Just under one week before his face-off with Republican candidate Tommy Tuberville in Alabama's U.S. Senate election, Sen. Doug Jones visited Auburn University on Wednesday night for an open candidate forum. The Auburn University College Democrats and College Republicans co-hosted the event with an invitation also extended to Tuberville, who was a no-show because of a prior commitment.
In his opening statement to audience of mostly Auburn students, Jones expressed dismay at the fact his opposition turned down the invitation.
"I am disappointed that Tommy Tuberville is not here because I think it's important – I've always believed it was important – that people see candidates together side-by side answering the same questions, talking about the same issues, not in just 30-second soundbites or 1-minute soundbites that you hear on television," Jones said.
Jones began by declaring he has passed 22 bipartisan bills in his Senate term signed by President Donald Trump, which he said honored his pledge made in his 2017 campaign that he would "reach across the aisle to work with everybody."
"I've been an advocate for a strong military sitting on the Armed Services Committee [and] an advocate for farmers," Jones recalled of some of his work. "We got a heck of a lot done for the farmers in the state of Alabama. Even though I'm not on the agricultural committee, I've gotten so much down for the farming community more than any senator has done since [Sen.] Howell Heflin was on the ag committee."
Of the legislation he said he was most proud of passing, Jones named the Military Widow's Tax Elimination Act of 2019 which he cosponsored with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. The act saw the repeal of a tax in place nationwide over 30 years levied on widows of military spouses who had died of a service-related injury. Within Alabama, about 2,000 people were affected by the tax, according to Jones.
"Widows ... had two pots of money – one that the [Department of Veterans Affairs] administered and another pot that they paid for out of their own pocket, extra insurance," Jones said. "It doesn't sound like an awful lot, but for 30 years what happened is that the Department of Defense and the VA offset each other. So, they were not getting what they paid for, [and] they were not getting what they were due. They were only getting about 55 cents on the dollar."
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Jones said the widows were promised by politicians they were there to help, but each year they instead voted in favor of money. With 75 bipartisan cosponsors, Jones said he and other senators were able to see the act become priority for a number of veterans' organizations.
"For those military families, for those widows who were denied $1,200 a month, it meant so much," he said. "The day that passed I had 30 of those widows sitting in the balcony. It was an emotional day, it was an incredible day, and it just reinforced to me what you can do ... when you reach across the aisle and work together."
Responding to a student question, Jones said he thinks his "biggest mistake" since taking office as senator was voting for William Barr to become the 85th U.S. Attorney General. Jones said Barr's previous term as 77th U.S. Attorney General influenced his vote.
"I thought he would be an independent voice," Jones said. "I thought he would restore the professionalism. If I could go back, I'd probably do different. I don't think he's been that independent voice."
However, Jones said he respected 84th U.S. Attorney General and former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Trump administration in 2018.
"I felt sorry for Jeff Sessions because I've known Jeff for a long time, and I think he took a lot of hits that he shouldn't have," Jones said. "I disagreed with him on a lot of policy issues, but I don't believe that he deserved the treatment that he got from the president."
Another question asked Jones if he would support abolishing the Senate tactic of filibustering, to which he responded with an immediate "no." For Jones, he said this line of thinking comes from respect he has for the institution of the U.S. Senate.
"We have seen the institution of the U.S. Senate just go down and down and down in terms of its credibility because of [these] very kinds of things," he said. "It started mainly with judges – Democrats started it when they started breaking the filibuster rule [and] Mitch McConnell took it to a new level."
Jones said he doesn't expect former Vice President Joe Biden, if elected as president, to begin his term with interest in abolishing the rule either as he said Biden has a history of bipartisanship.
One question Jones was asked brought up a campaign pledge Biden has made to further environmentally-friendly agriculture practices that create zero emissions. The student sought to know how Jones might support Alabama farmers in the "possibly expensive" initiative. Jones replied saying he would back regulations in such an initiave that provided farmers with room to make adjustments.
"The [U.S. Department of Agriculture] is helping the big farmers and not the Alabama farmers; the tariff wars hurt the Alabama farmers," he said. "Alabama farmers don't want handouts like they've been getting. They don't want to see the government propping them up like they've had to do over the last three years. I think we've got to have the assistance of protections I put in there for them, and I think that there will be protections in environmental regulations that are unique to farmers."
