Growing up in the New York suburbs, Mondaire Jones could not imagine himself running for public office.
But after declaring victory in the Democratic primary for New York’s 17th congressional district earlier this month, the 33-year-old progressive is now poised to make history as one of the first ever openly gay, Black members of Congress.
“I did not think that I could run successfully as an openly gay candidate for public office,” the lawyer and activist told the Guardian.
In November he is expected to comfortably win the Democratic stronghold, where he has lived most of his life, following his win against the 16-term incumbent Nita Lowey, who has since announced her retirement. In the primary he took on seven candidates to win by a substantial margin with 41.9% of the vote.
“It has really only been in the last few years that I have changed my impression of what was possible and I’m so excited to be now, it would appear, one of the most openly gay people in American politics,” he said.
“And to be inspiring so many young people and older people who I know are being helped to come to terms with their identity and to live authentic lives because they reach out to me on social media all the time telling me as much.”
Jones has been endorsed by progressive heavyweights such as senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and the New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. His constituents will include the Clintons, who he said he hopes to meet soon.
Jones said seeing openly gay candidates win elected office, such as fellow New Yorker Ritchie Torres – with whom he is friends and who is also expected to make history in November running for Congress in the Bronx – and the Colorado governor, Jared Polis, shifted his perspective.
He was also inspired by “young people of colour defying the political establishment” such as Ocasio-Cortez and her 2018 defeat of the 10-term Democrat Joe Crowley, without which he does not think he would have run. “She showed me what is possible with a movement behind you.”
Jones has said that to him “policy is personal”. He was raised by his young single mother, who worked multiple jobs and “had a decisive impact on my life through her constant encouragement of me”. They lived in Section 8 housing – a government assistance programme for low-income families – and received food stamps.
“I know intimately how broken this economy is for the vast majority of American households… Debates around the need for a $15 minimum wage at the federal level are not academic for me.”
His grandparents, who left the Jim Crow south to start a family in New York, helped raise him and when childcare was too expensive he sometimes went to work with his grandmother, who cleaned people’s homes.
As a result, in Washington he plans to fight for universal childcare. “No kid should have to accompany their guardian to work.”
He also supports universal healthcare in the form of Medicare for All, policing and criminal justice reform, student debt relief and tuition-free public college. But at the top of his list is the environment. “A Green New Deal, the only thing that comes close to solving climate change, is my number one priority.”
His journey into activism started in high school with his local NAACP Youth Council. After going to Stanford University, he worked for the Department of Justice under the Obama administration. He then went to Harvard Law School and became an attorney.
The success of his primary campaign, he said, was a “testament to the power of my economic message to the people in my district, which is not all affluent. And my personal story, which quintessentially is that of the American dream.”
In Washington, Jones is likely to join a growing group of young, progressive and diverse Democrats unafraid to take on the political establishment – even within their own party. From New York, fellow newcomers are expected to include Torres and Jamaal Bowman, a former teacher who ousted the 16-term Democrat Eliot Engel in his primary.
With the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement behind them and centered around progressive ideas, what will it mean for Congress and the country?
I know intimately how broken this economy is for the vast majority of American households
“This moment in American history, in electoral politics, where we’ve seen a slew of progressive victories at the federal level and at the state legislative level and the overwhelming support for progressive policies by the American people, shows that change cannot wait and that House Democrats must get with the program or face electoral consequences,” said Jones.
And he believes the coronavirus pandemic is going to “fundamentally change our politics” as more people look to government for help.
Party affiliation, he warned, is not enough. “We need better Democrats than a lot of the people we have in power right now.”
Progressives, he said, should “continue to push House leadership to the left so that leadership aligns with the American people” and “act as a bloc to win concessions”.
He is in contact with Ocasio-Cortez. Last week, the day after she delivered a powerful speech against the culture of “violent language against women” following a confrontation with the Republican congressman Ted Yoho, Jones said she was giving him advice on staffing.
“That’s the kind of person she is. It was arguably her biggest week since being elected and she was already focused on helping other incoming members of Congress, she’s just an incredible person.”
He is optimistic about the November election and believes Joe Biden can and will beat Donald Trump. “He’s going to be the best president that we’ve ever had to date and I’m excited about doing everything I can to get him elected.”
While Biden wasn’t his first or second choice during the presidential primaries, he added: “Donald Trump poses a number of existential threats to the United States of America … So I don’t see how anyone who really cares about enacting progressive change would not support Joe Biden in this general election.”