up to Nydia [Velázquez] that Friday ― that if the maps we had seen earlier held, that this is what I would be doing.
Did you consider running against Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) in New York’s 16th Congressional District?
There are all these conversations about residency. My residence was drawn into the district that Jamaal Bowman had announced in. That doesn’t seem to matter to people who are saying you should run where you live.
They wanted to see this ideological battle. But there was just no way I was going to run against Jamaal ― a fellow Black progressive and my friend?
Did anybody in the House Democratic Caucus say, “It’d be nice if you went over there and knifed Rep. Bowman”?
I wasn’t going to do it. There were people who wanted me to, but I wasn’t going to do it.
There are influential pro-Israel Democrats who know your overall views are very close to Jamaal Bowman’s but who see you as more palatable when it comes to U.S.-Israel policy and wanted you to run for that reason. Where do you stand on U.S.-Israel policy? Do you think that the U.S. should put any tighter conditions on aid to Israel or find another way to meaningfully back up U.S. criticisms of Israeli policies?
Can I zoom out? It’s not just about Israel ― and it’s not about Jamaal.
People recognize both within the progressive movement and outside of it that I am uniquely good at building coalitions that extend far outside of the progressive movement. And that is required in American politics ― certainly within the Democratic Party.
As progressivism comes under assault, we as a progressive movement still have not reached the level of sophistication required to make the durable gains that we want to see and that the American people broadly support. That’s because you still have too many people who don’t care about the implications of the ways in which they talk about things and who don’t recognize the important work that progressives and Democratic leadership ― who they may disagree with on one or two things ― have otherwise been doing for the movement.
I look at what’s happening right now in my race. I am a leading progressive member of Congress ― not just a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but a leading progressive member of Congress. Progressives should be coalescing around my candidacy as one of my opponents [former federal prosecutor Daniel Goldman] prepares to spend many millions of dollars in this primary.
We’ve seen that coalescing, nationally, but unfortunately there have been some groups in New York who are not there yet. And it’s devastating for the progressive movement.
“Manchin doesn’t give a shit.”
– Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.)
Is there an example of a specific issue, or a specific person or a specific rhetorical phrase that, in your opinion, progressives have employed that hurts more than it helps?
You’ve got leaders of the [Working Families Party] saying “defund the police” was not the best phrase to articulate a vision for how to move toward humane, more effective policing that doesn’t brutalize Black and brown communities while still keeping them safe.
Was Eric Adams’ election as mayor of New York City a repudiation of the ethos embodied by that slogan?
My progressive brothers and sisters have to realize that as progressive as Black and brown communities are on social and economic policy, these communities are also very concerned about crime. I say this as a Black American whose family in New York City largely voted for Adams. (My father lives in Washington Heights. You would never know it from what my competitors say about me.)
We cannot be dismissive. Eight people were wounded and one person died last night in a shooting in Harlem.
What does not being dismissive of crime mean in practice?
It means obviously looking at the social determinants of crime and addressing that. And, of course, making sure that we are policing in a smart way so that, for example, rank-and-file members of the NYPD are not being dispatched to defuse mental health crises that are nonviolent in nature.
But I’m not going to tell the NYPD how many police officers to put in a particular neighborhood. And I think we’ve got to be careful about that.
How do you think Mayor Adams is doing overall?
It remains to be seen. Mr. de Blasio has such a record of failure when it comes to crime and the housing affordability crisis and the humanitarian crisis at Rikers [Island] that it would be unfair to expect Mayor Adams to solve all these problems in his first six months on the job.
I was disappointed to see the cuts to public education in the New York City Council budget recently. I have helped bring billions of dollars to the city through the American Rescue Plan and more recently through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
I’m pissed that in that environment we would still be cutting our educational budget. I know parents in Carroll Gardens are pissed ― and parents around New York’s 10th Congressional District, for that matter.
You mentioned Build Back Better. The arc of that bill was interesting. Yes, you helped hammer it out in the House, but it went nowhere because the Senate has not acted on it. What went wrong?
