On a sunny Tuesday morning, Republican James Jones strolls toward Ringgold Square, a raised platform with seating nestled among row homes near Indiana Avenue.
It’s late August, but Jones is dressed for the Fourth of July. An American flag tie dangles from the collar of his white dress shirt. He’s also sporting a matching white hat with another American flag planted in the center.
Longtime resident Sarah West-Ballard walks alongside the congressional candidate. She’s pointing out problem spots in the neighborhood, including the square, a spot for illegal activities after dark. Mostly drugs.
“I don’t be out here. I be in my house,” West-Ballard tells Jones, who is running in the 2nd Congressional District.
He nods. He’s heard that a lot on the campaign trail. The deeply Democratic district covers most of Lower Merion Township in Montgomery County, but also some of the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Northwest, North and West Philadelphia.
That disturbs Jones, which is why he’s made tackling crime and quality-of-life issues the centerpiece of his longshot campaign to replace former longtime lawmaker Chaka Fattah, who is now facing serious jail time after being convicted on a slew of corruption charges.
To Jones, quality-of-life issues and crime go hand and hand. Places such as the square, or the boarded-up vacant house across the street, create a climate where crime can thrive.
“That’s why it’s so easy to have violence, drug addictions, drug sales, drive-by shootings,” says Jones.
As part of his plan to make communities safer, Jones wants to pay roughly 5,000 residents to patrol their streets. The approach echoes what campus security does around the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University.
Those on patrol wouldn’t have any police power, but would be paid $12 to $15 an hour to keep an eye out.
“We realize that the police department is a thin blue line,” says Jones. “They’re not strong enough to cover all of the areas.”
Jobs, education, national security and veteran’s affairs, round out Jones’ platform.
Against the odds
Jones fought in Vietnam and the first Gulf War before retiring from the Navy and launching a public relations consulting business.
He calls vets the “most neglected individuals” in the country.
“We take care of foreign nationals and immigrants coming into our community faster than we take care of veterans,” says Jones.
Not long into his time with West-Ballard, Jones runs his thumb over a small, smooth stone he pulled from the front pocket of his khakis. It’s a replica of the rock the Bible describes David using to take down Goliath, the giant Philistine warrior.
Jones carries the stone whenever he’s out on the campaign trail to remind him that, like David, he can also take down Goliath, in this case the Democratic Party.
“I may be a little, we may be small in numbers, but I’ve got a strong reach,” says Jones.
But to win the general election, Jones would have to pull off something perhaps more unimaginable than David defeating Goliath. He has to get Democrats to vote for him — a whole lot of them.
Ninety percent of registered voters in the district are Democrats. And it’s an area where voters have repeatedly elected African-American Democrats, including legendary Philadelphia politicians Lucien Blackwell and William Gray.
Right now, there’s only anecdotal evidence that voters would be willing to break with that tradition.
“Long as he get the job done. You are who you are. Those are just titles,” Democrat James Fleming tells Jones before the candidate heads back to his car on Indiana.
The burden of Trump
Jones will also need to overcome some tough racial math and history. More than 60 percent of the district is African-American. But Jones, who is also African-American, supports Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who is wildly unpopular with black voters, especially in Pennsylvania.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released in July showed Trump getting zero percent of the African-American vote in Pennsylvania.
“Top of the ticket matters,” says Christopher Borick, who directs the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.
“Your presidential candidate, if they have problems in your district, it’s a heavy burden to take into a race,” he said. “It’s not like you need extra challenges if you’re a Republican in the 2nd Congressional District in Pennsylvania.”
Despite that, Jones doesn’t try to downplay his support for Trump, though he’s encouraging voters to split their ticket if they’re Hillary Clinton supporters.
Jones says Trump would be better equipped to handle a foreign policy crisis.
“As a businessman, he’d take the call, and he would talk with his generals quickly, and he would make a decision based on what his generals would recommend,” he says.
Jones also thinks Trump would do more for inner city residents and be better at creating jobs in the district.
Jones faces Democratic Pennsylvania State Rep. Dwight Evans in the general election, but also a special election scheduled when Fattah resigned from office following his conviction.
A Republican hasn’t won the seat since 1947.