Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., an Eastern North Carolina congressman who made it his mission to atone for his vote sending U.S. troops into Iraq in the early 2000s, died Sunday on his 76th birthday. Jones, like his father, served his district for nearly a quarter-century.
His death was confirmed by his office.
Jones, a Republican, was first elected to the House in 1994 and won 12 more terms, including in 2018 when he ran unopposed in the general election. He served five terms in the North Carolina House as a Democrat before switching parties and winning a seat in Congress during a Republican wave election.
A strong advocate for the Marine Corps and against both the national debt and money in politics, Jones made national headlines for his change of heart over his Iraq War vote. An early supporter of the war, Jones was generally credited with coining the term “freedom fries” and bringing them to House cafeterias, to protest France’s refusal to join the war effort In Iraq. Jones voted to give President George W. Bush authorization for the war in 2002.
But he soon regretted the vote and said so publicly many times.
“I did not do what I should have done to read and find out whether Bush was telling us the truth about Saddam (Hussein) being responsible for 9/11 and having weapons of mass destruction,” Jones said in a 2015 radio interview. “Because I did not do my job then, I helped kill 4,000 Americans, and I will go to my grave regretting that.”
Jones signed more than 11,000 letters to families of dead troops since 2003, an act he told The Associated Press was “penance” for his vote. Jones began sending the letters after attending the 2003 funeral of Marine Sgt. Michael Bitz.
“I want them to know that my heart aches as their heart aches,” he told the AP.
Outside of his House office, Jones had the photos of “anybody that’s been sent and died from Camp Lejeune,” he told The News & Observer, in American wars since 2003. The memorial, which also included some members of the National Guard from North Carolina, had grown to roughly 580 in 2018.
Jones tried, without success, to get the House to debate a new war authorization as the U.S. military presence spread around the Middle East in its fight against terrorism, arguing that the 2001 authorization approved after the attacks of Sept. 11 had been used “far too long,” according to one letter, as justification.
“He was a public servant who was true to his convictions,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement.
Those who knew or worked with Jones spoke of his decency and moral character — and of his work on behalf of those in the military.
“Jones’ legacy will undoubtedly be the unequivocal advocacy he put forth for the men and women who serve in this country’s armed forces, and not just those who lived in his district, but across the nation,” North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes, who served with Jones in Congress, said in a statement.
Jones, whose 3rd Congressional District includes Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, introduced legislation each year since 2001 to rename the Department of the Navy as the Department of the Navy and Marine Corps.
Many of Jones’ accomplishments involved the military — and trying to help clear the names of members of the military. He fought for years to help clear the names of two Marine pilots wrongly blamed for the deadly crash of a V-22 Osprey in 2000. In 2016, the Navy issued a clarification about the cause of the fatal crash. He fought for a decade for a public exoneration of Marines accused of murdering children in Afghanistan. His work helped create a military working dogs memorial.
He took up the cause of Marine Lt. Ilario Pantano, who was charged with shooting and killing two Iraqis, after hearing Pantano’s mother discuss the case. All charges were dropped by the military.
“God just put it in my heart,” Jones told McClatchy in 2005. “I told her, if I believe your son is innocent, I will do everything I can to make sure the people of this country know about your son.”
Jones served in the North Carolina National Guard from 1967 to 1971.
“Walter was an effective voice for those in uniform and our veterans,” said U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat and friend of Jones’ for more than 40 years. “Anyone who knew of Walter knew of his abiding love for the military.”
While in the state legislature, Jones was a small businessman, serving as president and co-owner of two small companies based in Farmville.
Debt, money and politics
Jones was born Feb. 10, 1943, in Farmville. He is survived by his wife, Joe Ann, and daughter, Ashley.
A convert to Catholicism, Jones’ faith influenced his politics, which was often focused on the constituents back home rather than amassing power in Washington. Jones never chaired a House committee, for example.
“I’ve tried to do the best for Him,” Jones told McClatchy, “and the best for them.”
Said Butterfield: “He was a man who was deeply rooted in his faith and he demonstrated it every day.”
Jones served as co-chair of the Campaign Finance Reform Caucus, pushing for reforms to lessen the impact and role of large campaign contributions. He called for the repeal of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, which opened the door for super PACs, and pushed for public financing of elections. Jones railed against the corrosive influence of money in politics for much of his career.
“The money up here is power,” Jones said in a 2005 interview with McClatchy. “Power is money. It’s true for both sides. That’s what creates problems.”
Jones also worried deeply about the nation’s growing debt, angering some Republicans by voting against President Donald Trump’s signature tax-cut bill because of its impact on the debt. He refused to vote for bills that increased the national debt.
“I can’t do it,” he told The News & Observer. “My consistency is the fact that of my great concern that the debt one day of this nation will strangle the economy. ... We can’t keep doing these things we can’t pay for.”
In the state legislature, where Jones served from 1983 to 1992 representing Greene and Pitt counties, he made his impact on campaign finance reform and ethics issues. He helped pass a bill increasing disclosure of money spent by special-interest groups to influence legislation, The News & Observer reported in 1992. He supported unsuccessfully a state constitutional amendment allowing public officials to be removed from office if a court found they lied about their opponent during the campaign. In his final campaign for Congress, Jones filed a complaint with the state board of elections over what he called false ads pushed by his primary opponent.
In 1989, Jones — then a Democrat — joined with Republicans to force out Democratic House Speaker Liston Ramsey, one of the many times he angered those in his party.
Following his father
Jones’ father, Walter B. Jones Sr., served Eastern North Carolina in the House as a Democrat from 1966 until his death in 1992. He had announced previously that he would not seek re-election. His son ran, as a Democrat, for his father’s seat, but lost in the Democratic primary to Eva Clayton. Jones Jr. changed parties and won a seat in 1994 in a reconfigured district that included many of the same counties that were in his father’s district.
In his congressional office, Jones kept a photograph of himself and his father, in a wheelchair, taken months before his father’s death.
“The respect for my father is here whether he is here or not. I was in Ahoskie three weeks ago and citizens, both white and black, said, ‘If you are just half as good as your father, we’d like to see you up there,’” Jones told The News & Observer in 1992 while seeking the Democratic nomination before his father’s death. “... You cannot change your name at birth. What you can try to do is prove yourself.”
Jones Jr. announced he was not going to seek re-election during the Republican primary in 2018, which he won easily in a three-way race. But Jones, who missed time in the previous Congress to care for his wife, hadn’t voted in Congress since September due to illness. He missed the first day of the new Congress last month. Butterfield administered the oath of office to Jones in his Farmville home. Jones later fell and broke his hip, requiring surgery. He entered hospice care in late January.
“It was one of the greatest honors of my life, for my friend Walter Jones to ask me to administer his oath,” Butterfield said at the time.
Jones’ congressional office issued a statement Sunday evening by email.
“Congressman Jones will long be remembered for his honesty, faith and integrity,” the statement says. “He was never afraid to take a principled stand. He was known for his independence, and widely admired across the political spectrum. Some may not have agreed with him, but all recognized that he did what he thought was right.”
Cooper ordered Monday all U.S. and North Carolina flags at state facilities to be lowered to half-staff in tribute to Jones. There will be a funeral on Thursday, Feb. 14, according to the North Carolina Department of Administration, though details have not been released.