Jones respected among area Republican peers

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Paul O'Neal

082318 Congressman

By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

From start to finish, U.S. House Rep. Walter Jones Jr. brought integrity, dedication, and a people's touch to serving in Congress, local Republicans said Monday.

Jones, 76, of Farmville, passed away on Sunday, after entering hospice last month due to undisclosed health issues. His death ends a prolific political career. He served a decade as a state lawmaker – and as a Democrat – before becoming a Republican and running for Congress in 1994. He won that election and every one since, beating back challenges from both Democrats and other Republicans — the latter displeased with his occasional break with party leaders on national security and spending issues.

Well wishes and remembrances continue pouring in for Jones, including from other Congress members, General Assembly leaders, Gov. Roy Cooper and more.

Republican leaders in the Albemarle remember him fondly as well, including several who were there at the start of his career.

Pasquotank County Republicans were among Jones' first donors when he ran for Congress, Pasquotank Commissioner and Republican Frankie Meads said Monday. He recalled that, in 1994, Jones headlined an “Operation Switch” event at Albemarle School. Jones encouraged people to switch to the Republican Party like he did, Meads recalled.

Meads also spent some time with Jones on the campaign trail, and said he had a great talent for connecting with people.

“He had a knack for people,” Meads said. He added that, more than once, he saw Jones pull over just to talk with someone mowing their grass.

Even after elected, Jones made a priority of responding to constituents – a lesson he learned from his father, who also served in Congress, Meads said.

A former mayor of Elizabeth City also remembers Jones' early days well. James Harrington became a Republican after serving as mayor, from 1991 to 1993, and chaired Jones' Pasquotank committee.

Jones was a “good man” and a “rare person” who held strong values and was family-oriented.

From what Harrington knows of Jones' father, he also said, “the apple didn't fall from the tree, maybe.”

Jones also saw potential in Harrington; he encouraged him to run for the N.C. House of Representatives, but couldn't quite convince him, Harrington recalled.

Over on the Outer Banks, former Currituck County commissioner Paul O'Neal said he ran for commissioner while Jones ran for Congress in 1994. O'Neal even drove him around the county, he said.

O'Neal also said Currituck held a special place in Jones' heart.

“It was the first county he won (in 1994) and he never lost it,” O'Neal said.

Over his time in Congress, Jones helped Currituck with several issues, including a dredging issue with the Whalehead Club, problems with a pier in Coinjock, and a four-wheel drive area on the Outer Banks. Jones would often help the county get the attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies, O'Neal said.

“We didn't always win, but he'd remind them who they work for,” O'Neal said.

O'Neal also described Jones as a “humble, genuine person” with “no false bravado or pretense.” If someone met him for the first time on the street, they wouldn't know he was in Congress, O'Neal said.

Jones is well-known for, among other things, advocating for military veterans. Retired Army Staff Sgt. Dan Serik, a spokesman for Elizabeth City's Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6060, is one veteran who can vouch for that advocacy.

Serik said Jones' office has helped him personally – he was having an issue with his military retirement benefits. Jones' office has undoubtedly helped many other veterans over the years, Serik said, and he noted that national VFW leaders have honored Jones' advocacy for veterans.

Jones' concern for veterans was also evidenced in his regret over supporting the Iraq War, which he voted for in 2002; Jones has discussed that in numerous published reports.

While discussing Jones' service Monday, Third Congressional District Republican Party Chairman Carl Mischka said the Congressman felt a “personal debt” over supporting the war, and “tried to make amends” on that one vote.

In more general comments, he also praised Jones for serving well, and said he “set a high bar” for his eventual successor.

Jones has also broken with Republicans on more than foreign policy issues, opposing spending bills or tax cuts over his concerns about deficit spending. That's not been lost on local Republicans, but they said Jones remains well-respected.

“He had a libertarian streak people in my party were not comfortable with,” O'Neal said. “He was a principled individual, not a party hack.”

O'Neal added he wished more people in Congress were like Jones.

Harrington said there were times he was “frustrated” with Jones' votes on issues, though he couldn't recall specific examples Monday. However, he said Jones “stood for what he believed in,” and he always voted for him when he could. Harrington noted that redistricting sometimes took his address out of Jones' district.

Meads said local Republicans sometimes “questioned” Jones' votes on issues, though they still supported him. The public felt he was honest with them, Meads added.

Mischka said Jones was driven by strong convictions, including being “terrified” of the national debt. Jones warned the national debt, now approaching $22 trillion, is unsustainable and poses a major long-term risk to the economy.