In 2019, I met Jones at a coffee shop in Norfolk. We spent a couple of hours chatting about that fall’s upcoming election, as well as the national one looming in 2020. Jones was openly concerned about how rapidly the Republican Party under Donald Trump was shedding any pretensions that they cared about democracy. He told me he was convinced that 2021 would be a pivotal year for both Virginia and the country as a whole.
“When one side is willing to toss all their morals, policies, culture, and history to win at all costs …” he told me, trailing off ominously before simply saying, “Well.”
“Well,” indeed. When I caught up with Jones on the phone recently, he took no pleasure in his prescience; instead, he strongly reaffirmed how important 2021 was shaping up to be, with Commonwealth elections once again being a portent of the future, “not just here in Virginia, but nationally.” It’s Virginia’s chance, he explained, “to really redefine who we are and what we value.”
One of the biggest ways to do this, Jones told me, and something he was proud to have championed during his time in the legislature, was to help Virginia “look backwards” in regards to criminal justice issues. Looking at the way inequities have been written directly into the law books and fixing them, he told me, was a great first step, but so far it’s only been done “piecemeal.” Instead, Jones told me, “we really need to reassess the Code of Virginia” from the bottom up, “to make sure that it’s working for everybody, and not treating people differently just because of the color of their skin or where they come from. We have an opportunity here to really pull the remnants of Jim Crow and the Black Codes out of our Code, entirely.”
Another problem that Jones sees is that while the attorney general’s office is vitally important, most people have no idea of the kinds of things that AGs do to protect working Virginia families. To them, Richmond might as well be on Mars, literally and metaphorically, for how far away it feels from the “kitchen table” issues that matter to them. In a place where parts of the state are closer to eight other state capitals than its own, Jones told me, we need to reconnect everyday Virginians with the good that the attorney general’s office does for them.
That led Jones to propose a series of satellite attorney general offices all across the Commonwealth, particularly “in the lost and forgotten areas, like the Eastern shore, like Southside, like the Shenandoah Valley,” because reconnecting everyday Virginians with the good government can do for them is critical in earning their buy-in for sustainable, positive change. It’s also why Jones proposed the creation of a “Voter Protection and Election Integrity Unit” dedicated to ensuring that the right to vote is immutable, “because the right to vote is sacred … and when we talk about civil rights, we can’t talk about that without voting.”
The vigor with which Jones discusses the issues is accompanied by an unavoidable fact that is brought up frequently to someone being asked to manage an office of 200 lawyers and another 150 professional support staff. Jones, if elected at 32, will become the youngest state attorney general in American history.
Jones didn’t flinch when I mentioned this. “I’ve definitely heard people say, ‘Jay, you’re young. Wait your turn!’” It was something, he told me, he didn’t have a problem addressing—though he did admit to me that he couldn’t help but wonder “if they would say that to me if I wasn’t a young Black guy.”
“These seats, these offices,” Jones told me seriously, noting that he meant from governor straight on down to school board, “they’re not given. They’re not entitled to any one person. They’re earned, a trust given by the people of the Commonwealth.” Anyone willing to work hard enough to earn that trust, Jones said, deserves to be considered on their merits; the problem, he told me, is that historically, being told to “wait your turn” was used as an incumbent protection method. And “not your turn,” he pointed out, can quickly turn into, “Sorry, too late now, you waited too long.”
“Virginia,” Jones told me, “is the vanguard of the South, right? Of the old Confederacy.” The birthplace of American democracy and slavery. But in the past decade, he said, Virginia has taken up the mantle as the progressive bastion of the New South, putting into place “some policies that I think, even just four or five years ago, people would have thought to be unthinkable.”
But that progress is in jeopardy now, Jones told me. We don’t have to “worry about what’s happening in Washington every single day,” since the current administration isn’t directly engaged “in a never-ending crisis threatening to implode our republic.” But the ominous events of Jan. 6, the encroachment of a new Jim Crow, and the seemingly unconcerned (if not downright dismissive) attitude from some of our own supposed allies mean that we have to ensure we can protect our people, the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia, “which is exactly what the attorney general’s office is about.”
Not only does Virginia need a champion willing to fight unapologetically to keep our people safe, but “we’ve never had a Black attorney general here in Virginia,” Jones said soberly. “I think it’s really important for us to think about the prospect of having someone who looks like (the people) our justice system has oppressed for the last 400 years become the face of that system. That sends a signal not just to folks in Virginia, but across the country, about who we are, what we value, and where we are going.”
My full interview with Jones is well worth reading; his discussion of his work on the National Ashanti Alert, in particular, was very interesting.
I’ll be brutally honest here: Despite being good friends with Jones, I was puzzled by the announcement he was running for attorney general. His talent, family legacy, and energy lay out a clear path to Congress, while his hard work has already shown he can more than earn the privilege of working for his constituents in the state legislature as long as he would like to. But attorney general? Now? Our discussion, though, put any concern I might have had to rest, and I understand completely why Jones felt the need to eschew the “easy path” he might have taken, and stepped up to run for attorney general.
I haven’t decided who I’m voting for just yet, but I can say without equivocation that if you are a Virginia voter, Jay Jones absolutely deserves your consideration for the office of the attorney general of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Read the full interview with Del. Jay Jones here.