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Amid the pandemic, a campaign adapts

Chip Brownlee

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He stepped up to the podium, an American flag behind his right shoulder, an Alabama flag to his left. These briefings are much like any other press conference the senator has given since he took office in January 2018, except these are streamed on Facebook Live, and Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama wore a camouflage turkey hunting mask — the same one he’s worn on the floor of the U.S. Senate and in hearings.

He decided to wear it after a turkey hunt with his son and a friend a few weeks ago, with appropriate social-distancing, of course.

“Unfortunately, I think the turkeys were also maintaining social distancing from those who were trying to attract them,” Jones said in an interview. “I just thought, this is kind of nice. Why don’t I just go ahead and wear it? It’s an interesting mask for a southern Democrat.”

Since our interview, Jones has not backed off from his insistence that others wear a mask, too, when in public places. He regularly echoes messages from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson, Gov. Kay Ivey and even Alabama head football coach Nick Saban, who all have stressed the importance of face coverings.

“There is so much misinformation that’s going on out there,” Jones said. “You know, I just feel like I have an obligation. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a scientist. I’m trying to learn and do the best I can. But for me to do the best I can, I’ve got to learn. I’ve got to listen. I think it’s important for the public to do that as well.”

Since he began the live-streamed press conferences seven weeks ago, they’ve gotten more than 300,000 views and have become a parade of the who’s who of Alabama’s COVID response. Public health experts, local officials, doctors and business leaders have been regular guests. Since the COVID-19 crisis began for Alabama in mid-March, Jones, the state’s junior senator, has been one of the most available and outspoken elected officials in Alabama, even when he’s in Washington. He lets public health experts answer questions. He urges caution.

“My responsibility is to get accurate information out from people who know the science and understand what we’re up against from a science and health standpoint,” Jones said in an interview. “Don’t listen to politicians on either side of the aisle unless they are just parroting what a health care professional says. Listen to science and listen to the data.”

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In these briefings, Jones has avoided politics and campaign talk. He rarely casts blame, though he hasn’t been afraid to criticize the Trump administration’s handling of the virus or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for “playing politics.”

A first-term Democrat elected in a surprise upset election in 2017, Jones has been walking a line between praising Alabama’s Republican governor for her leadership and criticizing President Donald Trump for what Jones says has been, and continues to be, a lack of leadership from the White House.

But what’s nearly as noticeable is what he has barely mentioned since Alabama confirmed its first case in March: his re-election campaign.

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Jones is up for re-election in November as perhaps the most vulnerable incumbent Democrat in the country.

In a normal world, the campaign would be in full swing by now. But in COVID-era Alabama, despite the governor’s easing of restrictions, Jones does not even have an opponent, yet, and the campaign is in partial hibernation as the senator focuses on his work in his official capacity as a senator.

“Everything except fundraising has been on hold,” Jones said. “We’ve done some campaign Zoom, virtual events. But to be honest with you, I’ve been so engaged since March trying to do those things that I think I need to do as a senator, we still are trying to formulate what a campaign looks like going forward.”

Jones has sent a letter to nearly every agency in the federal government, it seems like, over the past month or two — whether it is the USDA, seeking more aid for cattlemen and dairy producers, or with questions about how the USDA is implementing food assistance programs. Or the Treasury, asking that taxpayers receive their relief stimulus payments on debit cards to make it easier and faster. He’s worked with Republicans like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton to get those things done.

He’s also pushed for expanded economic relief for small businesses and their employees through his Paycheck Security Act, a refundable tax credit of up to $90,000 annually per employee, to rehire and pay laid off and furloughed workers and restore their health care benefits.

If passed, it would also provide small and mid-sized businesses with funds to pay for rent, mortgages, utilities and other operating costs until they can reopen safely and sales begin to recover.

In the past few weeks, Jones has been pressing hard for a plan to bring health care manufacturing back to America — and to Alabama in particular.

