When Mondaire Jones was growing up in Spring Valley, New York, he dreamed of becoming a science fiction writer. He thought he’d compose stories in the tradition of Stephen King’s psychological thrillers, starring characters like Christopher Pike’s murder-solving ghost teens or the children of R.L. Stein’s supernatural Goosebumps series. “I would spend summers [from childhood to college] just writing novel-length stories about werewolves and vampires,” Jones told MTV News, explaining how he hoped to become “the next Toni Morrison” by bringing fantasy worlds to life on paper.
But somewhere along the way, he found politics, which opened his mind to the idea that he could fashion a new world outside of a book, too.
Today, 32-year-old Jones is running to represent New York’s 17th Congressional District, which spans most of the state’s southern regions including Rockland County and portions of central and northwestern Westchester County. It’s a reliably Democratic district, and Jones is running as a progressive: He believes in Medicare for All, ending cash bail, legalizing marijuana, codifying DACA, and solving the climate crisis.
He also believes that his district is ready for change. By the time current Representative Nita Lowey, who was first elected in 1988, announced that she wouldn't be seeking re-election in 2020, Jones had already declared his candidacy on the grounds that the district is ready for a more progressive leader. But Jones wasn’t the only person looking to shake up NY 17: When Lowey first announced her retirement, rumors swirled that writer and philanthropist Chelsea Clinton and State Assemblyman David Buchwald might run to take her seat; a reliably Democratic district can often serve as a launchpad for candidates from outside fields looking to shake things up in a new role. Clinton is not in the race, but about half a dozen other people are, including Buchwald and Adam Schleifer, one of the federal prosecutors in the 2019 college bribery scandal.
The decision to run for office instead of writing thrillers was one Jones made gradually. When he was a freshman at Stanford University, he toed the line between two great interests: He’d chosen the school for the strength of its writing program, but he also was getting involved in student government and served as a committee chair on the NAACP’s national Board of Directors.
His friends started to ask why he wasn’t going to go to law school, encouraging him to run for public office. And while he eventually decided to study law — at Harvard, no less — he still wasn’t sure he wanted to be a politician.
“I still thought that being gay would preclude me from running for office,” he said. Fewer than a dozen LGBTQ+ people currently serve in the 435-seat House of Representatives — and none of them are Black. And while there are more openly LGBTQ+ people in elected positions today than ever before, with more than 700 LGBTQ+ elected officials nationwide, that’s just 0.13 percent of elected roles in the country, according to NBC News. Such representation was even more dismal when Jones was in law school — the first openly gay congressman, Gerry Studds (D-MA), was outed in 1983; Tammy Baldwin’s 1999 win as a Democrat in Wisconsin marked the first time an out newcomer won a congressional seat — so it was difficult for him to imagine where he’d fit within the political landscape.
He intended to make a difference any way he could, but his friends’ belief in him lingered. “By the time I was applying to law school — because that's when I was really thinking about this — I [realized] I wanted to be a litigator, but I [also] wanted to make policy,” he said.
He also started paying attention to “people in pop culture, and in politics running as their authentic, gay selves,” including Sen. Baldwin, as well as Colorado Governor Jared Polis and Reps. David Cicilline (D-RI), and Sean Maloney (D-NY) “Now, I look at someone like Mayor Pete running for the highest office in the land and how he appears to be well-conditioned to win in Iowa,” Jones said. “I could never have imagined something like that happened even just two or three years ago.”
But Jones’s experience is unique: So far, no openly gay Black men have been elected on a national stage, meaning that, if Jones wins, he could be the first to step foot in Congress. (Fellow New York Democrat Ritchie Torres is running in a separate district.)
“Because I am Black and the experience [being Black and LGBTQ+] is a little different to say the least, people like Frank Ocean… [are] extremely inspirational for me,” Jones said, adding that the musician’s Tumblr post that alluded to a gay relationship was particularly impactful for him. “[His] acknowledging that so many of the songs on Channel Orange were addressed to a man, that really crystallized my resolve to come out,” he added. “I [had] started to come out a few months earlier, and it was a major boost for me.”
That boost came in 2012, a year before Jones graduated from Harvard Law School. His first post-collegiate job was at the Department of Justice, serving the Obama administration in the Office of Legal Policy. There, he worked to vet candidates for federal judgeships and wrote criminal justice reform to reduce recidivism — or the rate at which people re-enter the federal prison system after having served time. (The current recidivism rate for federal prisoners is 49.3 percent.)
He reflects that the most frustrating part of that job was the “slow pace” of change, which was hampered by partisan blocks. The hard line the GOP made against President Obama’s judicial nominations was a particular sticking point for Jones, who often spent his days researching candidates, only to see Republicans oppose those picks at every turn.
“I think early on in the Obama years, we felt like if we just nominated the best people [for federal judgeships], Republicans would see the light and they would reasonably confirm them,” he said. “But that's just not true.”
In 2013, Democrats changed the rules of the Senate so judges could be confirmed by a majority vote instead of a super-majority vote, which requires two-thirds of the Senators present voting in favor, but Jones admits that during that period, he thought the administration wasn’t fighting hard enough to get their candidates nominated. Jones left the Department of Justice feeling that moderacy wasn’t the most effective way to create change.
“We have got to be fighting tooth and nail for the things that we say we believe in and not compromising our values on the irrational bet that the Fox news propaganda machine would ever allow Republicans in Congress to behave reasonably,” he said., adding that he believes Fox News coverage was a key factor as to why Republican lawmakers felt emboldened to conduct themselves the way they did.
The lessons he learned during his time with the Department of Justice continue to inform his policies today. He says he feels an urgency to push forward more progressive plans, like ending cash bail and fighting the climate crisis, in part because he’s a millennial; he is largely advocating for policies that would directly impact people his age and younger than him. And he refuses to compromise. “No other candidate in my race is willing to commit to forgiving student debt,” he pointed out. “We need to liberate an entire generation of young people to meaningfully participate in this economy.”
He will go up for election in the primary on June 23; all the while, he’s campaigning hard and trying to take care of himself. And when he inevitably gets caught up and needs a break, he jumps right back into the fictional worlds he’s always loved: HBO’s Watchmen and How To Get Away With Murder are among his go-to stories these days.
But, honestly? He says he’s rarely stressed. “When I'm doing meet and greets, I am so energized by the turnout,” he noted, highlighting a recent meeting where nearly 100 people showed up to talk with him. “It just feels like my message is really resonating with so many people in the district.” That he’s able to meet them authentically makes everything that much more worth it.