By Glynn Wilson –
MOBILE, Ala. — The surprise announcement on Wednesday that Birmingham attorney Doug Jones filed the qualifying papers to run for public office as a Democrat in the special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat long held by now Attorney General Jeff Sessions currently occupied by former state Attorney General Luther Strange could be a game changer in Alabama politics.
Jones, a former U.S. attorney, may be best known publicly for successfully prosecuting two members of the Ku Klux Klan in 2002 for the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that infamously resulted in the deaths of four young girls in 1963.
In a statement announcing his candidacy, Jones said over the past few years Alabama public officials have spent too little time focused on the real concerns of the people — jobs, health care and education — and instead have “played on our fears and exploited our divisions for their own self interests.”
“Alabama has been embarrassed enough the last few years by political leaders who have not been leaders at all,” Jones said. “I want to change all of that. We need leaders who people can talk to, reason with, and trust even if they don’t agree on every political position.”
Unlike many lesser known candidates who have tried and failed to run against the Christian conservatives now in total control in Montgomery, state political experts say Jones could bring a certain heft to the task of taking on the Republican juggernaut in Alabama politics.
“Yes, this is a game changer,” said Dianne Jones, secretary of the Mobile County Democratic Party.
President Bill Clinton appointed Jones as the lead U.S. attorney in Birmingham in 1997. In 2002, Jones was the lead prosecutor in the case that won murder convictions against Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton 38 years after the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that rocked Birmingham and became indelibly tied to the city’s history. (Disclaimer: I got to know Jones during that trial and helped in the coverage for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. This Rick Bragg story was the best in the country at the time.)
Jones also worked on the indictment of Eric Robert Rudolph, who was later convicted for killing on off-duty police officer in a bombing of a Birmingham abortion clinic. Rudolph was also convicted for setting off a bomb on the opening night of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Jones was replaced as U.S. attorney by Alice Martin after George W. Bush took over as president in 2001 and demanded the resignations of all U.S. attorneys around the country so he could replace them with Federalist Society Republican loyalists.
Jones went on in private practice to defend state legislators prosecuted by the Bush Justice Department in the two-year college corruption probe, including former Jefferson County Commissioner Chris McNair. Jones has also handled white-collar criminal defense cases, business litigation and class-action lawsuits.
He is a graduate of Cumberland Law School at Samford University and the University of Alabama and he worked early on for Senator Howell Heflin as staff counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
Heflin was the last Democrat from Alabama to hold a Senate seat after the major political shift to the right and the Republican party in the late 1990s. Heflin retired in 1997 with a reputation for honor in public service. He was known as “The Judge” in the Senate. He died in 2005.
Jones was considered to have a bright future in politics back then, but never changed his party allegiance to the Republican Party just to hold public office.
Lesser known to many, Jones was instrumental in convincing former Congressman Artur Davis to hold hearings in the U.S. House on the “political prosecution” of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. (I know because I am the one who convinced Jones to do it.) I covered that story for The Nation magazine and quoted Jones in his testimony before the committee chaired by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers.
Jones filed his qualifying papers before the deadline of May 17. The special primary election will be held August 15. If a runoff is needed, it will be held on September 26. The general election vote will be held on December 12.
Sources indicate that U.S. Senator Luther Strange, the former state attorney general who made a deal with ousted Governor Robert Bentley to hold off on an investigation of his shady affair and later accepted the appointment to the Senate after Sessions was named attorney general by President Donald J. Trump, has the support of the mainstream Republican Party to hold the seat, including the Business Council of Alabama.
Ousted Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore has also announced that he will run in the Republican primary, along with state House Member Ed Henry, former Christian Coalition of Alabama President Dr. Randy Brinson and Hoover businessman Dominic Gentile.
Medical marijuana activist Ron Crumpton has also announced that he will run in the Democratic primary, and someone named Robert Kennedy Jr. of Mobile has also filed paperwork to run, according to Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Worley.
Considering the domination by Republicans in previous races for the past couple of decades, this election season could provide an opportunity for surprises. Especially now that the sharks are circling around Mr. Trump in Washington since his firing of FBI director James Comey.
Anything can happen now, and probably will.
© 2017, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.