January 3 marked the dawn of a new era in Washington — and Mondaire Jones found himself in the middle of it all once again.
The out gay former congressmember, who was pushed out of his seat during the tumultuous redistricting process after just one term in District 17 in Northern Westchester and Rockland County, spent the afternoon as a political commentator on CNN. The appearance was a timely one given the chaos that was unfolding in the chamber.
It was supposed to be the first day of work for the GOP-led House of Representatives, but Congressmember Kevin McCarthy of California kept striking out in his quest to become speaker. Americans were glued to their television and phone screens while networks zoomed in on conversations among lawmakers.
The CNN appearance came just days after Jones, 35, finished his term in one of the seats that flipped to the Republican side in the 2022 midterm election cycle. Jones, though, never really had a chance to defend his seat because another out gay congressmember, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney, opted to run in that district and wound up losing to Republican Assemblymember Mike Lawler.
Jones resorted to running in District 10, which is further south of District 17 and includes parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan. He failed to gain traction in an unfamiliar district and lost a crowded primary race, setting up his inevitable departure from Capitol Hill.
Now, after leaving office, Jones can’t help but wonder what could have been in District 17.
“It’s a seat I am widely recognized as having been able to win this cycle had I not fallen victim to redistricting,” Jones told Gay City News in a phone interview during the final hours of his term.
After all, Jones demonstrated in 2020 that he could succeed in the northern suburbs of New York City when he won an open seat as an unapologetically progressive candidate and became the first out gay Black person elected to Congress. That same cycle, Ritchie Torres of the Bronx became the first out gay Afro-Latino member of Congress.
For now, Jones is taking on a new post on the US Commission on Civil Rights, which is tasked with conducting investigations and issuing recommendations on civil rights in America. It’s a position he is taking seriously — but he’s also keeping 2024 in mind.
“Many people are encouraging me to run for my current seat in the House of Representatives,” Jones said. “It is difficult to imagine taking back the majority in the House without flipping seats that Biden won by 10 or more points. Having said that, there are many ways to be very effective outside the House of Representatives, and that will be my pursuit until such a time as I make a decision about 2024.”
Jones really doesn’t seem to have regrets about the work he did during his term in Congress. When asked about his record, he said he was “proud to be a member of the most productive Congress in modern history,” and he went on to list a number of accomplishments — including his support for legislation surrounding climate change, the economy, and healthcare. He strongly advocated for improvements to voting rights and even proposed legislation on that issue at a time when significant parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have been eroded.
Jones stressed his own role in the effort to pass infrastructure legislation and said he pushed for the bill to include hefty funding for New York State.
Still, even as Jones described the 117th Congress as a productive one, his party’s broader agenda repeatedly hit roadblocks due to a slim Senate majority and ongoing resistance from moderate Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The filibuster proved, yet again, to be a major hurdle.
And Jones knows it could have been worse.
“It seems like just the other day I was elected and didn’t think we would get the Senate,” he recalled. “But the people of Georgia really came through and delivered us control.”
One bipartisan bill that did make it through both chambers was the Respect for Marriage Act, which was co-sponsored by Jones and stipulated that states must recognize legal same-sex or interracial marriages performed elsewhere if the Supreme Court ever takes aim at Obergefell v. Hodges. Jones delivered emotional and personal remarks on the House floor in support of the legislation.
“I want to start by making the observation that as important as it was to pass the bill, that legislation still does not compel marriage equality in all 50 states,” Jones said. “It doesn’t require Mississippi to perform marriages between same-sex and interracial couples, so that work is unfinished.”
While the marriage bill was hailed as a step forward, the federal LGBTQ non-discrimination bill known as the Equality Act never came to a vote in the Senate while Democrats controlled both houses. The Equality Act looms even larger now against the backdrop of a dangerous nationwide backlash against LGBTQ people.
“It is also the case that the Equality Act is the most important thing we can do for the LGBTQ community in this country, aside from maybe expanding the Supreme Court, because it would finally enshrine protections for the LGBTQ community in federal anti-discrimination law, which would be sweeping,” Jones said.
Aside from legislation, Jones also used his time in Congress to flex his political power to kick federal agencies into gear on health initiatives affecting LGBTQ individuals. Jones and Torres, backed by dozens of other lawmakers, penned a letter to federal health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services urging them to require insurance companies to cover the injectable form of the HIV prevention medication known as PrEP. There were already regulations stipulating coverage of oral versions of PrEP.
“I got a favorable response from both of those agencies to my letter,” Jones said. “I have always tried to bring my perspective as an only gay Black member of Congress to both the legislative and other policymaking contexts.”
Jones also pushed the Biden administration to declare a public health emergency over the summertime monkeypox outbreak, which overwhelmingly affected men who have sex with men.
As he reflected on the last term, Jones further expanded on his identity as the first Black and gay member of Congress. Just a day before this interview, Jones said he attended an event with a young Latina woman who identifies as bisexual and told him that his campaign in District 17 gave her the courage to come out to her co-workers.
“I have heard from young queer people in office who have said that I inspired them to run,” he said. “It’s not why I ran for congress — in fact, I didn’t even run to make history — but it has been a real blessing for our community to have the representation that I did not have when I was growing up.”
Queer representation in the New York Congressional delegation, meanwhile, is taking on a new shape this year. Torres is the only out gay Democrat in Congress in the state, while disgraced out gay Republican George Santos lied his way to victory in New York’s Third District.
Santos has been shrouded in a weeks-long controversy since the New York Times and other media outlets revealed that he repeatedly falsified details about his background, including his education, religion, work experience, and more.
“Even if George Santos were a confirmed homosexual and someone who told the truth about things, it would still be surreal for an individual like that to choose to join a party that actively works to undermine his civil rights and civil liberties while making it more dangerous for him to exist because of the harmful rhetoric that is increasingly hurdled at members of LGBTQ+ community,” Jones said.
Whether Jones will try to return to the New York Congressional delegation remains to be seen. In the immediate future, he is directing his attention to his new post at the Commission on Civil Rights, which he described as a “dream.” He nearly wrote a paper on the commission when he was an undergraduate student.
“That project is more important than ever given that Congress would not be in a position to pass civil rights legislation because of Republican control of the House,” he said.