BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Doug Jones already has a place in Alabama’s layered and, at times, traumatic history. His name appears in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for prosecuting two members of the Ku Klux Klan who murdered four black girls in a church bombing.
The exhibit on the 1963 bombing, which he pursued more than three decades after the fact, is titled: “Birmingham: The World Is Watching.”
Now it feels as if the world is watching again as Jones takes on another long-shot mission: campaigning for a US Senate seat as a Democrat in a state that President Trump won with 62 percent of the vote.
His chances of becoming the first Democrat in a quarter-century to capture a Senate seat from Alabama have dramatically improved since accusations emerged against iconoclast Republican Roy Moore in the last week of inappropriate sexual behavior with teenage girls.
Those allegations mean Moore is soaking up nearly all of the national attention leading up to the Dec. 12 special election to fill the Senate seat that was held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Many Senate Republicans have cut ties with Moore, saying they do not want him in the Senate. If he wins, some are saying they would try to expel him.
Jones, meanwhile, is buoyed not only by the salacious allegations against Moore, who has long been divisive, but also by his own strong standing as a law-and-order candidate with some cross-over appeal to Republicans.
The Democrat is betting that the voters, especially the younger generation living in the suburbs, have changed with the times and are willing to turn away from the state’s past and its legacy of divisive leaders such as segregationist Governor George Wallace, who ran for president three times from 1964 to 1972.
His message to them evokes the concept of a New South willing to exorcise racist “demons” — a word Jones uses.
Jones, 63, has a family story that straddles the two major industries that created Birmingham: One grandfather was a coal miner, the other a steel worker. He stayed in state for college and law school and then spent a year early in his career in Washington working on the staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee for Democratic Senator Howell Heflin
“The Senate then was so different from the Senate now,” Jones reflected at one recent campaign stop, adding that the chamber could use some “Alabama common sense.”
Even before several women accused Moore of sexual impropriety when they were teens and he was in his 30s, Jones has talked about the campaign in historic terms, saying recently it could become “one of those seminal moments where everything changed.”
Wary about triggering a voter backlash, Jones is avoiding the topic of his opponent’s troubles. Public polls vary widely, with one showing Jones up by 4 percentage points and another predicting Moore wins by 10 percentage points.
Joe Trippi, a Democratic political strategist working for Jones, said that the campaign’s internal polls put the race within single digits before the allegations of sexual misconduct arose. Exactly how the scandal affects the race, he said, is hard to tell. “The dust has to settle,” Trippi said.
And while it does settle, Jones is running what can best be described as a stealth campaign. He held no public events Monday. On Tuesday his public schedule was very light and included visiting with University of Alabama students. Due to university rules, there were no campaign signs; he simply moved from table to table chatting with students one-on-one. Afterward, he talked with reporters for about seven minutes.
‘I talk about a state that’s had demons in the past that we’ve tried to get rid of.’— Doug Jones, Democratic candidate for Senate in Alabama
“I know there are other things going on in this state,” he said, alluding to Moore’s scandal. “We’re going to stay in our lane and talk about the issues.”
Jones deviated from his even-keeled response only once. As he was boarding a black SUV, he heard a reporter yell a question about whether his campaign has been in contact with the women who accused his opponent.
“I’m tired of people blaming this campaign,” Jones said, showing a flash of anger through a partially closed car door. “We have not reached out to them. And anything to the contrary is just absolutely absurd.”
The Washington Post reported last week that Moore, as a man in his 30s, pursued sexual relationships with four girls aged 14 to 18. This week a fifth woman came forward, accusing him of groping her and trying to force her into sex in a car when she was 16 years old. The Post reporters have said they located the female accusers independently, without the help of Jones’s campaign or the Democratic Party.
The contrast between Moore’s alleged past and Jones’s accomplishments is stark.
Jones, who was US attorney for the Northern District of Alabama from 1997 to 2001, is known here for his role prying open a cold case that had haunted this city for decades: the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed three 14-year-old girls and an 11-year-old girl.
The September 1963 bombing focused national attention on Birmingham. The city was, at the time, just starting to integrate public schools and had earned the nickname “Bombingham” because of the constant violence. But prosecutors at the time could build a case against only one man in the church bombings. Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, a member of a particularly violent part of the Ku Klux Klan, was convicted of murder in 1977, 14 years after the bombing.
But many in this city knew there were more accomplices.
In 1997, Jones and other law enforcement leaders started the delicate task of reexamining the case. “I did not want the case to be reopened if they were not certain of getting convictions,” said Christopher Hamlin, who was the pastor of the 16th Street Baptist Church as Jones launched an investigation.
Armed with new witnesses, the prosecution was a success, and two additional Klansmen went to prison. Jones talks about the case even in the more conservative corners of the state, such as DeKalb County in the northeastern part of the state. It’s a place where Trump took 83 percent of the vote. Jones told a crowd at the Fyffe Senior Center there that winning the KKK bombing convictions was “the proudest thing that I’ve ever done.”
He went on to say that he talks about that case all around the country.
“I talk about Alabama,” Jones said. “I talk about a state that’s had demons in the past that we’ve tried to get rid of. And those cases are a perfect example of a people — of a state — that is ready for unity, that’s ready to put the past behind them.”
But in a state with a troubled past on racial issues, and one where Jones needs Republicans to vote for him, longtime observers are surprised he is putting the Birmingham case at the center of his campaign. While the emphasis is sure to help generate turnout among black Democrats, some observers say putting it at the center of the campaign could hurt him with crossover Republicans.
“He had a great desire to get justice for those little girls. In Alabama I don’t think that would be a calling card for political gain,” said Buddy Dean, a Birmingham lawyer who was in the US attorney’s office when Jones was US attorney. “This is a red state,” he said.
On many of the issues, Jones seems to be out of step with socially conservative voters. He offers a stark contrast with Moore, who is heavily backed by evangelicals for his socially conservative views. Jones is a supporter of abortion and transgender rights.
“We have to protect them,” Jones said to a Republican operative posing as a supporter at an event in Daphne, Ala., at the Macedonia Baptist Church. Jones went on to say President Trump’s decision to ban transgender service members from the military was: “Just wrong. Wrong. Wrong.”
He sounds bearish on the GOP tax cut plan, saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press’’ recently: “People in this state understand that trickle-down tax cuts just don’t work.”
And, though he’s carefully calibrated an answer about how he would work with Trump, who is hugely popular in Alabama, he’s critical of Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, the retired four-star Marine general who recently suggested that a compromise could have prevented the Civil War. Kelly’s comments have been derided by some observers.
“He doesn’t understand history,” Jones said during an interview on “Reckon,” an online public affairs show in Alabama. “He doesn’t understand a lot of what’s going on.”Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.