Like other members of his Freshman class, Congressman Mondaire Jones was thrown into the fire before he’d had time to get acclimated to his new job. He was sworn in Sunday, January 3rd, and three days later spent much of the workday in fear for his life. The day of the Capitol insurrection was a hellish day for Congress in general. But for the congressmen and women, senators and their staffers who are people of color, it was acutely terrifying.
“As an African American in congress, I would have stuck out to those white supremacist domestic terrorists,” he said in an interview from D.C.
The Congressman, who represents the 17th District that encompasses parts of Westchester and Rockland counties, was in the House chamber with Democratic House Leadership during the attack. As the House Democratic Freshman Class Leadership Representative, Jones is the only freshman of the 16-member leadership team.
“Not only was the Capitol perimeter breached, but we were sieged in that chamber itself with very little security to protect us,” he says. “For me as someone who narrowly survived the insurrection, which was motivated by white nationalists threatened by my very existence as someone they see as a sort of bearer of change that this country does not need, holding the people responsible for that insurrection accountable, including the second impeachment of Donald J. Trump, was a no brainer.”
The insurrection has certainly been the most defining event of his early weeks and months on the job. But Jones is in D.C. to work. And he has already made a national name for himself as a leader and doer. He’s also made a number of appearances on national TV news shows to discuss the issues. He is outspoken and unafraid to call people out–both Republicans and Democrats–when he sees injustice.
“I am most focused on legislating, especially having taken back the United States Senate the day before the insurrection. We can actually get things done as a U.S. Congress if Democrats commit themselves to meeting this moment. I’m less concerned about House Democrats understanding that than I am concerned about a handful of Senators realizing that we need to, for example, repeal the filibuster, to enact the kinds of structural reforms that I ran on that the American people are going to need.”
He says this moment calls for other institutional changes, such as ending partisan gerrymandering and restoring the Voting Rights Act. And of course Jones is focused on his agenda–helping Westchester and Rockland families. He continues to champion universal childcare and Medicare for all, which he says would help lift children out of poverty. And he is committed to cancelling student debt, the kind of bold policy, he says, that President Joe Biden was elected to deliver. Jones calls student debt a racial justice issue
“Disproportionately, the people in this country who bear that $1.7 trillion dollars in student debt nationally are Black and Hispanic. Two thirds of the people who are crushed by student debt are women. And we know that with respect to the LGBTQ plus community, members of that community on average have $16,000 more in student debt than other people.”
One of the arguments heard in the halls of Congress and from critics is that if previous generations had to pay their students loans, this generation should suck it up and repay its own debt. But Jones says it’s simply not as easy to pay off that debt today as it was a generation ago.
“What I want people to understand is that this is not the early 90’s, or any time prior to the modern era where we have seen wage stagnation for decades. And the cost of a four-year college education has skyrocketed. We know that in the early 90’s the average debt for someone graduating college, a four-year college, was around $9,000. But here we are in 2021, where the average is closer to $37,000.”
It’s a matter of doing the math. “The rhetoric around this from critics sounds on its face persuasive to many people, but I submit if you just do some further analysis, a lot of those critiques just fall apart.”
For Westchester/Rockland residents wondering if there will be any changes to their tax bill now that the Democrats are in charge, Jones hopes so. He, along with Congressman Tom Suozzi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, introduced the SALT Deductibility Act to fully restore state and local tax deductions to bring financial relief to his constituents. “When that was capped at $10,000 by Donald Trump and Republicans in congress in 2017, that crushed families in Westchester and Rockland County.”
Jones says he sees many of these issues through the lens of personal experience. “On a day-to-day basis, my experience of being black and openly gay in this country, and also having grown up low income, gives me a sense of urgency on any number of policy issues that are deeply personal for me in a way that they are not, I think, for many people in congress. And at times, in parts of our district.”
Jones, who grew up in Spring Valley in Rockland County, was raised by a single mother and his grandparents. He earned his Bachelor’s degree from Stanford University in 2009, and his law degree from Harvard in 2013. Despite his education, he never thought election to national office was in the cards for someone like him. To grow up poor, Black and gay is to “feel completely unseen,” he said on the House floor in late February in a speech about the Equality Act, which includes the Juror Non-Discrimination Act, a bill he also introduced.
How does Jones feel now that he has won Nita Lowey’s former seat? “I am still getting used to something that I did not imagine was possible just a few years ago. I spent most of my life agonizing over my sexuality, and being so afraid people would find out. And here I am this gay, black political hero in some communities who is celebrated for this feat. And all I want to do is deliver for the people who got me here, the great people of Westchester and Rockland Counties.”
Congressman Jones has made it to Washington, and just a few months in, he is already digging in to deliver on commitments to his constituents in Westchester and Rockland, as well as the country at large. Check out his Twitter feed @RepMondaire to keep up with his work, events and media highlights. Also, visit www.Jones.house.gov