“We’re so dependent on foreign countries — China and other countries — for our personal protective equipment, including for our prescription drugs,” Jones said. “We need to do all that we can to bring that manufacturing home. We should never ever get caught again in regard to a shortage of PPE because we don’t have enough for this country. There’s no reason why we can’t do it.”

Jones proposes using tax incentives for companies that build medical equipment in the U.S., retrain workers for those jobs and encourages companies to restart idle factories to make health care equipment.

“I think we could be the next healthcare manufacturing hub just like we’ve done so well with automobile manufacturing. There’s no question it’s coming,” Jones said. “Now we want Alabama to be on the forefront of that. I want us to be on the cutting edge of that, to be out front and not lose it to some of the other southern states.”

Regardless of who is nominated as the Republican candidate, Jones faces another uphill battle. As much as he is a full-blooded southerner — someone raised in a family that once supported firebrand segregationist Gov. George Wallace, someone who would wear a camo hunting mask to a press conference, someone who frequents deer stands with a rifle in the winter and turkey hunts in the spring — Jones is also a full-blooded Democrat.

He was a prosecutor appointed by President Bill Clinton, and has been a friend and supporter of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden since the former vice president’s first run for the presidency in the 1980s. In the few years since he took office, Jones has made it a mission to build up the Alabama Democratic Party, which was out of money and without a winning statewide candidate for nearly a decade before his win in 2017.

As much as Jones’s 2017 election — defined by the sexual assault, misconduct and harassment allegations against his opponent former, Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore — was shrouded in uncertainty and surprise, the 2020 campaign is likely to be even more chaotic in that it will be shrouded by concerns over the novel coronavirus.

Not only is Jones, a moderate Democrat, running for re-election in a red state loyal to Trump, he’s doing so in the middle of a pandemic.

“At this point, we would have thought we would have had an opponent by April 1, and more things would be transitioned over to campaign events,” Jones said. “We’ve just not been able to do that, for obvious reasons. But also, it’s just been extremely busy. I’ve felt like it is part of my job to try to be out there as much as I can to let folks know that we’re working. They don’t want to hear a campaign speech.”

While Jones has been holding weekly briefings, with more time in front of the camera than the state’s governor, his potential opponents have taken to attacking each other in public fashion. Trump has repeatedly waded into the fight.

Jones’s challenger hasn’t been picked yet. The primary runoff that will decide between former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville and former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was postponed until July because of concerns over the virus.

While the two are battling over their support for Trump, they’ve largely avoided the topic of the pandemic. Sessions releases statements every few weeks calling for plans to “hold the Communist Chinese Government accountable for its cover-up of the Wuhan Virus” and little else.

Sessions’ feud with Trump and Tuberville, which reached a fever-pitch over the weekend, has grabbed far more headlines than anything Sessions or Tuberville have proposed to address the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.

Jones said he’s paying little attention to that feud, even when he gets “@-ed” by the president on Twitter. Trump called Jones a “weak & pathetic puppet for Crazy Nancy Pelosi & Cryin’ Chuck Schumer” on Saturday in a tweet bashing Sessions and supporting Tuberville.

“I don’t really pay much attention to Jeff Sessions and Tommy Tuberville at this point,” Jones said. “We had a hell of a record going into February and March of this year. I was very, very proud of the things we’ve done for veterans, things for businesses, things for farmers. But we’ve been able to do things during this pandemic that have been extremely important for the folks in Alabama.”

No matter how the GOP primary turns out, Jones will be facing off against another unknown, as he has so many times before. Sessions, once a favored son, has drawn repeated criticism from Trump for recusing from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

Tuberville has no government experience, though being a football coach might as well be a public office in Alabama.

Despite the virus, Republican campaign groups are beginning to hammer Jones over his support for Biden, and Republicans are banking on picking up Jones’s Senate seat.

Jones said he is confident the voters in Alabama will be able to judge his work separately from the party he is in.

