From Father to Son, And Party to Party
Few people have the privilege to serve in Congress, but even fewer of us can say we had the opportunity to learn and train for the job by shadowing our greatest teachers, our parents. I am one of the lucky ones who can say I have seen Congress firsthand for more than 40 years, first through the eyes of my father, and now as a Representative myself.
So many children say they want to grow up and be just like Mom or Dad, but I guess I was a rebel. Although my father served as an elected official for most of my life, he did not enter Congress until I was in college. I had the unique experience of learning about his job at a time in my life when I was figuring out my own future.
I admired my father’s dedication to the people of North Carolina, but at the time I did not have any aspirations to be a Member of Congress myself. It wasn’t until my late 30s that I even thought about running for the North Carolina General Assembly, and it wasn’t until after a few years in the statehouse that I began to start considering a run for Congress.
Nevertheless, in 1995, I ended up here as a newly converted Republican representing the 3rd district of North Carolina. Due to redistricting, it is an area that includes most of the territory my father had represented under the 1st district.
My father served as a Democrat in Congress from 1966 to 1992, and for the majority of those years, I feel that Congress was a much different place than the Congress I have the pleasure of serving in today.
Technology has wrought revolutionary changes, so I think the demand on Members’ time is greater today. In many ways, I also think the issues today are more contentious than those of years past. Of course, the Congresses of my father’s time faced war in Vietnam and other difficult tasks. But terrorism, border security, illegal immigration, Medicare and even a balanced budget were not the pressing issues that they are today. Every Congress has its obstacles to tackle, but it seems we have more high-stake matters on our plate today.
One major difference I have noticed through the years as an observer and as a participant is that there seemed to be more opportunity during my father’s time to build relationships with other Members, no matter which side of the aisle they came from. That is something that I think carries over into legislative business and the politics of it all.
I know that I go home nearly every weekend, and I think most Members today feel they also need to get back to their districts on the weekends. That transition is probably best for our families and constituents, but it has certainly played a role in minimizing the personal relationships between Members that would often develop over weekends in D.C.
Recently, I was at a dinner with three Democrats whom I think the world of — but that was the first time I had sat down to dinner with them in maybe seven or eight years. Because of today’s demanding schedule, the only Members you get to know well are the ones you know from committees or occasional overseas trips.
Yet, for me, some of the best times I have had on the Hill are when I run into other Members in our hallway and we walk to votes together. At that point you don’t think about R’s and D’s. You get to just enjoy their company as you would anybody else, and that’s sadly something I think Congress has lost a little of over the years.
I remember in 1995 when Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who was then chairman of the Resources Committee, wrote a letter to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) requesting that the committee room be named after my father. Though they were from different parties, Young said that when my father was chairman of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, he was always a gentleman and treated each Member fairly regardless of party.
Although I never served in Congress with my father, the fact that a Republican wanted to name a committee room after him spoke volumes about his character and the atmosphere of the House during his tenure in office. I know my family is grateful to Chairman Young and to both parties for honoring my father with such a fine distinction.
I do not mean to imply that Democrats and Republicans today are not cordial with one another; I just don’t think that same level of personal connection is as common as it was in earlier days. It is no fault of the individuals, but is probably more of a timing dilemma that leads to greater partisanship. Thankfully for me, my father could overlook party lines.
After being a lifelong Democrat and the son of a lifelong Democrat, I decided to change parties before I ran for my House seat. The decision to switch did not come without much consideration and anxiety. However, the one thing that made my switch easier was knowing I had my father’s support. My father passed away in September 1992, but I was blessed to be able to talk with him first about why I thought I was called to the Republican Party.
I told him there were three main issues that were pushing me toward the Republican side. As a convert to Catholicism, I struggled with the Democratic view on abortion. I know there are pro-choice and pro-life supporters on both sides of the aisle, but that was one case in which I just couldn’t reconcile my faith with my politics. The other two issues that swayed me, I explained, were taxes and smaller government.
I will never forget how understanding my father was when I told him I was leaving the Democratic side. He did question my decision, but after a serious discussion, I believe he accepted it. He told me it was clear I had put enough thought into it, that I was old enough to make my own decisions, and — most importantly — he said that he would support me for standing for what I believed. It may be that what he said to me he said as a father and not as a politician, but I like to think he spoke as both. I think he spoke as someone from a time when respect and principle were the rules of the game and, more often than not, relationships trumped partisanship.
Someone once said, “There are always too many Democratic Congressmen, too many Republican Congressmen, and never enough U.S. Congressmen.” I am in no position to say whether Congress worked more effectively during my father’s years or if we’re doing a better job today; I’ll leave that to historians in years to come. I can only say that my hunch is that there may have been a few more “U.S. Congressmen” walking the halls of the Capitol during his years when time was not such a luxury and when the stakes weren’t always so high.
Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) has been a Member of Congress since 1995.