FARMVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA, is a bucolic village of barely three square miles and fewer than 5,000 residentsincluding Jones, who was born here in 1943. The town sits at the center of the state's tobacco belt, anchoring Pitt County's role as the state's largest producer of flue-cured tobacco. On a sunny October day, bright white balls of cotton glisten along the approach to the tiny downtown, a no-nonsense place whose blocks are lined with auto parts stores, body shops, and farm equipment vendors. Columned mansions, some in need of upkeep, sit beside neatly manicured Victorians, modest bungalows, and shacks. At the very heart of Farmville, outside the Town Hall, stretches a shaded expanse of green beset with benches, a fountain, a gazebo, and a plaque announcing the Walter B. Jones Town Common. The park is named after Jones' late father, a political icon who represented Farmville and environs in Congress from 1966 to 1992.
The "Faces of the Fallen" exhibit outside Jones' office has grown so large that extra posters are stored by his desk.
Jones Sr. was a feisty Carolina Democrat, and virtually everyone here knows his name. He was "kind of a liberal Democrat, but he disguised it in populist rhetoric," says Carmine Scavo, a political science professor at East Carolina University. A Baptist who believed in traditional family values long before the term became a GOP catchphrase, Jones sent his son to Virginia's Hargrave Military Academy, whose mission statement promises a "wholesome environment in which the Christian faith and principles pervade all aspects of the school program." The young Jones was a star athlete known for his ability to hit long-range jump shots, remembers Millie Lilley, whose husband later taught and coached at Hargrave. "He hoped to go to North Carolina State to play basketball."
Hargrave did vault Jones into N.C. State, though not into the basketball program; it also planted the seed for his life's first major conversion. One day on the Hargrave campus, Jones glanced through an open door and spied a fellow cadet on his knees, saying the rosary. "I was impressed by his devoutness," he says. Jones began thinking and reading about Catholicism. "I didn't so much get into the history of the church as I got into the ritual," he recalls. When he was 31, he formally converted. "I haven't missed a Sunday Mass in 30 years," he says proudly.
Switching religious allegiances was not a minor decision at a time when many in the Bible Belt viewed Catholicism "almost like it was some sect," says Lilley, who now runs Jones' congressional office in Greenville. But Jones' epiphany, she notes, was rooted in his personality more than religious dogma. "He likes the way Catholic services are organized. He likes knowing what to expect."
"He knows the Bible," adds Father Justin Kerber of St. Peter's Catholic Church in Greenville. "I think that comes from his Protestant background." Kerber is a soft-spoken, gray-haired priest from New Jersey who strongly supports President Bush. His church, a modern structure in sandy brown brick whose square cupola is filled with arty stained-glass windows, draws on a growing number of Catholics in eastern North Carolina, including Mexican immigrants and Yankee retirees. Every Saturday afternoon, when he is in town, Jones attends the 5 p.m. Mass, always sitting in the back pew.
Jones went from N.C. State to Atlantic Christian College, served in the National Guard, and settled into a job with a wine broker. "At the time I didn't know a burgundy from a Bordeaux," he says. His territory comprised all of North Carolina and parts of southern Virginia, a region not too distant from the Capitol, where his father was working. He rarely visited him there. "I never had the interest," he says. "I'm a small-town guy."
That would change, setting into motion the second major conversion of Jones' life. In 1982, the district Democratic Party chose Jones to fill out the term of a state assemblyman who'd died. Suddenly, the conservative Christian wine salesman found himself following in his father's political footsteps. With near-universal name recognition, he was reelected again and again. Then, in 1992, Walter B. Jones Sr. fell ill and retired from Congress. In the election that followed, young Jones ran for the seat his father had heldand lost in the primary to Eva Clayton, a liberal, labor-backed county commissioner. That defeat, and the suspicion that North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt had backed Clayton, soured him on the party of his father, his family, and most of his neighbors. What finally pushed him over the edge were his antiabortion beliefs.
"I talked to my father," he says. "I told him, I'm going to change my party affiliation.' AndI give my right hand to my Lord and Saviorhe said, I understand that.'" A few months later, Walter B. Jones Sr. was dead. In the Republican landslide of 1994, his son rode Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" to a seat in Congress.