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North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones Dies

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. poses for a portrait in his office on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, in Washington
Andrew Harnik
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. poses for a portrait in his office on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, in Washington.

Walter Jones, a second generation North Carolina Congressman who was both a Republican and a Democrat during his time in public office, died Sunday on his 76th birthday. 

"Congressman Jones was a man of the people. With a kind heart and the courage of his convictions, he dedicated his life to serving his Savior and to standing up for Americans who needed a voice," his office said in a statement Sunday evening. "He was a champion for our men and women in uniform and their families, always mindful of their service and sacrifice." 

I would just rather have my independence and not be beholden to leadership. My obligation and responsibility [are] to the people of the Third District and not to the leadership. - Jones, in a 2017 interview with WUNC

Long respected for an independent streak, Jones bucked the party line with regularity, both as a state legislator in Raleigh and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington D.C.

“I would just rather have my independence and not be beholden to leadership,” Jones told WUNC in a 2017 interview. “My obligation and responsibility [are] to the people of the Third District and not to the leadership.” 

Jones was first appointed to the North Carolina House in 1982 as a Democrat and served five terms. After losing in a primary run-off to fill the Congressional seat his father held for decades, Jones switched parties and was swept into office as part of the 1994 Republican wave. He won re-election to Capitol Hill 12 times.

In Congress, he demonstrated a fierce political autonomy and quoted a former chief in describing his own independence.

“When Walter Jones walks to the floor of the House to cast a vote, he will either vote as a conservative, a populist, or a Libertarian,” he explained.

Jones was a proponent of small government and individual liberties. He was a religious social conservative, who also supported an increase to the minimum wage and railed against the proliferating money in political campaigns. 

Jones broke with leadership, and his party, as frequently as anyone. In a swamp filled with vitriol, Jones was once voted the nicest members of Congress. Jones had an eastern North Carolina brogue and a passion for his constituents.

“Walter is the epitome of what the founding fathers intended a Congressman to be,” said Joe Mavretic, a former Democratic Speaker of the North Carolina House, who first met Jones more than 35 years ago. Mavretic refers to his friend as a second cousin, a fellow Tobacco kid from the East, and describes Jones as a fair-minded gentleman, regularly willing to compromise.

“He votes his conscience,” Mavretic said. “He votes what he believes is in the best interest of his constituents, and he’s not afraid to do that, and Walter’s political life at the national level is really a case study in what is wrong with Washington today.”

The Congressman often said If you can’t pay for it, you ought not to spend it. He would vote against budgets that were projected to increase the national debt. And, Mavretic said, Jones was punished by Republican leadership, losing committee chairmanships.

An Early Political Start In Raleigh

Before his days in the U.S. House, Jones’s nonconforming voice was also heard in Raleigh. In the winter of 1989 Jones and Mavretic set out to deal with a problem in the state House, which Mavretic describes as a very similar to the problem in the U.S. Congress today.

“There were a few people who made a lot of members toe the line, whether you liked it or not you better vote the way they signal for you to vote or you’re in big trouble,” Mavretic said. “And Walter knew it, didn’t like, and participated in the coup.”

Thirty years ago this winter Jones, Mavretic and 18 other dissenting Democrats successfully hatched a plan to overthrow the speaker of the state House – a member of their own party.

Following a Family Tradition of Political Service

Jones was a Congressman’s Congressman. Literally. Walter Beaman Jones Jr. was born February 10th, 1943. He grew up outside of Greenville, North Carolina, the son of businessman Walter Sr. His father also rose from the state legislature to Capitol Hill. Walter Jr. graduated from Hargrave Military Academy and Atlantic Christian College, before serving four years in the National Guard.

Following five terms in the General Assembly, Jones lost a primary runoff in the quest to fill his father’s seat. So he switched parties and won as a Republican during the red wave of 1994, elected to serve a district that today sprawls across nearly eight-thousand square miles of Northeast North Carolina.

The district includes camp LeJeune. Military issues were consistently a top priority for Jones during more than two decades in Congress. And in 2002 a vote one of his most important issues, led to what he would later call his biggest mistake.

“Something that he agonized over was the vote for the Iraq military authorization, and he came out against it, after he had voted for it,” said Catawba College Political Science Professor Michael Bitzer.

Intelligence used to rationalize the invasion turned out to be flawed. In the years to follow, Jones talked on the House floor about his regret. And also the nearly 10,000 letters he signed, addressed to families who had lost loved ones in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“I do that every weekend so I can be reminded of my mistake of voting to give President Bush the authority to go into Iraq, a war we never had to fight. It was manipulated by those within the administration and it never had to be,” Jones said on the U.S. House floor in 2010.

Since 1966, for all but two years, much of eastern North Carolina has been served by a Jones in Congress. The father was elected to 13 terms. He died while in office. The son was also elected to 13 terms and he too passed away while in the U.S. House.

Jeff Tiberii is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Jeff joined WUNC in 2011. During his 20 years in public radio, he was Morning Edition Host at WFDD and WUNC’s Greensboro Bureau Chief and later, the Capitol Bureau Chief. Jeff has covered state and federal politics, produced the radio documentary “Right Turn,” launched a podcast, and was named North Carolina Radio Reporter of the Year four times.
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