"Thank you for what you do" - A tribute to Walter Jones
Published February 21, 2019
by Patrick Sebastian, Political strategist and NC SPIN panelist, February 18, 2019.
After taking a semester off from ECU to run an eastern North Carolina Republican field office during 2008 election, I was back at school with a full schedule of classes – and a yearning to stay involved in politics.
Jonathan Brooks, Congressman Walter Jones’ campaign consultant, suggested I apply for a paid internship with the congressman’s Greenville office. After an interview with Jones’ district director, Millie Lillie, I was the new intern, and would eventually be hired as a full-time employee after graduation.
On my first day I was introduced to the congressman’s legendary constituent services staff. In addition to Millie, there was Deborah Marm, Jason Lowry, Frankie Moye, William Moore, Gloria Fletcher, and Debbie Taylor. I also met Congressman Jones during those first few days. He had no reason to pay any attention to me, one of dozens of interns that had worked in his offices, but he couldn’t have been more welcoming.
One gesture by Walter Jones that still sticks with me is how he would regularly say to staffers, “Thank you for what you do.” He had no obligation to express his gratitude to staff as frequently as he did; these were employees, after all. Still, wasn’t a throw-away line; you could sense the sincere gratitude he felt toward all of those staffers who had been loyal to him for so many years.
At that time Congressman Jones was among the most vociferous objectors to our country’s presence in the Middle East, voting numerous times to bring the troops home. Congressman Jones in 2005 had renounced his 2003 vote to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The man who had persuaded the House cafeteria to change the menu item “French Fries”to “Freedom Fries,” after France announced its opposition to the Iraq War, had determined he had voted for the war based on false information.
Congressman Jones wasn’t a blowhard in his opposition to the Iraq War, though he did not hide his disdain for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s military decisions. He would amplify his opposition in the media sometimes, but he never made the issue about him, as many politicians have.
Congressman Jones’ close friend and devoted aide Frankie Moye would retrieve the death notifications of fallen soldiers and locate their family members so the congressman could write them personal condolence letters.
Frankie taught me how to use the office’s old-fashioned typewriter to address the envelopes. While typing addresses on envelopes is considered a menial task, it was imperative that every letter on every envelope was lined up perfectly. I was there for only a fraction of the thousands of letters Walter Jones wrote.
By the fall of 2012, after detours in South Carolina and Washington for campaign jobs, I was a North Carolina staffer for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. With Paul Ryan set to headline a rally at ECU, it made sense to invite Congressman Jones to the event and to ask if he would formally endorse the Romney ticket.
Congressman Jones had not softened his criticism of U.S. Middle East policies over the years, and it’s safe to say he was not a favorite of GOP congressional leadership. Republicans had gotten behind Romney, with Walter Jones being a rare exception.
Having Congressman Jones announce his endorsement of the Romney-Ryan ticket would be beneficial to both Romney and Jones. Undecided voters in eastern North Carolina might be persuaded to support Romney if the widely-respected Walter Jones gave his stamp of approval.
Also, Mitt Romney wasn’t George Bush, and U.S. combat in the Middle East had declined drastically during President Obama’s first term. Surely Jones would appreciate that and be open to publicly endorsing Romney, I thought. The congressman’s office arranged a phone call prior to the rally.
After exchanging pleasantries, I made the ask:“Congressman, you have probably heard Paul Ryan will be in Greenville tomorrow for a campaign rally, and I thought with him being here, we could arrange a phone call with you and Governor Romney, and if you decide to endorse, you could announce it at the rally with Paul Ryan,” I said.
His response was gracious, yet firm. “Patrick, I appreciate you calling about the event and offering to arrange a call with Romney,” he said. “But Romney supports keeping us involved in Afghanistan. Tell him I would be happy to talk to him if he changes his stance.”
It was obvious Congressman Jones was as passionate about this issue as ever and wasn’t going to get behind any politician who supported that war, and that was that.
Despite not receiving the answer I desired, I felt even more respect for the man than I had before. If his independent streak would keep him from being chairman of a prestigious congressional committee, or lead to losing relationships with donors and Republican activists, or hinder him from having a relationship with the potential next president of the United States, so be it.
That’s the definition of a man with unwavering principles.
Until his final breath, Walter Jones was the humble, sincere maverick the people of eastern North Carolina had known since the 1980s. He will rightfully be remembered as a political institution, and more so, an immensely decent and compassionate man.
It’s why today it’s our turn to tell him “Thank you for what you did.”