From Washington to Westchester: the Obama Justice Department fellow running for Lowey’s seat

The young progressive, backed by Elizabeth Warren, hopes to succeed in a crowded NY-17 primary race

When Mondaire Jones became the first Democratic primary challenger to go up against Rep. Nita Lowey in more than three decades, he had no idea that the long-serving New York congresswoman, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, would announce her retirement only a few months later.

Now that Lowey isn’t seeking re-election, Jones — a 32-year-old attorney and activist who has never held elected office — believes his odds have improved significantly as he vies for the open seat in New York’s solidly blue 17th congressional district, which encompasses all of Rockland County as well as parts of Westchester County. 

It will still be a challenging primary battle. Eight candidates will appear on the ballot on June 23, including former Defense Department official Evelyn Farkas, New York State Assemblyman David Buchwald, New York State Senator David Carlucci, former NARAL chairwoman Allison Fine and former federal prosecutor Adam Schleifer.

Despite Jones’s inexperience relative to some of his opponents, he has managed to mount a formidable campaign, having raised more than $830,000, according to the Federal Election commission. He currently sits behind Farkas and (partially self-funded) Schleifer in total funds raised. In late January, Jones bagged a high-profile endorsement from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), whom he describes as a “role model.”

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced candidates to campaign primarily via phones and computers, Jones hired a former Warren staffer as his digital organizing director.

Jones, a native of Rockland County, is running on a progressive platform that puts him to the left of his opponents, advocating for such policies as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. “I’m running to represent the same people whose homes I watched my grandma clean,” Jones, who was raised by a single mother, told Jewish Insider in a recent interview.

The Harvard Law School graduate worked in the Justice Department during the Obama administration and as an associate in the New York law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. Most recently, he served as an attorney for Westchester County’s Law Department, where said he helped address an uptick in acts of antisemitism and racism in the region.

The 17th district includes Monsey, the site of an attack last December in which an armed assailant broke into the home of a Hasidic rabbi during a Hanukkah celebration, stabbing five people with a machete. One of the victims, Josef Neumann, died a few months later of injuries sustained in the attack.

Jones published an essay in the local Journal News not long after the incident, expressing solidarity with the Jewish community.

“That is, I think, something I’m uniquely able to lead on as the candidate of color in this race, who was brought up in the black community,” he said, touting his past experience in social justice work, including his involvement as a teenager with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“I’m really proud to be running to represent the Jewish community in Congress,” Jones said.

If elected, Jones said he would work to ensure that places of worship are adequately funded for proper security while also drawing attention to acts of antisemitism and other forms of white nationalism. “We need to be better about collecting data on this,” said Jones, who was recently Zoombombed during a digital campaign event and believes the culprits were white nationalists. 

Mondaire Jones

He plans to create a local and national database of hate crimes so municipalities can better predict future attacks and discern patterns of behavior. “That’s actually a problem that Westchester County has,” he said. “There’s no repository.”

With regard to foreign policy, Jones was firm. “The best thing we could do is is elect a new president of the United States,” he said when asked about his views on bringing about a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We need a two-state solution in the region, and we can’t get that with Donald Trump as president,” Jones averred, telling JI that Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem was unnecessarily provocative. “I think that it would have been a completely different story if that had been one feature of an ultimate agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, but to do that preemptively, I think, put lives at risk in Israel.”

“Donald Trump’s behavior,” Jones said, “has served to inflame anti-Israel sentiment in the region among members of the Arab world.”

The congressional aspirant, who rejects the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, supports giving security aid to Israel “no matter what.” His hope is that such aid will not be used in an effort to annex any part of the West Bank, which the Israeli government has indicated it plans to do as early as this summer. “But that is not a conditioning,” he hastened to add, lest his words be taken out of context. Jones also supports restoring humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. 

Jones supported the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and wants to help find a way back to it if he is chosen to represent the 17th district this fall. 

“Iran has demonstrated reckless and impulsive behavior on the world stage by funding terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, disseminating hateful and threatening rhetoric, and building nuclear weapons,” Jones writes in a position paper, going on to add that, in Congress, he would advocate for a similar deal “that limits Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for lifting certain sanctions.”

The young progressive is hoping that grassroots support will propel him to Washington D.C. in January. Though he is competing in a crowded race at a moment when campaigns have been hobbled by the pandemic, he thinks he now has a better shot at winning than he did when he chose to run.

“I do feel better about my chances today,” he said, “than I did with respect to my chances against Congresswoman Lowey.”

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