Jones said both him and Alabama farmers believe in the science of the environment. It is in farmers' best interest to take action supporting climate to ensure they have a continued agricultural future, he said.
Questioned about what message he would send Alabamians and Americans on trusting science in general, Jones had three words: "Trust them, please." He stressed the importance of trust in scientists in today's era focused on the pandemic and climate change, saying too many people take the words of politicians as fact first.
"Unless you hear them repeat what a doctor or an infectious disease expert said, don't listen [to politicians]," Jones said. "Coming up, it is so important because ... this virus is with us, it hasn't left, it is rising and we've got to be careful. When we get a vaccine, we've all got to have confidence in the vaccine that it is effective. We've got to listen to science."
On the heels of Judge Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Jones said he "will not be in favor" of expansion of the court answering a question asked by four students. He said such sentiments are not the first time he has seen such discussion in his lifetime.
"Back when I was growing up, the same thing was talked about because the Warren court was a lot more liberal," Jones said. "They did a lot of things folks didn't particularly like, but things turned and things changed. We can't start tearing down institutions ... just because we don't like them."
Jones said as a lawyer, he wants to see litigants given a fair trial, and having nine justices on the Supreme Court ensures this can happen on the federal level, he said.
A later question brought up the topic of opioids and how Jones would combat them, to which he referenced a bill he cosponsored, the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018. Jones said the bill was one step in the right direction as it promoted research and development of pain medicine that is less addictive, but he believes mental health aspects of opioids should be acknowledged.
"We've got to recognize that any addiction like that is a mental health issue," Jones said. "It's easy to get hooked and then move from pills to heroin. I saw it too much in private [law] practice."
Some individuals use marijuana to alleviate pain, which Jones said he is supportive of decriminalizing and removing off the federal controlled substance list. This move would allow Americans to cross state lines with marijuana without fear of arrest, which Jones said makes sense at this point.
"The federal government needs to get out of the marijuana business," Jones said. "I've been a prosecutor, I've seen it, [but] I think now things are changing."
Decriminalization would also mean people could bank with their farming operations, and Jones believes it would open up more opportunities for researching the science behind the substance to learn if it can lead to addictions.
The topic of investing in public schools over private schools in Alabama came up later on, to which Jones expressed he is a "strong proponent" for. Greater funding for public schools would allow schoolchildren to be more encouraged to learn, provide those in lower-income areas with full meals since some eat their best meals at school, and Jones said funding would provide broadband internet for all schools.
"We need to be thinking about broadband and school buildings; those are important if the federal government can help there," Jones said. "That's going to raise the level of education [in Alabama]."
One of the last questions Jones faced concerned how he might rebuild the economy if reelected after life returns to some degree of normalcy. Jones said he would see an economy that works more for everyone, as he believed before the pandemic those making minimum wage were struggling.
"We still need to do another COVID package that would help the unemployed, that would help businesses, that would help healthcare workers [and] that would help city and county governments," he said. "As we are rebuilding and opening the economy, we've got to bring down barriers; we've got to lift folks up in their education, we've got to make sure that they have access to jobs, and it's not just the high-tech, high-paying jobs. I've got a bill pending right now to make PPE."
In closing, Jones had several issues he has been criticized in connection with through TV and radio ads he sought to address. He said one claim has been that he supports abortion up until birth, which he said is false.
"I do believe in the dignity of women, and I think the abortion discussion is one that has become so politicized," Jones said. "We can disagree on where to draw the line, but quite frankly it ought to be women and their physicians who are drawing the line."
Secondly, Jones said he enjoys hunting and does not want to "take your guns," but did urge that recognizing gun violence as a problem is important.
"My youngest son and I shoot a lot – we have a lot of guns," he said. "But I will say ... we've got to be careful about gun violence. We can do expanded background checks, we can close the Charleston Loophole [and] we can close the Boyfriend Loophole. We can do those kinds of things that don't infringe on anyone's Second Amendment, but they could save lives.
Finally, Jones stressed that he is not an advocate of Medicare for All proposals, but he does think Alabama "made a huge mistake" when legislators chose not to expand Medicaid.
Jones ended the forum by commending students in the College Republicans and College Democrats, saying the night generated "some of the best questions" he received in his reelection campaign. He thanked the two organizations for civilly coming together to host the event.
"At the end of the day, it's one Alabama; it doesn't matter if you're a Republican or Democrat," Jones concluded.
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