“There are so many things that we have done for so many different groups in Alabama,” Jones said. “I think people are recognizing that all of a sudden, this Democrat who got elected in 2017 is paying attention, and we’ve been there for people. They see what we have done for the last two years, but they also see what we’ve done during this crisis.”

Trump won Alabama by nearly 28 percentage points in 2016, and Jones won by only a razor-thin margin in 2017, despite his opponent being credibly accused of sexual misconduct with women decades his junior. Republicans believe Moore was a particularly terrible general election candidate, and that pretty much any other Republican could beat Jones.

The allegations united a strange and perhaps unprecedented, at least in Alabama’s history, coalition of moderate crossover Republicans and black people, women and young voters who showed up for Jones. Either way, Moore had a history of underperforming in statewide general elections, having come close to losing an election to the Supreme Court in 2012.

But a national crisis is playing into Jones’s strength: handling situations outside of his control. He played the role of the “sane one” in the 2017 special election defined by accusations against his opponent, and he’s likely to be in a similar position again in 2020, regularly putting public health experts front and center while his opponents either avoid the spotlight, try to shift blame overseas or tie Jones to liberal Democrats in Washington.

“I’m not there to have President Trump’s back,” Jones said. “I’m not there to have President Biden’s back. I’m there to have Alabama’s back. And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing and that’s what we’re going to continue to do — doesn’t matter to me how Jeff Sessions or Tommy Tuberville approach what they think needs to be done. I think the people of Alabama want somebody that’s got their back, and not somebody else’s.”

As Jones heads into the 2020 election, he may be largely on his own. The two leading Democratic campaign groups reserved nearly $100 million for the November election in half a dozen states with Republican incumbents, Politico reported. But Jones was left out, and the largest Democratic Senate campaign groups won’t commit to spending big money on his re-election.

But even as those groups won’t commit, Jones is sitting on a war chest that’s nearly 10 times the size of either of his potential opponents. He has nearly $8 million saved up in his campaign account for the upcoming battle.

Chip Brownlee is a political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Congress

Rogers leads Homeland Security Committee Republicans

Brandon Moseley

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Congressman Mike Rogers.

Congressman Mike Rogers, R-Alabama, on Thursday delivered an opening statement highly critical of the Chinese government at a Homeland Security Committee hearing in Washington entitled “Examining the National Response to the Worsening Coronavirus Pandemic.”

“I appreciate you granting my request to allow Members to use the hearing room today,” Rogers said. “We should be conducting our important oversight and legislative business here in Washington. We are much more productive when Members are here, in person, doing our work together. We’ve already proven we can do it safely. I hope we will return to regular order as soon as possible.”

“As you know, I strongly disagree with the Speaker’s unilateral decision to shut down the House of Representatives,” Rogers explained. “We should be conducting our important oversight and legislative business here in Washington. We are much more productive when Members are here, in person, doing our work together. We’ve already proven we can do it safely. I hope we will return to regular order as soon as possible.”

“As I said before, our hearts go out to those who have lost their loved ones to COVID-19 and those who are currently undergoing treatment,” Rogers continued. “COVID-19 is an unprecedented global pandemic that requires an unprecedented response.”

Rogers was highly critical of the Chinese government and their role in the global pandemic.

“Unfortunately, we lost precious time early in the response when China hid the disease from the world,” Rogers said. “For weeks the Chinese Communist Party refused entry to outside medical experts. The Chinese suppressed journalists from reporting. Worst of all, China deliberately withheld evidence of the virus’ structure and deadly spread. During this, the Chinese hoarded life-saving medical supplies and encouraged foreign travel, seeding the virus across the globe. I want to commend Ranking Member McCaul’s work on the Foreign Affairs Committee to extensively document this deadly cover-up in a recent report.”

