When the House took up offshore oil drilling legislation earlier this month, Republicans knew two things — the essentially symbolic bill would pass on a party-line vote, and Rep. Walter Jones Jr. wasn't going to fall in line with his GOP colleagues.
Not that they needed him, of course, since the bill passed 243-179. But even if Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) had suddenly found himself short a vote, he would have likely gone to Democrats before approaching Jones.
In fact, since the North Carolina lawmaker publicly came out against the Iraq war — and accused elements of the Bush administration of attempting to deceive Congress — "nobody really ever whips Jones," a senior GOP leadership aide acknowledged.
While it's easy to cast him as simply another member of the "problem caucus," Jones, 68, in many ways defies the stereotype. Unlike Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) or Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), the soft-spoken Jones has never sought to translate his differences with leadership into a national profile. He's never claimed the mantle of "maverick" like fellow contrarian Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) nor is he consistently a public thorn in leadership's side like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
"Sometimes my party is how I vote. Sometimes it's not," Jones said. For instance, he consistently backs anti-abortion measures and other conservative initiatives, even as he voted against Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget because of its effects on Medicare.
Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), one of Jones' closest friends in the House, said Jones' positions have nothing to do with political ambition.
"I think that's just his nature. He marches to his own drummer," said Coble, who served with Jones in the state Legislature and knew Jones' father when he served in Congress.
Noting that "he's been re-elected convincingly," Coble said Jones' support within the district comes despite significant life decisions that don't look politically smart.
"He's a former Southern Baptist, now a Catholic. He's a former Democrat, now a Republican. I once told him, 'You're the most versatile Member in Congress.'
"He obviously didn't do it for political gain. There aren't a lot of Catholics in his district. And to become a Republican when his father was a lifelong Democrat" demonstrates personal conviction rather than political triangulation, Coble said.
Jones calls his journey from rank-and-file Republican to an independent voice inside the traditionally disciplined GOP caucus an "evolution to the truth" that began with his vote to authorize the Iraq War in October 2002.