Mondaire Jones is what they like to call a “rising star.” He is in line to become one of the first gay Black men to serve in the US Congress after winning the Democratic primary for New York’s 17th Congressional District in June, forming a class of candidates upending expectations and tapping into a fervor for outspoken progressivism championed by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Alongside Ritchie Torres, a gay Afro-Latino man who won his primary race in New York’s 15th Congressional District, Jones stands ready to make history for LGBTQ representation on Capitol Hill come November.
He’s pro–Green New Deal. He opposes new fossil fuel infrastructure. He supports Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage. While these policy positions mark him out as part of an insurgent Left—making him a darling among grassroots activists—he also scored endorsements from liberal mainstays, from former President Barack Obama to the New York Times.
On this episode of the Mother Jones Podcast, Jones tells host Jamilah King what it was like to campaign during the coronavirus crisis, how growing up poor and Black influenced his progressive policy positions, and why running a historic race can feel surprisingly lonely.
Listen to the show, or read an edited transcript of the conversation, below:
Jamilah King: Can you describe the moments after you won the primary in June? When you finally got a moment to yourself, how did you feel?
Mondaire Jones: I’m not sure that I’ve ever gotten a moment to myself since winning on June 23rd. But if I’m to approximate that feeling, “consumed with adrenaline” is the best way to put it. I’ve never gotten tired since that day. People have said, “have you gotten a chance to rest?” The answer is “no, not really”, because I’m waking up earlier than ever before, afraid that I may miss out on something. That’s a good feeling, frankly, because I feel like I’m being productive, and I can’t wait to get to work.
So usually when we think about victory nights and election parties, we think of crowds of people gathering in a room. You didn’t really have a ton of that this time around. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to campaign during a pandemic?
I’m really proud of putting together what I describe as the best team a billion dollars cannot buy. I was running against the son of a billionaire in a competitive eight-way primary, where that person spent $5.4 million to essentially purchase an election. One thing I saw was the need to hire a digital organizing director as soon as COVID-19 descended upon us. I built out that team by hiring some additional organizers. We phone banked every single day. We made tens of thousands of phone calls, we sent text messages that were targeted to people in the district, we hosted meet and greets throughout the week, many of them on topics like Medicare for All. We did mail, digital, and TV, and that was just a way to make up for the fact that we couldn’t be knocking on doors, which traditionally is a competitive advantage that progressive candidates like myself have in an election.
I want to go back to something you said during your victory night speech. You said that it’s not enough to call yourself a “Democrat,” you have to ask yourself what you’re fighting for. Why was that important to address in that moment?
I am the only candidate in that crowded primary who supported Medicare for All, and that is despite the fact that 88 percent of Democrats nationally support Medicare for All. It is the only policy that would literally insure everybody in this country. That’s just one of many critical differences within the Democratic party. You got folks who are so beholden to corporations. That’s not just a Republican phenomenon, that is a phenomenon that is nonpartisan in its impact. I’m proud to be the person not taking money from corporations in this race.
We have to be fighting for the things we say we believe in as a Democratic party, tooth and nail. It should not have taken so much pressure to get us to begin impeachment proceedings of this criminal, white supremacist President of the United States that we have. Those are some of the things that I’m talking about when I say that.
Before the pandemic, in the earlier stages of the Democratic primary, we saw some of your potential future colleagues—like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and “The Squad”—being accused of not falling in line with the Democrats nationally. What, if anything, did that signal to you about what it could be like on Capitol Hill as someone with a really progressive agenda?
The progressive movement and progressive candidates, and soon-to-be-members of Congress like myself, are ascendant. I think we have tremendous leverage. I see it now with establishment figures seeking to align themselves with incoming members of Congress like myself. I’m so grateful for this opportunity in our politics, in the midst of a global pandemic that people are comparing to the 1918 Spanish Flu, where nationally the mood is that we have never needed government more urgently to help us with our problems. I don’t think there are going to be a lot of challenges for progressives like myself and Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush. I think that there are a lot of opportunities now, and I’m excited to be part of that.
So you mentioned some of your support system, who else is in your corner? Do you guys have a group chat where you’re working through ideas? Tell me what it’s like to be a young, Black, openly gay politician who’s running for office right now?
Well, as you know, I never imagined that I could run for office, let alone get elected to Congress. There’s never been an openly gay Black member of Congress in the 244 year history of the United States, and it was only in the past few years that I began to think that it was possible. Seeing AOC successfully go up against the establishment in New York’s 14th congressional district inspired me to run against my own member of Congress.