“It’s clear that China has pulled out all the stops to manipulate everyone from media outlets to the World Health Organization,” Rogers continued. “The WHO maintained for months that China had promptly self-reported COVID-19. They did not. And after months of lying the WHO has come clean. The WHO now says it found out about COVID from media reports and whistleblowers from China. The Chinese Communist Party once again has been caught with blood on its hands.”

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“Facing an extraordinary public health crisis and China’s deadly coverup, the Trump Administration has responded with a whole of government response,” Rogers stated. ”To date, the Administration has – Prohibited the entry of travelers from global hot spots; Invoked the Defense Production Act to increase supplies of critically needed medical equipment, such as ventilators; Coordinated the delivery of over 167 million respirators, 682 million surgical masks, and 17 billion gloves; Sent over $125 billion to the states to support the medical response to COVID-19; Distributed over $500 billion in PPP loans to small business; and Helped facilitate the testing of over 36 million tests. In fact, we are now capable of conducting over 700,000 tests per day. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the number of positive tests are rising in many areas. That’s why it’s so important for all Americans to continue to heed the advice of our federal, state, and local public health officials.”

“I am pleased to see a couple of public health and emergency response officials on the panel today,” Rogers said. “Colonel Hastings currently serves as the Director of Alabama’s Emergency Management Agency. He had a very distinguished 30 year career in the Air Force. For the last 3 years, he has done a tremendous job leading EMA’s response to several natural disasters and now the COVID-19 pandemic. Colonel, thank you for joining us today. I appreciate all the witnesses for appearing. I look forward to hearing how you all are using the emergency funding and resources provided by Congress and the Administration to respond to this crisis.”

“I am also interested in knowing what more Congress can do to help you effectively respond,” Rogers said. “Our country has faced outbreaks of serious disease in the past. In each case, we’ve marshalled our collective resources and ingenuity to overcome the crisis. I’m confident that will be the case with COVID-19.

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Rogers is the ranking member of the House Homeland Committee.

More than three million Americans have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, including more than 48,000 Alabamians. The novel strain of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, shows no sign of slowing anytime soon as 61,864 Americans were diagnosed just on Wednesday. The virus was first identified late in 2019 in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China late in 2019. The first positive test for the virus in Alabama was in mid-March.

Rogers represents Alabama’s 3rd Congressional District.

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Congress

Perry Hooper endorses Tuberville

Brandon Moseley

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Former State Rep. Perry Hooper Jr., Trump National Victory committee member, formally endorsed former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville for U.S. Senate on Thursday.

“I have known Coach Tommy Tuberville since he first arrived at Auburn in 1999,” Hooper said. “Since day one when I went to watch my sons practice football, he was always talking to me about Republican Party Politics. I knew it was in his blood. Little did I know at the time, I would be joining the President in supporting him for the United States Senate.”

“Coaching football is more about leadership than X’s and O’s,” Hooper continued. “Tommy’s leadership abilities were the first thing that impressed me when we first met. He has been places recruiting that few people running for office have. He has been in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, convincing Mommas how he was going to help mold their 17 years old sons into men. He really cares about everyday people and what is best for our neighborhoods and schools. He has been a great teacher of life lessons as well as an outstanding football coach. He brought in former Auburn Linebacker Chette Williams to serve as the Auburn football team chaplain. He is a dedicated Christian and dedicated to his family which includes his former players. This is what this country needs now – leaders not career politicians.”

“Tommy Tuberville is a principled, free market conservative who has the support of President Trump and has put together a great campaign to defeat Doug Jones,” said David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth PAC “President Trump’s endorsement is by far the most important endorsement a candidate can earn for a Republican Primary, and we are glad to join President Trump in supporting Tommy Tuberville.”

Club for Growth PAC has been strongly supporting Tommy Tuberville for Senate and Barry Moore and Bill Hightower in the Second and First Congressional Districts.

