House Speaker John Boehner and his cronies removed North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones from the House Financial Services Committee in late 2012, as part of a purge that removed Republicans who were not all in for Wall Street—and for Boehner’s brand of “service” to the industries that are supposed to be regulated by Congress—from the one panel with the power to hold bankers and brokers to account.
But Jones, who had opposed bank bailouts and favored Wall Street regulation, did not go quietly. He spoke up about the purge and made little secret of his sense that—though he had split with Boehner on a number of issues—his biggest “sin” in the eyes of the party leadership was his refusal to bow to the demands of big campaign donors.
“This whole place is all about money. Money is more important than policy,” complained Jones, who has in recent years co-sponsored most major pieces of campaign-finance reform legislation in the House—including a call for a constitutional amendment designed to restore the ability of federal, state and local officials to regulate campaign spending.
The congressman’s bluntness did not go over well with the masters of the universe on Wall Street. So, this spring, they set out to purge Walter Jones from Congress altogether.
They found a consummate DC insider with close ties to the financial-services industry, Taylor Griffin, and filled the challenger’s campaign treasury with PAC checks from JPMorgan, Wells Fargo and Bank of America, as well as political powerbrokers like former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour and Wayne Berman of the Blackstone Group.
It did not stop there.
Jones’s independence extended far beyond debates over Wall Street bailouts and regulation.
The Republican is a social and economic conservative—make that a social and economic very conservative—but he has repeatedly broken with the party establishment on issues of war and peace, privacy rights, trade policy and budgets. He even voted against proposals by the darling of Wall Street and the party establishment, Congressman Paul Ryan.
Bush administration aides and apologists rushed in with public statements and “independent” expenditures to attack Jones for his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for his refusal to go along with moves that might lead to wars with Iran and other countries. Former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer gave his enthusiastic backing to Griffin, as did former national security adviser Juan Zarate. Sarah Palin, one of the party’s most consistent militarists, came in big for Griffin, who hailed her as an “old friend.” A neoconservative group, the Emergency Committee For Israel, spent at least $250,000 on ads that claimed Jones “preaches American decline.” What Jones actually said was, “Lyndon Johnson’s probably rotting in hell right now because of the Vietnam War, and he probably needs to move over for Dick Cheney.”
At the same time, the wealthy champions of Ryan’s crony-capitalist approach to budgeting were in with big money for TV ads and direct mail from the “Ending Spending Action Fund”—a Super PAC backed by billionaire businessman Joe Ricketts.
By a lot of DC measures, Jones should have been doomed.
But the ten-term congressman bet that the voters of eastern North Carolina would stick with him. “I’m not going to sacrifice my integrity for anyone or any party,” he said. “It’s the price you pay. I didn’t come [to Washington] to be a puppet for anyone. And I think the public back in my district, which is the most important, has seen I’m willing to do what I think is right.”
It was the right bet.