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NC's Walter Jones Maintains Independent Streak Into Trump Administration

WUNC Capitol Bureau Chief Jeff Tiberii interviews North Carolina's ranking member of Congress, Rep. Walter Jones.
WUNC Capitol Bureau Chief Jeff Tiberii interviews North Carolina's ranking member of Congress, Rep. Walter Jones.

In a district full of coifed hair and pressed shirts, a frayed rug stands out. On Capitol Hill, the office of U.S. Rep. Walter Jones is filled with home state relics – large framed pictures, crisp newspaper clippings, and shiny military medals; along with a faded North Carolina seal, buckling under a coffee table.

"The rug was worn out, but I brought the seal up here – and as you can tell, the night crew doesn’t care about keeping it straight,” Jones said. “So I’ve got to straighten it up when we finish the interview."

Through the first five weeks of the Trump Administration, no Republican has voted against the Commander-in-Chief more often than Walter Jones. That shouldn’t really come as a surprise. The long-time North Carolina congressman has a well-established, independent streak and is showing no signs of changing.

Jones purchased the rug three decades ago while serving in the North Carolina General Assembly as a Democrat. Today, yellow threads extend from the large fabric seal; a seal that bares the state motto, Esse Quam Videri, which translate to “to be rather than to seem.” It’s a motto that could be applied to the state’s ranking member of Congress, who has been in Washington for 12 terms as a Republican.

"I am independent,” Jones said. “I want to do what I think is right for the people of my district, and sometimes I cross party lines for that reason."

After losing a bid for the U.S. House in the 1990s, Jones swapped the D for an R. His former chief of staff once said when Jones votes, it’s either as a conservative, a populist or a Libertarian.

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C.
Credit Jeff Tiberii / WUNC
The U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C.

The son of a 12-term congressman, Jones has long been a staunch supporter of campaign finance reform and fiscal responsibility. He represents North Carolina’s 3rd congressional district and has voted in opposition of Trump’s position nearly a quarter of the time since January. More recently, he became the first – and for now only – Republican to sign onto a bill calling for an outside investigation of Russia’s possible involvement in the 2016 election.

"It needs to be looked at by independent individuals, you know, Democrats or Republicans need not to be on the commission,” Jones said. “We do not need to have foreign governments, whether it be a Republican or a Democrat, trying to influence policy and outcomes.”

That independent streak is why some political observer describe the congressman as unconventional. 

"Walter Jones is Walter Jones, I think that is the best way to describe him. He’s sort of an anomaly," said Meredith College Political Science Professor David McLennan. 

Jones has great admiration for Democrat Roy Cooper, with whom he served in the General Assembly. He calls Newt Gingrich the most effective speaker he has worked with; Bill Clinton the best President. Last year, Jones voted against a relief package for victims of Hurricane Matthew – people living in his district – because, he said, it had little to do with disaster relief.

"That is sort of Walter Jones," McLennan continued. "He takes bold stands, whether it be against the Iraq war... or now to eliminate to Department of Education right after Betsy DeVos was approved as the cabinet secretary."

To be fair, Jones says his plan to dissolve the federal Department of Education, which was established during the Carter Administration, began before the DeVos controversy. Jones adds that he probably would have voted against her, if he were in the Senate. 

"I think the first thing probably everybody thinks about with Walter is his dedication to our… veterans, and the things he wants to see accomplished for that," said Terri Williams, one of his constituents.

Jones’ sprawling seat stretches from Greenville to the northeast corner of the state, down the outer banks, includes Camp Lejeune, and extends to parts of Wilmington. The district covers 7,800 square miles.

Williams is a loud and proud Trump supporter. And she wasn’t entirely thrilled to hear about Jones’s interest in an election investigation.

"At this point, it’s not bothering me. I don’t think it’s necessary if he does it,” she said. “I’m not going to not vote for him because he does it. I just think it’s a waste of time and money. Let’s get on with the other things that need to be done. And get on with this country.”

When asked if one of his roles in this 115th Congress is to serve as a check on Trump, Jones deflected. The Congressman turned 74 in February. He said he will focus on reigning in spending, working with the Army Corps of Engineers on beach renourishment, and making the most of however long he keeps the D.C. office.

"I tell people all the time I want to die in North Carolina, not in Washington D.C.,” Jones said. “My health is good. I go home every weekend. I do the grocery shopping. I work in the office every weekend.”

Jones will make a decision this summer on whether to seek re-election in 2018. For now, he’s back and forth between Washington and Greenville; wearing out that state seal as he goes.

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