/ 13 December 2017

‘Civil rights champion’ wins senate seat over accused child molester

Doug Jones
Doug Jones

Doug Jones, the Democrat who pulled off a stunning upset victory in Alabama’s nail-biter Senate contest on Tuesday, is considered a champion for civil rights in a state that played a seminal role in the 1960s movement for racial equality.

Jones’ supporters erupted in cheers and jubilation as it became clear their portly, balding candidate had become the first Alabama Democrat to win a US Senate seat in 25 years.

“I am truly, truly overwhelmed,” Jones said as aides and volunteers hugged and cheered.

“We have shown the country the way that we can be unified.”

It came at the bitter end of a vitriolic campaign centred on Jones’s Republican rival, Roy Moore, a Christian conservative accused of preying on teenage girls years before.

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon had championed Moore as an anti-establishment fighter, and ultimately President Donald Trump threw his weight behind the embattled former judge even as other Republican leaders kept their distance.

But Trump was quick to congratulate Jones, even though Moore had yet to concede defeat.

“A win is a win,” Trump said on Twitter.

A long shot

Jones, 63, had never run for office before throwing his hat into the ring in Alabama — and as a believer in climate change and abortion rights was initially given no chance in the solidly Republican state, where Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by 28 points.

The former US attorney earned his reputation with the successful prosecution of two members of the Ku Klux Klan for a 1963 dynamite attack on a black church in Birmingham, Alabama.

The infamous Sunday morning bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which left four young girls dead, helped galvanise support for the civil rights movement and came just months after Martin Luther King Jr was arrested for organising non-violent protests against racial segregation in Birmingham.

Jones was a prosecutor in a pair of cases brought nearly 40 years later which led to the conviction of two of the white supremacists behind the attack.

Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton were sentenced to life in prison for their roles in the September 15, 1963 church bombing.

“Justice may have been delayed, but it was certainly not denied,” Jones said of the case, which he called “the most tarnishing crime in Alabama in the 20th century.”

National attention

While Jones was plainly the underdog at the outset of the race to succeed Jeff Sessions, who left his Senate seat vacant when appointed Trump’s attorney general, his Republican rival was a polarising figure in Alabama.

Moore was forced to step down twice from the state supreme court, the second time for disobedience to the US Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing gay marriage.

And Jones’ electoral fortunes changed dramatically when The Washington Post reported that Moore had allegedly preyed on teenage girls when he was a district attorney in his 30s — allegations denied by the now 70-year-old former judge.

Democratic donors from around the country began pouring money into the race, buying television advertisements for Jones and seeking to mobilise African-American voters, who make up about a quarter of the electorate in the state.

Former vice president Joe Biden made an appearance at a Jones rally in Birmingham in October and president Barack Obama pitched in with a robo-call for voters.

“This one’s serious. You can’t sit it out,” Obama said.

Born in Fairfield, Alabama, the son of a steelworker, Jones attended high school when the state was in the midst of court-ordered desegregation of its high schools.

He became an assistant US attorney in Birmingham in 1980 and was named US attorney for the northern district of Alabama in 1997 by former president Bill Clinton.

Jones and his wife, Louise, have three children and two grandchildren.

© Agence France-Presse