By DAVID JONES
Editor at Large
DEMOCRATIC TEAM: Tulsa attorney Neal Stauffer, left, recently hosted a reception for Democratic Congressional candidate John Olson, center. At right is Ambassador James R. Jones, the former congressman from Tulsa who recently endorsed Olson for the Oklahoma District 1 Congressional seat.
MATT WANSLEY for GTR Newspapers
The familiar face you may have recently seen on television or on the Internet belongs to James R. Jones, seven-time U.S. Representative of the First District of Oklahoma. He is promoting the candidacy of fellow Democrat John Olson, who is vying against Republican Jim Bridenstine to replace John Sullivan in the seat. Bridenstine defeated Sullivan in the Republican primary in June.
For long-time Oklahoma lovers of politics, Bridenstine would seem to have a huge advantage: Barack Obama is expected to lose the First District by a large margin.
Coattail effects don’t concern Jones. He ran against the popular Page Belcher in 1970 and lost by a (to many people) surprisingly close margin of just over 10,000 votes. Belcher, in failing health, didn’t seek re-election in 1972, and Jones got the nomination. The cards seemed stacked against him. Richard Nixon was destined to win the first district that year with 81 percent of the vote. Dewey Bartlett, a Republican, a Tulsan and a former Oklahoma governor, would crush Ed Edmondson in the district, and Jones was running against well-regarded former Mayor Jim Hewgley. Jones won with almost 55 percent of the vote. So the odds facing Olson don’t seem too daunting to Jones.
But Jones now operates out of a law office in Washington and hasn’t lived in Tulsa for decades. What drew him to this race? “I met Olson last spring in Washington and immediately took a liking to him. He’s a very bright and engaging guy, and he called me several times throughout the summer asking me for campaign advice. When he asked if I would come down and cut a commercial for him, I was glad to do it. He’s very likable and has an exemplary background.
“He’s facing an uphill battle, no question, but the Republican Party he is facing has changed. It used to be a business-oriented party with a conservative slant, but in Tulsa the Tea Partiers have taken it over; it is now extremely right wing and religiously conservative. If I were giving advice to an old-fashioned Republican who wants to return the party to its roots, I’d urge voting for Olson, defeating him in two years, and taking back control of the party.”
There is some tongue-in-cheek with that statement, but Jones, who was known on Capitol Hill as one of the shrewdest members, is still a keen political observer. He doesn’t like the current political trend. “We’ve always been governed as centrist after the election, but the way things are going now we have a huge amount of money in politics, and more time is spent raising campaign cash than governing. The center-left and center-right is disappearing, and those elected are more beholden to extremes. Compromise has become a dirty word. I don’t think Bridenstine believes in compromise or crossing the aisle to get things done,” he says.
It has been a long time since Jones was crossing that aisle to do business with Republicans, but he hasn’t been idle. He had a time as president of the American Stock Exchange during which he came up with a plan where a person wanting to invest in something, say gold, could invest in the whole industry rather than one individual company. That way, if the industry flourished the investor wouldn’t have to worry that the one company he was invested in would fail.
When Bill Clinton was elected to the presidency, Jones received a call from the Oval Office. Clinton asked him to be the U.S ambassador to Mexico. “I had absolutely no interest in being an ambassador anywhere, but then Clinton said, ‘Jim, I need you.’ When the President of the United States puts it like that, it’s hard to refuse.”
Jones was ambassador to Mexico from 1993 to 1997 and now says he wouldn’t trade the experience. “I know they have a lot of drug problems but I think they are getting a handle on it and in a few years it won’t be such a problem anymore. I don’t think the drug lords will quit, but Mexico will make it hot enough on them so they’ll go elsewhere.”
His career after Mexico has included founding a computer software firm and an equity company and was even, for a year, president of a fashion company. He quit, saying the money was great but the work just wasn’t up his alley. Now he is working for a law firm called Manatt Jones, using the connections he made while in Latin America to help American business get a toe-hold in that growing market. He is still wary, saying that corruption is so ingrained in so many systems that a lot of money is being sucked out of the economy. Still, he says, there are four countries he is particularly interested in, where new leadership has led to promise of better days to come: Mexico, Columbia, Brazil and Peru.
He’s going to be keeping an eye on them. He’s also going to be keeping an eye on the First Congressional District of Oklahoma come November.