Q&A: Mondaire Jones on his primary win, activism at Stanford

Aug. 11, 2020, 8:38 p.m.

The Daily sat down with congressional candidate and Stanford alum Mondaire Jones ’09 to discuss his recent democratic primary win in New York’s 17th congressional district. As the district is safely Democratic, he is widely expected to win the general election. If elected, Jones will make history as one of the first openly gay Black members of Congress.

At Stanford, Jones was involved in the NAACP and student government, serving as the Campus Advocacy Chair in the Undergraduate Senate, and later as ASSU Vice President. He received his law degree from Harvard, graduating in 2013. 

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: Well, first off, congratulations on your primary win! Were you at all surprised by the outcome of the race?

Mondaire Jones [MJ]: Thank you very much, I appreciate it. And I was not at all surprised. The most recent poll that came out before June 23 [the day of the election] showed me with 25% of the vote, which placed me double digits above the second and third-place finishers in the race. The poll before that showed me in a statistical dead heat, [but it was taken at a time] when I had not even begun to air my television ads. I knew we were on our way to win this race.

TSD: What were some of the challenges of running for office during the pandemic?

MJ: Not being able to knock on doors. My campaign by far had the most grassroots energy and excitement, except the way you would typically leverage that is to have volunteers knocking on doors and interacting with voters and convincing them to support the candidate. 

In lieu of that we had to adapt, and the first decision I made was to hire a digital organizing director. She’s an incredible member of our staff; she was the deputy for Elizabeth Warren’s digital operations and she had led Warren’s digital operations in Wisconsin. She hit the ground running. We made many thousands of phone calls every single day, sent many thousands of targeted text messages to people in the district, and did town halls and meet-and-greets [in a virtual setting].

TSD: Do you think that the circumstances of the pandemic helped your campaign at all?

MJ: I think my economic message was even more resonant for people in the midst of a global pandemic. The same is true for my message in support of Medicare for All, [a policy] that distinguished me from the other people in a crowded eight-way race.

TSD: When did you know that you wanted to run for office?

MJ: You know, for the vast majority of my life, I never thought that I could successfully run for office because I was gay. I didn’t think that I would be accepted as an openly gay candidate, and so it has only been in recent years that I thought it would be possible. Right now, I just caught myself thinking about how scared I was for most of my life of the idea that if I were to run at an openly gay candidate, it would not be possible for me to win. That was always the thing that kept me out of electoral politics until recently. 

TSD: When you did decide to run for office, and were there any specific people that inspired your campaign?

MJ: I would say [Massachusetts senator] Elizabeth Warren was very inspirational, and [Congresswoman] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I mean, if AOC had not run her campaign in 2018, it is not clear to me that I would have challenged a member of congress in the democratic primary, although ultimately, three months later [incumbent Congresswoman Nita Lowey] announced her retirement. 

TSD: If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk about your upbringing. You were born and raised in Rockland County — does any of your family still live in NY-17?

MJ: Absolutely. My mom still lives in the district.

TSD: On your website, you described how you witnessed first-hand the harsh realities that working families face in this country, with the healthcare system, with childcare, and with housing. Do you recall feeling that sense of injustice as a child, or is it that now, looking back, you realize how your family could have benefitted from different government systems?

MJ: I think in the midst of it, it being the only thing I knew growing up, it didn’t strike me as a grave injustice. It was only as I got older and noticed how many of my high school classmates were living, and then of course when I studied policy and got a liberal arts education at Stanford, that the economic injustices of our society really took shape. In high school, I was active in the Spring Valley NAACP Youth Council, and I certainly was aware about inequality in our society. But the magnitude of the injustice really took shape when I was in college.

TSD: Could you talk about being involved with the Spring Valley NAACP Youth Council?

MJ: You know, when I was a freshman in Spring Valley High School, I saw how difficult it was to pass a public school budget. In that school district, a lot of people do not send their kids to public schools — they send them to private religious schools — and are not supportive of public education. They routinely voted against the public school budget, and it was a struggle, increasingly, to get those public school budgets passed. 