Now I’m in a group text with Jamaal Bowman and AOC that [AOC] created. She’s giving us advice on how to staff our DC offices and security protocols, frankly, because people are already getting hate mail and negative threats and that kind of thing. That’s just par for the course when you’re trying to change this country for the better.
Was there a moment where it finally came through to you that you could run for office?
A few years ago when I saw openly gay members of Congress elected. It was important to see AOC as a young person of color successfully go up against one of the most powerful members of the House of Representatives. That was and remains, not just for myself but people all across this country, deeply inspirational. I don’t think I would have dared to challenge the powerful Chair of the House Appropriations Committee last summer had I not seen AOC do precisely that—go up against a powerful person in Congress in her own party.
I know you’ve publicly shouted-out historical figures like Bayard Rustin, Barbara Jordan, Harvey Milk. Where did you learn those histories? Because those aren’t really taught in schools.
They certainly weren’t taught in the public schools I attended in the East Ramapo Central School District. I took an African American history course at Stanford University where Clayborne Carson taught us about Bayard Rustin and his extraordinary history as a lead organizer of the March on Washington. Harvey Milk is someone who people are still learning about as well. Part of this is doing my own research, not having seen anyone I could relate to growing up in the halls of power, including in Congress, and wanting to see: did anyone ever come close?
So, how do you think your identity impacts how you think about policy? I think that’s the question that is on everyone’s radar right now.
For me, policy is personal. I grew up in Section 8 housing and on food stamps. My young single mom still had to work multiple jobs just to put food on the table for us. So when we talk about things like the need for a $15 minimum wage at the federal level, that is a need I know to exist firsthand. It’s not academic for me. [My mom] got help raising me from my grandparents. My grandfather was a janitor and my grandmother cleaned homes, and when daycare was too expensive, she took me to work with her. Now I not only get to run and represent the same people whose homes I watched my grandmother clean growing up.
Being gay and Black make me acutely aware of what it’s like to live in a society where, at least for most of my life and for most of the life of other people in this country, gay people were not protected under our federal anti-discrimination law. It shouldn’t be that LGBTQ people in this country have to wait every June to see whether their rights are going to be taken away from them by the Supreme Court of the United States, which is a far-right Supreme Court.
When I think about being Black, I think about the fact that I was the only person in a crowded Democratic primary talking about the need for policing reform before the murder of George Floyd, before it became popular to talk about. I know what it’s like to fear for my life and my safety, to be targeted by law enforcement, and to be adversely impacted by the systemic oppression that pervades our so-called criminal justice system.
I know that you are friends with Ritchie Torres, who is another young up and coming openly gay politician. What’s that like? I mean, it feels like you guys are in the middle of making history. Why is that alliance important to you?
Richie is an incredible person. He was a friend before we both ran for Congress, and it’s been great to get to know him better in the course of this year-long journey. We commiserate, we share stories about the racism that we have experienced, the homophobia that we have experienced on the campaign trail. We both come from similar backgrounds, in that we don’t come from money. In fact, we come from poverty. We’re both young. I’m a year older than he is, though he’s been in elected office for years now, and this is my foray into elected office. It’s been just a real blessing to be able to share those experiences with somebody.
You mentioned the homophobia you face on the trail. What does that look like for you?
One example is that the day after Congresswoman Nita Lowey announced her retirement on Thursday, October 10th, I was going around getting endorsements from local elected officials in my district. An elected official in Rockland County, who told me that I could publish his endorsement, an hour later, said that he didn’t know I was running as an openly gay candidate, and that he would have to withdraw his endorsement.
In another scenario, [a local] radio show host really likes to emphasize my sexuality, even though it’s completely irrelevant, and he knows his audience is hostile to gay people. It is a constant battle. But I’ve got to tell you, I’ve experienced more racism than I’ve experienced homophobia on the campaign trail. There’s no question.
What’s that look like for you?
For me, it is the donor who I called to get his support who portrays himself as a leader in the gay community, who says that he can’t support me because he does not believe that I can serve my “Black religious community and the gay community at the same time.” This is someone who didn’t even ask me about my religiosity, he just had heard that I grew up in the Black church and assumed that I couldn’t be for the rights of members of the LGBTQ community because I’m a member of the Black community and happen to go to church. It’s the local chapter of the Stonewall Democrats endorsing a cisgender straight white male who didn’t even have a platform on his website for the LGBTQ community, over the historic openly gay Black candidate for Congress who was outperforming that candidate by conceivable metrics, like polling and fundraising and grassroots support.
Wow. It sounds like that’s where the group texts that AOC started could be really important going forward.
It is a lonely thing to run for office and even lonelier, I think, the higher you climb. To be able to speak with people who’ve been through that process and who are going through that process with you is really impactful and beneficial for peace of mind.