Aug 1, 2022 - Politics & Policy

A progressive rising star fights for his political life

Photo illustration of Rep. Mondaire Jones surrounded by abstract navigation icon shapes.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

It's a tale as old as congressional reapportionment — an incumbent must court new voters after the decennial shifting of district lines. But this time, there's a twist: the incumbent has never represented an inch of the district.

Why it matters: This dynamic could cost one of Congress' most prominent new progressives, Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), his seat — just two years after he made history as one of the first two openly gay Black members of Congress.

The backdrop: Jones won his current seat in 2020 against a large field of credible challengers by positioning himself as the clear progressive, beating the runner-up by more than 25 points. He'd been on track for an easy re-nomination this year.

  • After redistricting, however, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney opted to run in Jones’ blue-tinted district over his old swing district, forcing Jones to re-evaluate his options.
  • Now, rather than his seat in New York City's northern suburbs, Jones is running in the city’s newly open, solidly Democratic 10th district — and he's facing serious progressive competition in a crowded primary field.

The abrupt change is still catching people by surprise after more than a month.

  • "A lot of voters ... still think Mondaire is running in this district," said state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who is challenging Maloney.
  • One progressive group endorsing Jones last week accidentally tweeted that he was still running in his old district.

State of play: While Jones has more campaign cash than all the other candidates combined, he does not appear to be enjoying the other advantages of incumbency – including in the polls, which show a dead heat.

  • He's racked up support from national groups and congressional colleagues, most recently House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but few local endorsements.
  • The Working Families Party, a powerful progressive group that had been backing his re-election, opted to endorse state Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou in the 10th district.
  • Even the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, a powerful citywide LGBT-focused activist group, endorsed city councilwoman Carlina Rivera over Jones. Last week, the Stonewall Democrats followed suit.

Reality check: Jones still had nearly $3 million to spend as of the beginning of July, meaning his chances can't be discounted as more voters tune in ahead of the Aug. 23 primary.

  • But opponents argue money can't make up for a lack of local reputation.
  • "Some might have to spend money because no one knows who they are," said former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who is seeking to re-enter Congress after 40 years. "I have a record people can respect ... that's worth millions to build up."

Many undecided voters who spoke to Axios said a candidate parachuting into the district is an automatic dealbreaker for them.

  • But others said they think a district full of transplants and immigrants will gladly make room for one more.

Between the lines: Even those who don't necessarily have a problem supporting someone from outside the district seem to have stronger ties to other candidates — compounding Jones' struggles to break from the pack.

  • "His biggest advantage is that he was a Congress member," said one New York-based Democratic operative. “His biggest challenge ... is that a lot of the deliverables he has made have not affected the district in which he is now running."
  • Jones is a “a solid, successful, good member of Congress,” said Jim Owles club president Allen Roskoff. The problem is that he’s ”running against people that constituents have worked with, sometimes, for decades."
  • Roskoff noted the strong roots of other candidates like Rivera and state Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon, who he said "has been to every clemency rally and candlelight vigil."

What they're saying: "This district is a district that I have a special connection to. No one can take away the fact that when I was growing up closeted into early adulthood, I would find refuge in the Village," Jones told Axios in an interview.

  • That framing has been central to Jones' candidacy — he launched his campaign by highlighting the presence of the Stonewall Inn, an iconic LGBTQ+ landmark, in the district.
  • Jones also noted that his other options were to challenge Rep. Jamaal Bowman — a Squad member — or Maloney: "I did not want to run against a fellow Black progressive ... [or] the guy whose primary job responsibility is to fend off fascism."
  • "I need to remain in Congress to continue doing the democracy-saving work that I am leading ... the alternative is too grim, I think, to contemplate."
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