And so I said, I’ve got to do something about this, I’ve got to ensure that we can have a quality public education in this school district, so I organized my classmates and we got people registered to vote, and we did GOTV [Get out the Vote]. And at the time that I was still in high school, we were passing those budgets. But the situation has become dire since I graduated.

TSD: Do you feel that racial injustice played a role in the situation? Or was it more about the public school system in general?

MJ: It’s a great question. When you see a public school population that is largely low income and largely of color and you still vote down public school budgets, you know it’s hard to separate race from the consciousness of the people making that decision.

TSD: After high school, you attended Stanford University. What about Stanford appealed to you?

MJ: I fell in love with the campus. It is a campus that still feels like paradise whenever I’m on it. I fell in love with the people there, the Black community embraced me, and the academic and extracurricular opportunities were second-to-none. I will also say that the weather was pretty darn good, too. I remember in my junior year of high school, I got the flu and I felt like I was going to die … it was during a very cold winter and I was like, I’m never gonna do this again. I had never been to California before I visited Stanford in my senior year of high school. 

TSD: You majored in political science and minored in African and African American studies while at Stanford. What eventually drew you to political science? 

MJ: I had resisted the idea that I was going into politics. My friends around me saw that future for me, even as I said no, I’m gonna be a writer. At Stanford I became really involved in student government, you know, Frosh Council, undergraduate senate, ASSU Vice President, and was increasingly involved in the NAACP. By the end of my freshman year at Stanford I chaired a committee on the national board of directors of the NAACP, and so initially I was like, I’m gonna go to law school, I’m gonna be a civil rights lawyer like my hero, Thurgood Marshall, and so I decided to major in political science.

TSD: While you were at Stanford, the Black community accounted for less than 10% of the undergraduate population. Was the lack of diversity very apparent, and did you ever feel underrepresented?

MJ: That’s interesting. I didn’t know it was that low. In terms of the population on the undergraduate campus, I did not feel underrepresented. However, I was very active in the fight to increase faculty and graduate student diversity, because at the time, I think Black students comprised only 2% of the graduate student population, if I remember correctly. To me, that was a great travesty. Of course, representation, in terms of the undergraduate student population did not always translate into representation in policy decisions that were being made by administrators.

We had a number of challenges when I was an undergraduate, like getting adequate funding for our community services centers, including the Black community services center and El Centro Chicano … it was always an uncertainty, whether we would get adequate funds. And of course, politically, in student government, there were a lot of people who were opposed to affinity groups like the Black Student Union. They were fundamentally against those organizations. It was an ongoing battle.

TSD: In 2008, the Palo Alto police chief made public comments endorsing racial profiling, causing an uproar. How were you involved in resisting or protesting the police chief’s comments? 

MJ: I was a senior at Stanford at the time and I organized my schoolmates, and we attended hearings in Palo Alto, we held meetings with the police department representatives, including the police chief. We agitated. We made demands. And eventually the Palo Alto police chief resigned, and we got policing reforms from the Palo Alto police department.  

By the way, that was not just students. There were plenty of people in the Palo Alto community that were similarly outraged by the comments of the Palo Alto police chief, I’m not suggesting to you that I take credit for all of it. Really, it was an effort consisting of both students at Stanford and members of the Palo Alto community.

TSD: Do you think that experience in advocating for police reform will shape your actions during the current call for change in the law enforcement system?

MJ: You know, I’ve been working on issues of racial justice for a really long time. Whether it’s what I just described to you, or co-authoring a report on criminal justice reform for Attorney General Holder when I was in the Department of Justice after Stanford. So, you know, this effort is personal for me, and the urgency that I feel is informed by my living experiences as a Black man in America.

This transcription has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Contact Ariela Lopez at arielarlopez ‘at’ gmail.com.

Ariela Lopez is a high schooler writing as part of the Stanford Daily Summer Journalism Workshop.

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