The Latest: If Rep. Vernon Jones isn’t eligible to run in District 91, how can he keep his House seat? Did Jones duck the issue when he quit the race? Click here to read post.
Crucial Update: This post has been rewritten and updated to cover Vernon Jones’s endorsement of Donald Turmp. Click to read: “Man Overboard! In midst of residence challenge, Georgia State Rep. Vernon Jones jumps to Trump”
By Jonathan Grant
The residency challenge to Democratic State Rep. Vernon Jones hasn’t generated many headlines during the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s a big issue for DeKalb County and a serious threat to the legislator’s checkered political career, despite his claim that it’s “baseless and without merit.”
Jones currently represents House District 91, which includes four precincts in the southeast corner of DeKalb, with most of its precincts in Rockdale, home to Democratic activist and veteran campaign worker Rhonda Taylor, Jones’s only challenger in the June 9 primary. Taylor ran against Jones in 2016 in a four-way race and forced a runoff, which Jones won with 54 percent of the vote to take his current seat. (He also served in the House during the 1990s.)
Lithonia resident Faye Coffield has filed a legal challenge to Jones’s candidacy, claiming that he isn’t eligible to represent House District 91 because he actually lives in Atlanta. After looking through the documents in her filings, one might wonder exactly where Jones has been living for the past two decades.
Not your typical politician
Jones is a former CEO of DeKalb County, and he has a contentious reputation. He’s often described as divisive, negative–even Trumpian (he’s an NRA guy and somewhat reactionary on immigration, environmental, and LGBTQ issues).
He’s also known for not playing well with others. During this year’s fraught negotiations on ethics legislation, Jones called fellow DeKalb Rep. Michael Wilensky (D-Dunwoody) “chickenshit” in a public meeting. In a separate incident, Jones got into a confrontation with Doraville Councilwoman Stephe Koontz, Georgia’s first transgender elected official. According to her, Jones let loose with a transphobic rant. The State Democratic Party called for Jones to apologize, as did primary rival Taylor, who also reached out to Koontz. Jones does not seem to be an apologetic guy.
Two articles, “The Ethics of Vernon Jones” by George Chidi and “Vernon Jones and his bid to ‘fix’ DeKalb’s ethics board” by Bill Torpy, both written in 2017, give you a good idea of what his fellow legislators have to deal with. If you’ve followed the debacle of DeKalb ethics legislation over the past few years, you won’t be surprised to learn that many ethics reformers consider Jones an enemy of, well, ethics.
Jones has also compiled a lousy attendance record, and last fall, he was one of 13 legislators cited for campaign finance violations. His most recent campaign disclosure includes at least $2,000 in donations from bail bondsmen, as well as three donations since Jan. 13, 2020, the opening day of the General Assembly session and the cutoff date for legislators to receive contributions.
There’s so much more. Let’s just say his Wikipedia page is more interesting than most.
The basis of complaint
If Coffield’s challenge is successful, Jones would be removed from the ballot, likely triggering action to remove him from the General Assembly seat he’s held since 2017. Here’s what the Georgia Constitution states: “The seat of a member of the House of Representatives shall be vacant when such member moves his or her legal residence from the district from which elected.” So, it’s conceivable that he could be removed before the last days of the currently postponed session.
Usually, such residency challenges arise during a candidate’s initial run for a seat, but the issue didn’t come up in 2016. In 2018, Jones was unopposed. (The district is not competitive: It’s 44+ Democratic, with DeKalb precincts a whopping +96 Blue.) With no Republican in the race this year, whoever wins the Democratic primary is in the House.
Jones disputes Coffield’s claim that he actually lives in House District 89, at 854 Moreland Avenue in Atlanta. In an email to the AJC, Jones called the challenge “baseless and without merit.”
Which is a thing politicians say. Sen. Kelly Loeffler said much the same about insider trading allegations. And then changed her ways.
Granted, there are often spurious residency challenges, like the one Republicans ginned up against Josh McLaurin in 2018. That one resulted in a successful libel suit against the Georgia Republican Party and exoneration for McLaurin, who now represents House District 51.
This is not that. The people challenging Jones’s eligibility have credibility and savvy. Coffield, a twenty-year-veteran of the Atlanta Police Department, is a private investigator, known for speaking out about corruption in DeKalb County. And one of her attorneys is Carey Miller of the Robbins firm, whose resume includes a stint as Gov. Nathan Deal’s Executive Counsel. You can read or download the filing at the end of this post.
While this isn’t mentioned in Coffield’s challenge, there was a residency issue involving Jones in 2012, when he filed to run in House District 94 (now represented by Karen Bennett). He listed the address he currently uses for voter registration in House District 91: 5560 Mayfair Crossing Drive in Lithonia.
There wasn’t an official challenge, but Andre Walker posted “A gift to the foes of Vernon Jones.” on the Georgia Unfiltered blog. Citing Jones’s address in HD 91, Walker provided readers with a ready-made form to challenge Jones’ eligibility to run for the office in HD 94. This was on May 26, 2012. Three days later, on May 29, Jones withdrew from the race, citing, ahem, “conflict of interest.”
From On Common Ground: Jones stated, “Since qualifying for state office, it was brought to my attention by a client that I represent, there may be a potential conflict of interest for me to hold state office. This is due to my client having business interest with the state of Georgia.”
Yeah … OK.
Back to the complaint: It’s detailed with numerous exhibits to back up its claim that Jones bought the house on Moreland Avenue “on or about May 31, 2019” and has two phone service accounts at that address, one of them a landline. Coffield’s account also notes that Jones sold the Mayfair Crossing property (his voting address) in 2001 to Sonja Hicks, who is still the owner, according to DeKalb property tax records.
Jones has, in the interceding years, listed a succession of P.O. boxes as his address.
And here are the rules of play:
In their letter to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, attorneys Miller and Rachel Gage “respectfully request that the Secretary of state withhold Representative Jones’s name from the ballot or strike Rep. Jones’s name from the ballot if ballots have now been printed.”
The challenge was filed March 20, and is set for expedited proceedings: a teleconference hearing before Administrative Law Judge Stephanie Howells at 9:30 a.m. April 21. (Thanks, Covid-19.) Time was of the essence in this case since advanced voting was scheduled to begin April 27. However, earlier today, Raffensperger moved the date of the primary to June 9, so the hearing date could be changed. Many people will be watching for the outcome of this case, since Jones is such an interesting fellow.
Jones didn’t specifically deny the charges in his email to the AJC, but stated that his attorney would respond. That hasn’t happen yet, so presumably that will happen during the upcoming hearing. Based on the facts laid out so far, it looks like his attorney will have some explaining to do.
Faye Coffield’s ChallengeFaye Coffield Challenge to Vernon Jones Residency
Liked this post? Follow this blog to get more.