On Saturday, about 24 hours before Mondaire Jones was set to be sworn in to the House of Representatives, the historic nature of his election or his improbable ascension to succeed 32-year congresswoman Nita Lowey wasn’t top of mind.
Jones, 33, the first openly gay Black member of Congress, was focused on the work he and the other 534 members of the 117th Congress must address starting this week – a once-in-a-century pandemic, what is for many families the worst economic crisis in generations and a looming climate catastrophe.
Even as one of the youngest members of Congress, Jones, a Democrat representing New York’s 17th Congressional District, remains undaunted by the challenges that immediately lie ahead for himself and the nation.
“I’m going to be thinking about the folks who sent me to do a job and that’s going to be motivating me every day,” Jones said.
Before his swearing in at the Capitol, Jones, who formerly served as an attorney for Westchester County, was off to a pretty auspicious start. He was the lone freshman representative selected to serve on the House Democratic Leadership and was given his top committee request to serve on the House Judiciary Committee. (He will soon learn the second committee he will serve on.)
He was also named deputy whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and co-chair of the LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus.
His inclusion on the House Democratic Leadership was a special assignment.
“It is an honor and a humbling experience and it’s a role that I’m going to use to amplify the needs of folks in Westchester and Rockland counties,” Jones said.
It will also give him a voice to help steer his party’s agenda. For Jones, helping the country gain control of the pandemic and making sure working families get the assistance is the top priority.
“I am optimistic that this incoming administration, in coordination with Congress, which according to the framers is more important than the executive branch because the role of Congress is defined in Article I of the Constitution, will set an agenda that prioritizes the needs of this country, and of course number one, has to be COVID-19 relief,” Jones said. “And, of course, democracy reforms is a gateway to the other stuff we want to see happen in this country.”
Early on during the pandemic, Jones was among the first candidates locally to call for $2,000 payments to all taxpayers, and will work to try to supplement the recent $600 “survival checks,” as he described them, with a more robust payment. Jones called the $600 “a real slap in the face to the people of Westchester and Rockland counties.”
Jones also hopes to raise the threshold of the phase out. At a $75,000 income level for individuals and $150,000 for married couples, the payments begin to decline.
“People are struggling to pay the cost of housing and child care and put food on the table for themselves and their families,” he said. “So I’m going to continue to fight for legislation that would provide significantly more cash for the people in this (area) who need it.”
He also lists his other immediate priority, democracy reforms, as critical legislation. Most of the reforms are part of the For the People Act, which was approved in the Democratic-controlled House in 2019 but never came up for a vote in the Senate. Most notably it would expand voting rights, limit partisan gerrymandering, strengthen ethics rules and limit the influence of private donor money, among other reforms.
For it to have a better chance of passing, the outcome of this week’s two Georgia Senate runoffs is crucial, Jones said. A slew of other legislation may also depend on the results in the twin Jan. 5 election where control of the Senate hangs in the balance for Republicans and Democrats.
“It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of the Georgia Senate runoffs and it’s why I’ve done my part in raising money for the candidates on the Democratic side, and just elevating this subject and our national discourse, because while I believe there are some pieces of legislation that a Republic-controlled Senate will allow to be enacted, it will be nothing on the level of what is required to address the problems of this country,” Jones said.
Throughout the campaign, Jones often told his story about growing up in a single-parent household in Spring Valley in Section 8 housing before going on to graduate from Stanford and Harvard Law School. He believes he can call on his experiences to open other people’s eyes.
“I’m so looking forward to being a leader in the Democratic caucus in the 117th Congress and showing people that you can be somebody of my background and really help to usher this country into a new era,” Jones said.