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Republican Appropriations chairman to run again in what is now a Democratic-leaning district

BY MICHAEL MARTZ, Richmond Times Dispatch, March 22, 2019.

House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, will run for re-election in a House of Delegates district that will favor Democrats after being dramatically redrawn by the federal courts.

Jones, 60, said he is undaunted by the challenge of running in a district that flipped from a 12-point Republican advantage to a 15-point margin for Democrats under the court-approved plan drawn by a California political science professor after his old district was among those the court found to be unconstitutional.

“That was not part of my decision,” he said in an interview Friday. “I’ve always reached across the aisle on issues that benefit the commonwealth and benefit Suffolk, and I will continue to do that.”

Despite a 27.4-percentage point swing from Republican to Democrat under the new plan for the 76th House District, no Democrat has filed yet to oppose Jones. House Democratic Caucus spokeswoman Kathryn Gilley predicted that challengers will emerge.

“We definitely have our eye on that district, and we are not letting it go,” Gilley said.

The Suffolk Democratic Committee plans to choose a candidate in a party caucus on May 11, giving potential challengers until April 26 to file for the election. The deadline for candidates to declare in party primaries is March 28.

All 100 House seats and all 40 Senate seats are up for election in November. Republicans hold a 51-49 edge in the House.

Jones, who had $605,416 in his campaign account at the end of last year, is seeking a 12th term in a House seat he has held since 1998. Previously, he served four years as Suffolk mayor and 12 on the City Council.

“He’s just a hard-working person who cares about the city,” Suffolk Mayor Linda Johnson said.

Jones said he is confident he can retain the seat in the redrawn district because of his ties across party lines, particularly in the African-American community.

Dr. L.D. Britt, chairman of the surgery department at Eastern Virginia Medical School and a Suffolk native, said the party distinction shouldn’t matter.

“At the end of the day, I don’t care what territory in Suffolk they’ve got carved out, Delegate Jones needs to be in the General Assembly,” he said.

Britt, a professor and surgeon whose medical career includes a medal from the U.S. surgeon general, cited Jones’ advocacy for Eastern Virginia Medical School and his role in passage of Medicaid expansion last year after five years as part of Republican opposition in the House.

“For him to take the lead on that, you have to give him credit,” he said.

Eddie Moore, former president of Norfolk State University and Virginia State University, both historically black institutions, is a Suffolk resident who said he got to know Jones while trying to restore state confidence in the finances of Norfolk State over a period of more than four years.

“I try to build a relationship with the person no matter what the party affiliation is,” Moore said. “It was very easy to build a relationship with Chairman Jones. He really did stand behind his word.”

Jones, who became Appropriations chairman in 2014, is a loyal Republican who has long prided himself on his political independence on public policy.

In 2004, he helped engineer a vote to pass a $1.4 billion tax package proposed by then-Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, to end a long impasse. He was one of 17 Republicans to vote for Warner’s tax proposal, and was exiled by his party leadership.

But Jones also was the architect of redistricting plans in 2001 and 2011 that solidified Republican control of the House. Ultimately, a federal panel found 11 districts in the 2011 plan unconstitutional because House leaders improperly used race to create majority-minority districts that effectively diluted black voters’ influence in adjacent districts.

House Republicans have appealed the court ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jones cites his lead role in passage of a transportation funding package in 2013 that relied on new state and regional taxes to pay for critical road improvements, including a pending new bridge-tunnel crossing of Hampton Roads.

He also has played key roles in reforming Virginia’s public retirement system, an ongoing effort to restructure the state mental health system, and, working with then-Sen. Ralph Northam, now governor, banning smoking in most restaurants.

“I’m looking forward to running on my record,” Jones said.

mmartz@timesdispatch.com

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