It is important to recall what the dynamics were at the time that we reached an agreement to vote on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November.
We were never going to hold out on passage of Build Back Better until such time as the Senate passed Build Back Better. The question on the night that we hammered out that agreement was whether we could count on the House to pass Build Back Better, which I was able to secure through an agreement that the conservative Democratic holdouts adhered to two weeks later.
If we had held out [for the Senate to pass Build Back Better], we would have been waiting for months. And frankly, Build Back Better wouldn’t ever have passed the Senate. No one expected that we had the ability to do that.
Should progressives have held the line, though? Ultimately you voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, unlike a handful of your progressive colleagues who voted no because they wanted to hold out for leverage over the Senate.
I don’t want to characterize why six of my colleagues voted no. I’ll let them describe why they did that.
But if we had not voted to pass the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that night ― through a negotiated agreement that also required passage of Build Back Better two weeks later in the House ― we would not have gotten either of those two bills.
So, in your opinion, was there so little leverage over the Senate Democratic holdouts because the most conservative Democrats would rather do nothing at all if they couldn’t get progressives on board for the infrastructure bill?
The idea that we could have continued after what happened in [the] Virginia [elections] and the way that the media and the base of the party had turned against [progressives’] strategy, I think was untenable.
And, of course, we got what we wanted. We passed Build Back Better through the House. Now it’s on the Senate and the White House, who promised us that Build Back Better would pass.
Have you been disappointed in the leadership that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has provided in terms of getting a spending bill passed in the Senate?
Majority Leader Schumer has been a great leader in the Senate. He is in the impossible situation of having to corral votes from people who are not real Democrats, mainly Kyrsten Sinema [Ariz.] and Joe Manchin, to say nothing of a few other Democrats in his caucus who do not want to get rid of the filibuster for matters that don’t include voting rights.
What I’m hearing from you is that the lack of progress in this Congress in Biden’s first two years was inevitable given the slim margins that Democrats have.
No. I think that the White House should never have allowed Build Back Better to be separated from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Those bills should have run on parallel tracks. The White House should have come out early on in support of filibuster reform, to pass voting rights and other legislation. That is broadly popular and of existential importance.
“If the president is able to do his job effectively in the second term, then he should feel free to run for reelection.”
– Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.)
You think that could have swayed Sinema and Manchin?
I think it could have. The White House should have been, from the outset, punishing Sinema and Manchin for their betrayal of the American people and of the Democratic Party. And instead what we saw were two people in the Senate Democratic Caucus who became emboldened by what they view as a White House that was not going to hold them to account.
One of your opponents, former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, told me he applauds Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) for his bipartisan gun reform bill and suggested that he’s the kind of progressive that would be interested in cutting those sorts of deals. Isn’t that a good skill to have if Democrats are going to be in the minority?
I have said publicly on a number of occasions that I am willing to pass legislation that does not go nearly as far as I would like, even as I fight for more ambitious policies.
As it concerns Murphy’s bill, I’ve not seen legislative text yet. And for that reason, I have been noncommittal, given some of the concerns that I have.
This is the problem, by the way, when the center of gravity is in the United States Senate when it comes to negotiating passage of filibuster-proof legislation. You get a bipartisan group of eight people who are negotiating something that they just expect the House to pass? It undermines the prerogative of the People’s House.
By the way, Mr. de Blasio does not have a record of much accomplishment in his time as an executive where he did not need to make the kind of compromises that he is now purporting to be eager to make.
Specifically, do you think that de Blasio’s handling of policing in the city was a disappointment?
Mr. de Blasio exacerbated the crisis at Rikers, failed Black and brown communities and New Yorkers writ large when it came to policing in the city, did not build affordable housing in a way that was meaningful for millions of people experiencing housing insecurity in the city, and somehow did make time to go to the YMCA to work out while he should have been doing his job.
Do you have any thoughts on any of the other candidates?
As I see it, the more the merrier. Our democracy benefits from people participating. That means that if some of the debates turn to a discussion of Ms. [Elizabeth] Holtzman standing up to [then-President] Richard Nixon, then I’m ready to have that conversation.
Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou can make an argument that she is more progressive than you because she has been more willing to stand up to Democratic Party leaders.
The other candidates will have to make their case to the voters. I will say that being a serious legislator in Congress ― as I am, and as none of my opponents dispute in this race ― requires a focus on the job and getting results far less than a focus on being on Twitter all day. And that’s not a specific criticism of any one candidate.
Speaking of which, you seem to me to be a little different than the “Squad” in that you have a less publicly antagonistic relationship with Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer. What would you say to that?
I’ve never viewed myself in relation to the “Squad” or any other cohort of people in the Congress. I’ve always just been a leading progressive figure within the broader House Democratic Caucus who, yes, is the youngest member of House Democratic leadership but who has taken leadership to the mat in private conversations. I have also spoken up publicly when it comes to wanting to extend the CDC’s eviction moratorium, to insisting on introducing my Supreme Court expansion bill with [Reps.] Jerry Nadler [D-N.Y.] and Hank Johnson [D-Ga.], to talking about changes to the filibuster and expanding the court, even when folks would have preferred that we just talk about making nice with Republicans.
Do you think President Biden should run for reelection?
If the president is able to do his job effectively in the second term, then he should feel free to run for reelection.
But it occurs to me that some of the things that you’re talking about, like laying out a clear vision, that’s a matter of a president’s wherewithal when it comes to communications and strategy. Does Biden have that?
To be more precise, I think it’s about an ideology. I don’t think it’s a secret that the president has been a staunch defender of the filibuster. I was the first person in the House to call for abolishing the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation.
You want the Democratic Party to really be proactive and to take the fight to the other team. But Democrats are going to be in the minority in the next Congress, so …
I don’t accept that. Anything can happen between now and November. And while the time to course-correct is fleeting, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Democrats will hold the House this fall. It is certainly of existential importance that we do so when we consider whether we’ll have a democracy.
We’ve got an even better chance of keeping the Senate ― and picking up seats in places like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina ― maybe Florida. If anyone can beat Marco Rubio, it’s [Democratic Rep.] Val Demings.
“When you start to talk about conditioning [U.S.] aid [to Israel], the conversation and buy-in that you need to get in order to have a two-state solution just shuts down.”
– Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.)
I don’t think that many other New York Democrats share your assessment. Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.) accepted an appointment as lieutenant governor of New York. That seat is likely gone for Democrats. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) obviously had concerns about where the House was headed. It looks like people are fleeing a sinking ship ― even fighting for seats on the lifeboats. But you’re still confident that Democrats can keep the House?
Those things were happening in the present-day environment. The Supreme Court is going to overturn Roe v. Wade in a couple of weeks. That could be a game changer in terms of motivating the American people to come out this fall and vote for Democrats, who are the only folks trying to protect fundamental rights in this country.
Back to an earlier question: Do you favor putting more teeth behind U.S. policy toward Israel? And by that I mean should there actually be consequences when the U.S. disapproves of things like settlement growth?
But I think when you start to talk about conditioning aid, the conversation and buy-in that you need to get in order to have a two-state solution just shuts down. One side just stops listening to you altogether.
It’s also the case that [U.S.-funded] Iron Dome technology, for example, prevents an escalation in violence because otherwise you’d see the Israeli government responding with a lot more force. I visited an Iron Dome site in the Israeli town of Sderot right outside Gaza.
Are you planning to appeal to the Hasidic Jewish community in Borough Park? I know you’ve represented similar communities in Rockland County.
Monsey, New Square, Kaser ― I represent all those communities right now. I am proud to have the best constituent services that you would ask for from any member of Congress. The folks that represent those communities will tell you that they have never had a member of Congress who has provided the level of constituent services that are provided when it comes to issues related to immigration, passports and otherwise.
So you’re making a play for the Borough Park vote?
I am leaving no stone unturned. My vision for representation in Congress is getting votes from, and representing, all communities.