Congressman Walter B. Jones dies at 76

In this Oct. 25, 2017, photo, Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. poses for a portrait in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington. As President Trump argued about what he said to the family of a soldier killed in Niger, a North Carolina congressman was quietly doing what he's done more than 11,000 times: signing a condolence letter to that family and others. Republican Rep. Walter Jones began signing the letters to families in 2003 as penance for his 2002 vote supporting war in Iraq. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Congressman Walter B. Jones (NC-3) passed away Sunday afternoon in Greenville, according to a statement released by his office. He was 76.

Jones represented the people of eastern North Carolina in Congress and the state legislature for over 34 years. He won his primary last spring and announced this current term would be his last in office. During his time in office, he also served on the Committee on Armed Services and was a member of various caucuses.

His birthday was Sunday.

The release from his office stated:

"Congressman Jones was a man of the people. With a kind heart and the courage of his convictions, he dedicated his life to serving his Savior and to standing up for Americans who needed a voice. He was a champion for our men and women in uniform and their families, always mindful of their service and sacrifice. Congressman Jones will long be remembered for his honesty, faith and integrity. He was never afraid to take a principled stand. He was known for his independence, and widely admired across the political spectrum. Some may not have agreed with him, but all recognized that he did what he thought was right. He will be sorely missed."

A press release from Jones' office said he had been admitted to hospice care on Jan. 26. His health had declined after sustaining a broken hip and having surgery on Jan. 15. Jones was granted a leave of absence on Dec. 11 after an illness kept him away from Congressional votes since September.

He also missed some time for kidney stone surgery in 2014.

Jones was first elected as a Democrat to the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1982. He represented Pitt County until 1992. He tried to run for the 1st Congressional District, a spot his father held for decades before he announced he would retire in 1992. The younger Jones won a majority of the Democrat vote but not the 50 percent required. In a runoff, Clayton beat Jones for the Democrat nomination.

Walter Jones Sr. died two months before his term was complete and Clayton was appointed to fill the spot, which is now currently held by Rep. G.K. Butterfield.

Jones ran for and won the race in the 3rd Congressional District in 1995. In 1994, he switched from a Democrat to a Republican before announcing his bid.

He was born in Farmville in 1943. He attended Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia during high school and then graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Atlantic Christian College — now known as Barton College — in 1966.

Butterfield issued a statement about Jones' passing Sunday. Butterfield administered the oath of office for Jones' last term just a week ago.

I am deeply saddened by the passing of a long time leader, proud North Carolinian, a devoted family man of deep faith, and my friend of over forty years- Congressman Walter B. Jones, Jr.
“Congressman Jones represented the best of North Carolina politics. He understood that being a leader meant often putting political allegiances aside in order to bring people together around important work. He was a proud representative of eastern North Carolina, and the residents of North Carolina’s Third Congressional District are better off thanks to the lifelong service and dedication of Walter Jones.
“To serve alongside Walter Jones was a great honor and privilege. Let us honor Walter Jones’ service to our country and the profound leadership he offered eastern North Carolina. I will miss his humility, intellect, and unwavering love of his community.
“I send my condolences to his wife Joe Anne, his daughter Ashley, and all those who had the honor of knowing and benefitting from the work of Congressman Walter B. Jones, Jr. Rest in peace, my friend.

Jones was a political maverick unafraid to buck his own party. He was one of the first Republicans to reverse direction on the war in Iraq, even as his North Carolina district included the sprawling Marine installation Camp Lejeune.

His ultimate opposition to the Iraq war came with the irony that he instigated a symbolic slap against the French when their country early on opposed U.S. military action. Jones was among the House members who led a campaign that resulted in the chamber’s cafeteria offering “freedom fries” and “freedom toast” — instead of French fries and French toast.

Jones said he introduced legislation that would have required President George W. Bush’s administration to begin withdrawing troops in 2006 because the reason given for invading Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, had proved false.

“If I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have supported the resolution” to go to war, Jones said in 2005. Jones took heat for his reversal from GOP colleagues. He ultimately signed well over 11,000 letters to the families of dead troops, describing that as a penance of sorts.

“For me, it’s a sacred responsibility that I have to communicate my condolences to a family,” Jones said in a 2017 interview with The Associated Press. “And it’s very special to me because it goes back to my regretting that I voted to go into the Iraq war.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a release that Jones’ “relentless work on behalf of our men and women in uniform, veterans, military families and caregivers honored our American values and strengthened our country.”

“He will be long remembered for his tireless advocacy for eastern North Carolina, which he loved dearly, and for always following his convictions, no matter the political cost,” added Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

Almost immediately after the news of his death, word spread on social media.

Jones' death leaves two congressional districts without representation. The 9th district is still in doubt as an investigation is underway into the status of the seat, which Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready ran against each other in November.

WTVD reports Jones' death means a special election will be held to fill the vacant seat. That means a special primary and election is likely to be held later this year. WTVD reports the governor does not appoint a successor, but statute may require the governor to set the date of the special election.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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