WASHINGTON — Rep. Walter Jones had a habit of referring to many of his U.S. House colleagues as “chairman.”
Some weren’t sure why, but they found it endearing.
“Even though Walter was one of my best friends, he would always refer to me as chairman,” said Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.). “I used to think that was because I was the chairman of the House Liberty Caucus. Then one day, I realized that he would call all sorts of people chairman. So I asked him about it, and he told me, ‘Everyone is chairman of something.’”
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said of Jones, “He too called me Mr. Chairman. I never understood exactly why he would do that, but that was his vocabulary and I found it very honorable that he would do that.”
Amash and Butterfield were among more than a dozen lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats alike — who spoke on the House floor Tuesday night to honor Jones, who died on Feb. 10 — the day of his 76th birthday. Jones had represented North Carolina’s 3rd District since 1995.
Above all, Jones’ former colleagues emphasized his kindness and the independent streak that sometimes got him into political trouble.
The North Carolina Republican lawmaker is perhaps most widely known for his public pivot on the Iraq War. He was at first an enthusiastic supporter of the invasion, but he later renounced that vote, becoming a prominent critic of U.S. military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) met Jones long before the two of them were elected to Congress, when they both worked on Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign. Price has a photo on his desk of a “very youthful-looking group” of staffers to prove it, he said.
After that, Price and Jones took different political paths, with Jones charting a course that was “uniquely his own.” The Republican lawmaker “found himself frequently at odds with if not one party then the other,” Price said, but that offered opportunities for alliances and cooperation in unexpected places.
Jones “was never afraid to challenge the status quo, often to the chagrin of his party leaders” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), an Iraq War veteran. “Walter was courageous. He didn’t care about party politics, and as a result, he suffered the consequences in tough primary elections, but he didn’t care. He never hesitated to stand up for what he believed in.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) sat next to Jones for “hundreds of hours” on the House floor, he said.
“I watched a parade of people in both parties who would stop, greet him, talk about issues large and small, radiating a sort of humanity that at times is in short supply around here,” Blumenauer added.
The lawmakers called on each other to learn from Jones, particularly from his ability to admit that he’d changed his mind on an issue as deeply polarizing as the war.
“How many of us have graciously and publicly acknowledged our mistakes, attempted to make them right and accept the consequences?” Blumenauer said.
Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said Jones had made a career “standing up by himself, guided solely by what he thought was the right thing.” And he was often punished for it, Pascrell added. “He was stripped of political clout and prestige for his independence.”
Jones was never given a committee chairmanship during his 24 years in Congress.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) noted, too, that Jones “did what his conscience told him to do and suffered sometimes the consequences.”
But, Foxx added, the bipartisan tribute on the House floor offered proof that “doing the right things for the right reasons will be honored and has been honored.”