Ken Jones has worked on every Republican nominating convention since 1996, as well as both of George W. Bush’s inaugurations. That experience may well make him uniquely qualified to help Tampa host the RNC, but this year his background plays directly into Democratic criticisms of Republicans — and of Mitt Romney in particular.
As general counsel and executive vice president of Communications Equity Associates in Tampa, Jones negotiates private equity and banking deals and provides financial advice for wealthy families. He spent much of his early career in Washington, where he served as deputy counsel to the Republican National Committee, counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign during the 2000 Florida recount, deputy chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, and chief counsel of the Republican-led Senate Rules and Administration Committee.
Democrats have spent the past year seeking to define the GOP as a party whose policies serve the interests of huge corporations and the wealthiest individuals, at the expense of the vast majority of Americans. They have taken aim at Romney’s personal tax rate and his record as chairman of Bain Capital, in an attempt to show that he plays by a different set of rules.
Jones’s Washington resume and his financial-services day job fit neatly into that narrative.
“It’s absolutely fitting that the consummate Republican and financial industry insider is heading the Republican convention, which will be nothing more than a four-day exclusive schmooze-fest for donors, special interests, and the party elite,” said Melanie Roussell, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee.
Jones adamantly objects to this characterization, saying in an email that “it’s sad that partisan individuals would make unwarranted personal attacks when I’m simply serving my community as the CEO of a 501(c)(3) charity.”
The host committees in Tampa and Charlotte are non-profits, and in the case of the Republican convention, volunteer roles on the committee, including Jones’s, were assigned back in 2010, two years before there was a presumptive Republican nominee. And Jones is quick to note that his host committee worked “diligently with Democrats, Republicans and Independents.” His goals, he insists, are to help revitalize Tampa’s economy and to steer scrupulously clear of politics.
The former goal may prove to be a challenge, the latter a necessity. Unemployment in the Tampa area is above the national average, at 9 percent, and few states were hit harder than Florida by the subprime mortgage meltdown. As for steering clear of politics, as a charity the host committee is prohibited from engaging in political activity — something Jones, a campaign finance expert, knows full well. In order to underscore the nonpartisan elements of the convention, Jones will likely avoid the spotlight during the highly political week.
“It’s funny,” said Bob Buckhorn, Tampa’s Democratic mayor and a fellow member of the host committee. “Ken and I never talk about partisan politics. And we’re together two days a week, minimum.”
“For now, Ken has taken his partisan hat off, and put his ‘Tampa’ hat on, and so have I,” he said.
As proof of his bipartisan bona fides, Jones said in a statement to HuffPost that “It is my hope that the Democrat National Committee will choose Tampa Bay as its host city in 2016 so I can once again serve my community and assist another host committee in spotlighting our wonderful region to the world.”
Republican National Committee spokesman Shawn Spicer praised both Buckhorn and Jones for their work on the convention, and criticized DNC chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz for the group’s criticism of Jones.
“It is sad that the Chair of the DNC who is from Florida would attack someone who has worked with an outstanding group of Republicans and Democrats and used his time and talent to highlight the area while at the same time creating hundreds of jobs for area residents and pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the community,” he said.
Jones, too, took aim at Wasserman Schultz, saying, “It’s unfortunate that this personal attack would come from a fellow Floridian, who instead of attacking a private citizen, should be excited that Florida will be showcased on a world stage which will encourage future visits to our great state and will no doubt improve our state’s economy.”
As high as the stakes may be for the city of Tampa, however, they are just as high this year for the GOP.
The addition of Paul Ryan has generated new excitement for the Republican ticket, offsetting jabs from Democrats over everything from Romney’s economic policies to his income taxes to his wife’s Olympic dressage horse. But it’s still imperative that the presumptive GOP nominee have a flawless, energizing convention.
If Jones and his city can pull this off, no one will notice his day job.
Christina Wilkie is a political reporter for The Huffington Post.