The Van Jones Affair,” The Root, 6 September 2009
Green jobs guru Van Jones resigned under fire for his political past. Did the White House sell him out?
Shortly after the news that President Barack Obama’s “green jobs adviser” Van Jones had resigned over the weekend, Republicans were rejoicing and claiming the “scalp” of the man that Fox News host Glenn Beck had branded a “socialist” and an “ex-con.” For weeks, Beck had launched an extensive on-air campaign against Jones. And on Sunday, he was claiming victory, posting this statement: “The American people stood up and demanded answers. Instead of providing them, the administration had Jones resign under cover of darkness. … Judging by the other radicals in the administration, I expect that questioning to continue for the foreseeable future.”
In a FoxNews.com commentary, Phil Kerpen, a policy director for Americans for Prosperity, a right wing political advocacy group, declared that Jones’ resignation was “one of the most significant things I’ve ever had the honor or being involved in.” (Kerpen’s organization was one of the main groups behind the Tax Day Tea Party protests from last April. It also created Patients United Now, an anti-health reform campaign.)
Meanwhile, Democrats and others who have supported Jones’ policy agenda and personal ambition are crying foul, blaming the administration for not defending one of its own. “Jones was one of the only movement progressives in a policymaking position in the Obama White House,” wrote progressive columnist David Sirota on the day of the announcement. “No more—and that’s a damn shame.”
“I think this is bad for democracy,” says James Rucker, co-founder, with Jones, of Color of Change, an online advocacy group that launched an effective advertiser boycott of Beck’s program in July. “Van is someone who’s been great at getting a spotlight on lower income communities in the context of greening America. But because he [was] associated with Color of Change, he’s a target. It’s shameful.”
Jones’ resignation comes in the wake of a quick and dirty partisan battle. He had come under fire from conservatives, most notably Beck, for his political past, which included organizing for income equality, prisoners’ rights and environmental justice. Last week, criticism against Jones took on added furor when news broke that he’d signed a 2004 petition speculating that high-level government officials were involved in planning the 9/11 attacks on the United States. For an administration focused on delicate negotiations on health care reform, defending Jones’ controversial association was a bridge too far.
In his statement, Jones, 40, bowed out: “On the eve of historic fights for health care and clean energy, opponents of reform have mounted a vicious smear campaign against me,” he said. “They are using lies and distortions to distract and divide.” The statement framed his departure as deference to a cause larger than himself. “I came here to fight for others, not for myself. I cannot in good conscience ask my colleagues to expend precious time and energy defending or explaining my past.”
When reached by telephone Sunday morning, Jones declined to comment.
The controversy highlights the pitfalls of being a fast-rising, outside-the-Beltway leader. As the head of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland and then environmental justice outfit Green For All, Jones was enormously successful in inserting the idea of “green collar jobs” into the public discourse. As Jones and allies such as the Apollo Alliance in California pushed the issue, grassroots activists, then policy wonks, then presidential candidates such as Hillary Clinton began to use the phrase—and by December 2007, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appropriated $125 million in government funds toward the creation of jobs that reduce emissions, cut energy costs and help the planet. Jones officially joined the liberal establishment in 2007 as a fellow at the Center for American Progress. Soon after, his best-selling book, The Green Collar Economy, was reviewed favorably by the likes of Pelosi, former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and former Vice President Al Gore.
The Obama administration hired Jones in March. Despite the frenzied pitch of the calls for his resignation by Congressman Mike Pence and Sen. Jim DeMint, his role in the White House was not a powerful one. He served as an experienced counselor on the issue of employment in minority and low-income communities, and a liaison between local nonprofits and governments trying to create and train for “green jobs” in renewable energy production, environmental cleanup and infrastructure development. His signature achievement to date was the presentation of an interagency “Retrofits for Recovery” report prepared for Vice President Joe Biden, which outlined how each of the government agencies can promote and execute weatherization and other green building initiatives.
But the signing of the 9/11 petition, as well as some of Jones’ more controversial opinions on race and government (the self-described “radical hell-raiser” has said that he used to be a Communist) underscores the vast difference between a lifetime working for political change and being a federal agent of that change. “We all have pasts of one sort or another, and we’ve all said things that we later regret or grew away from,” says Joel Rogers, a longtime friend of Jones who advised him on the founding of Green For All. “If you are concerned with cities and racial justice, you can’t survive in America and this world without having said something that’s going to bother somebody,” he added. “He’s not someone who spent his whole life avoiding controversial subjects because he wanted to be president one day,” says Bracken Hendricks, an energy expert at the Center for American Progress who has worked closely with Jones. “He’s been out there grappling with stuff, and got his hands dirty, and that’s a different, braver role.”
Senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett was known as a particularly strong advocate for bringing Jones into government, despite his known baggage. To environmental activists who have known Jones for years, his appointment was a refreshing sign that the Obama administration was taking green jobs seriously. But in the end, it was the White House’s silence on Jones that may have sped his exit. Rather than mounting a public defense of Jones, as was the case during contentious confirmation hearings for cabinet secretaries Timothy Geithner and Eric Holder, the White House made a series of noncommittal remarks on the matter, leaving Jones to speak for himself. A statement released Thursday focused on his work on “clean energy incentives which [sic] create 21st century jobs.” When asked about Jones’ resignation on ABC’s This Week television program, press secretary Robert Gibbs was curt: “The president thanks Van Jones for his service.”
The White House is trying desperately to keep its focus on health care this week. Privately, some White House aides have expressed dismay at the curveballs that accompany the fast-paced news cycle, most notably the controversy surrounding the July arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Root’s editor-in-chief. As with the Jones affair, it came in the midst of an important moment in the health care debate—and was thus unwelcome. What’s more, the administration may be saving their fire for other major appointees who have been challenged from the right, including legal scholar Cass Sunstein, science adviser John Holdren and others.
Still, Jones has had numerous high-profile supporters who were quick to defend him following his resignation, providing context for some of Beck’s more shocking accusations. For example, Jones has been attacked for saying “You’ve never seen a Columbine done by a black child.” Several of his supporters pointed out that Jones’ remark, much like Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s controversial “Wise Latina” comment, is a short excerpt from a long speech reflecting on the pain and isolation of white teenagers in suburbia.
Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, current CEO of Green For All, said, “the goal of safer streets, cleaner communities and pathways out of poverty is a step closer to reality because of his efforts.” And NAACP president Ben Jealous, a personal friend of Jones, said, “We fully expect Mr. Jones to continue to help lead our nation out of its dual crises of environmental degradation and mass unemployment.”
But the dramatic exit is not likely to quiet the vocal dissent of right-wing activists who seem to relish any opportunity to derail President Obama’s political agenda. And Sirota worries that “Jones’ announcement will inevitably create a chilling effect on the aspirations of other movement progressives.” Kari Fulton, a youth climate activist who has worked with Jones in the past, said, Jones’ resignation shows that “there’s a glass ceiling for people who are dealing with real issues and work with real people.”
The real question for his critics and defenders alike: How far back in the future, and for what type of offenses, will American politics punish public servants? That question is up for debate.