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GOP Rep. Walter Jones dies at 76

North Carolina Republican congressman’s change of heart against the Iraq War put him at odds with his party

Republican Rep. Walter B. Jones initially voted for, and then opposed, the 2003 Iraq war. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Republican Rep. Walter B. Jones initially voted for, and then opposed, the 2003 Iraq war. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., an independent Republican resolute in his commitments to ending U.S. wars and diminishing the role of government, died Sunday, He was 76. 

Jones died in Greenville, N.C., according to a statement from his office. He had been absent from the Capitol with an undisclosed illness since September. He moved into hospice on Jan. 26 after suffering a broken hip.

“Congressman Jones will long be remembered for his honesty, faith and integrity,” the statement said. “He was never afraid to take a principled stand. He was known for his independence, and widely admired across the political spectrum. Some may not have agreed with him, but all recognized that he did what he thought was right.”

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, a fellow North Carolina Republican, tweeted the news of Jones’ passing on Sunday, writing that Jones was “a beloved colleague and friend who had a profound impact on all through his graciousness, character, and committed Christian faith.”

Jones’ Southern drawl and courtly manners belied a conviction that often put him at odds with his own party. He represented an eastern section of North Carolina that included the Outer Banks and several military installations for 24 years, casting hundreds of votes in that time, but he was haunted by one: his vote to authorize the war in Iraq in 2002.

Jones often recalled the spring day in 2003 that he resolved to oppose the war at the sight of the young son of a U.S. Marine killed in combat. Jones sat beside the slain man’s widow at his funeral at Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps’ East Coast headquarters located in his district. The wrenching realization that her child would grow up without a father moved Jones. By the end of that year, U.S. fatalities in Iraq would reach nearly 600.

Once a hawk who directed House cafeterias to rename French fries “freedom fries” because France opposed the war in Iraq, Jones became one of the most persistent anti-war voices in Congress.

Photos of Camp Lejeune Marines killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, most the young faces of men in their teens and 20s, line the hallway outside his congressional office.

Jones was raised Baptist but converted to Catholicism when he was 31 and remained devout throughout his life. He spoke about his opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in moral terms.

For nearly 15 years, Jones signed letters to the families of members of the military killed in combat — roughly 12,000, by his estimate.

“That’s my apology every time I sign one. But that’s also my apology to God,” Jones told The Nation a few months before illness caused him to miss House votes.

Watch: Walter Jones’ Salute to the Troops

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Deeply critical of the Bush administration, Jones once said that former Vice President Dick Cheney belonged in hell.

His Christian conservatism aligned him with the Republican Party in opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Jones pushed to censor children’s books depicting non-heterosexual couples and argued that conservatives are marginalized on college campuses. He also sponsored a bill to nix the Internal Revenue Service regulation that bars churches and other tax-exempt religious institutions from participating in political campaigns.

But Jones’ anti-war stance grated powerful members of his own party, including Rep. Duncan L. Hunter Sr., former ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee and father of current California GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter, who denied Jones a subcommittee chairmanship because of his dovishness.

His crusade to pressure House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., into allowing a floor debate on U.S. policy in Afghanistan in 2017 failed.

Jones was also devoted to extreme austerity in federal spending, believing that government debt would lead to economic collapse.

He bucked party leaders when he voted against extending most Bush-era income tax rates in 2012. The Republican Steering Committee booted Jones from the Financial Services Committee the next year.

And Jones was the only Republican to vote against the Republican tax bill because of deficit concerns in 2017.

Overall, Jones voted with his party 81 percent of the time over the course of his time in Congress, and 72 percent of the time since the invasion of Iraq in 2002.

In 2017, he voted with Republicans just 58 percent of the time.

His deviation from the party line has over the years made his seat a target for millions in outside spending by super PACs with ties to the Republican National Committee.

But he held onto his seat and remained popular in neighborhoods previously represented by his father, Democratic Rep. Walter B. Jones Sr., who served in the House from 1966 to 1992.

Jones announced while running in 2018 that he was seeking his last term in office. He won over his closest primary challenger by 14 points, and ran uncontested in the general election.

In 1992, the senior Jones fell ill and retired from the House. Jones ran for his father’s 1st District seat as a Democrat, but lost a primary runoff. The next year, he registered as a Republican, motivated by his opposition to abortion. He ran in the 3rd District in 1994 and was swept into office by the Republican tide that year, winning with just less than 53 percent of the vote.

Jones entered politics for the first time at age 40, after careers as a manager with his family’s office supply business, as a lighting company executive and insurance benefits company executive, as well as a stint as a wine broker.

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