During these turbulent times, the President needs Tommy Tuberville on his team.,” Hooper said. “As the President stated in his endorsement “Tommy Tuberville loves his country and will never let it down”. He is 100 % behind the President and the Trump Agenda. He could easily have retired after his long successful football career, but there is one more chapter in his life – serving in the US Senate. He has been a winner on and off the football field; as Senator he will be a big win for America and Alabama.”

Hooper is a member of the Alabama Republican Executive Committee and a strong supporter of Auburn University athletics.

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Tuberville faces former U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions on Tuesday, July 14, in the Republican primary runoff. The winner of the Republican nomination will face incumbent Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, in the Nov. 3 general election.

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Sewell announces $4 Million federal grant for the Dannon Project

Brandon Moseley

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U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell

Congresswoman Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, announced Wednesday a $4 million federal grant to be awarded to the Dannon Project through the U.S. Department of Labor’s Pathway Home grant program. The Pathway Home program focuses on assisting justice involved individuals with community re-entry and employment.

“As we continue to reexamine systems of racial inequity and oppression, I am grateful for organizations like the Dannon Project who work to fill in the gaps left by our deeply flawed criminal justice system,” said Sewell. “In a state with one of the most underfunded and violent prison systems, with one of the highest rates of overall incarceration in the country, and where Black Americans are jailed at 3.3 times the rate of white Americans, we can clearly see the need for the work of the Dannon Project. Of course, this funding is just a drop in the bucket of what is needed for true reform, but it is a step in the right direction.”

The Dannon Project is a 501(c)(3) non-profit located in Birmingham, Alabama. The Dannon Project helps non-violent offenders who have been involved in the criminal justice system with re-entry by providing valuable resources such as short-term training, certifications, job placement and case management, beginning six months prior to release.

Kerri Pruitt is the executive director of the Dannon Project.

“The Dannon Project is thankful to receive this award and for the opportunity to make an impact in communities we serve,” said Pruitt. “Under the Pathway Home program, enrolled participants will have the option to follow one or more of three job training tracks: Industry-Recognized Credentials; Pre-Apprenticeship; or Career Pathways. The first two opportunities focus on training and job placement in employment sectors predicted to have the greatest job growth and/or high demand for skilled workers within the major industries of Birmingham’s regional economy. The third option, Career Pathways, will focus on facilitating participants’ enrollment at post-secondary institutions to attain educational credentials for their desired areas of employment.”

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said that 82 percent of prison releases who get employment never re-offend.

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said that 95 percent of the inmates in the Alabama prison system will at some point re-enter society.

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Sewell is in her fifth term representing Alabama’s 7th Congressional District.

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Jones calls for more federal funding, support for state Departments of Labor

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U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-AL, today is urging Senate leadership for additional federal funding and support for the state Departments of Labor, which have been overwhelmed by the wave of unemployment insurance claims. This also comes as disturbing reports emerge out of Montgomery, where Alabamians have been camping out overnight outside of an unemployment claims center in search of help with their claims.

“As the nation continues to struggle with the health and economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic, Congress must do more to help those who are suffering from unemployment as a result. Alabama’s unemployment rate in May was 9.9 percent and my home state is facing a 70 percent increase in the evictions of renters,” Senator Jones, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, wrote. “This hardship is sadly not unique to Alabama, and Americans across the country are struggling to pay their bills, to keep the lights on, and to put food on their tables.

A recent article in the Montgomery Advertiser detailed a line of unemployed Alabamians that has formed for weeks in a parking lot outside an Alabama Department of Labor (ADOL) claim processing center, with many sleeping outside overnight in the rain or participating in a “black market” system of selling spots in the line.

“While the ADOL has noted that an in-person presence is not required to file or resolve unemployment claims, technical glitches and difficulties reaching ADOL staff have so frustrated claimants that for many, traveling to Montgomery seems to be the only remaining option. These claimants seek such urgent relief that they have been camping out overnight in the hopes that their claims will be resolved.  To make matters worse, Alabama’s unemployment fund is on track to become insolvent within the next month or two,” Senator Jones continued.

“As we continue to observe the grave status of unemployment and its repercussions on our nation, I urge the leadership of the Senate to consider including language that addresses unemployment issues in the next pandemic relief legislation in July. I respectfully urge the inclusion of language providing greater availability of federal funds for state Departments of Labor, to ensure that hardworking Americans can rely on temporary monetary aid to help feed their families and keep a roof over their heads during these trying times,” the letter concluded.

Senator Jones has been a strong advocate for support for working Alabamians throughout the COVID-19 crisis. He has introduced legislation to cover the wages and benthe efits of employees of affected businesses and non-profits until the economic and public health crisis is resolved, and during the negotiations for the CARES Act, he proposed the Small Business Lifeline fund to direct financial assistance to workers through payroll processing companies. Senator Jones has also called for the Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration to allow payroll processing companies to disburse the CARES Act small business loans to reduce complications and expedite salaries to workers who have been impacted by the coronavirus.

Full text of the letter can be found here and below.

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Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer:

As the nation continues to struggle with the health and economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic, Congress must do more to help those who are suffering from unemployment as a result. Alabama’s unemployment rate in May was 9.9%, and my home state is facing a 70% increase in the evictions of renters.  This hardship is sadly not unique to Alabama, and Americans across the country are struggling to pay their bills, to keep the lights on, and to put food on their tables.

Millions of Americans have lost their jobs during this pandemic, and have turned to the unemployment benefits provided by programs in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. These newly created programs have created a much-needed lifeline for folks across the country. Most notably, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program, and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program were created to ensure states would be able to expand coverage of unemployment benefits given the outsized nature of the pandemic on employment.

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However, the majority of State Departments of Labor have been experiencing great difficulties in updating their technical systems to withstand the sudden influx of numerous claims, disbursing benefit payments efficiently to claimants, and effectively communicating with claimants who may be frustrated with the speed at which their claims are processed.

The Alabama Department of Labor (ADOL) has disbursed nearly $2 billion in COVID-19 related unemployment compensation benefits under the PUA, FPUC, and PEUC programs. While ADOL has been working incredibly hard for Alabamians, phone call lines remain jammed, and benefits take significant time to process. ADOL has received 576,314 unemployment claims to date, and the Department is staffed enough to field less than 4% of the calls it receives per day. Since the crisis began, ADOL typically receives 210,000 calls per day; yet only 6,000 to 7,000 of those calls can be processed each day.

Put simply, ADOL is overwhelmed by the massive influx of claims. An article in the Montgomery Advertiser, enclosed with this letter, details the difficulties that Alabamians are experiencing.  In an effort to address claims more efficiently, ADOL opened an in-person claims center in Montgomery, Alabama, but it too was inundated by the unmanageable number of claimants.  While the ADOL has noted that an in-person presence is not required to file or resolve unemployment claims, technical glitches and difficulties reaching ADOL staff have so frustrated claimants that for many, traveling to Montgomery seems to be the only remaining option. These claimants seek such urgent relief that they have been camping out overnight in the hopes that their claims will be resolved.  To make matters worse, Alabama’s unemployment fund is on track to become insolvent within the next month or two.

This is not the first time in recent times that state unemployment funds were in need of aid from the federal government. During the Great Recession, states that exhausted unemployment benefit funds were able to borrow from the Treasury Department to strengthen their funds. Given these dire economic times for state and local governments, the ability to access federal funds should be available once again to cover the costs associated with unemployment benefits.

As we continue to observe the grave status of unemployment and its repercussions on our nation, I urge the leadership of the Senate to consider including language that addresses unemployment issues in the next pandemic relief legislation in July. I respectfully urge the inclusion of language providing greater availability of federal funds for state Departments of Labor, to ensure that hardworking Americans can rely on temporary monetary aid to help feed their families and keep a roof over their heads during these trying times.

Sincerely,

Senator Doug Jones

 

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