On the Right Side of Wrong
On December 8, 2015, then-Congressman David Jolly took to the House floor and called on candidate Donald Trump to withdraw from the race for the presidency; 24 hours earlier, the Republican presidential candidate had called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States. What made Jolly’s speech in the House chamber “remarkable” in the eyes of one Capitol Hill reporter wasn’t his prose, but his party affiliation: Jolly was a Republican. And over the course of the political rise and Trump’s presidency, Jolly’s stand remains the only time a sitting Republican member of Congress has used the House chamber to rise and denounce Trump and demand his ouster from politics.
For regular viewers of MSNBC and other news shows, Jolly’s opposition to President Trump is well known. He appears almost daily as a political contributor on NBCUniversal’s signature news network, his opinions have appeared in the pages of the Washington Post, TIME, and USA TODAY, and he’s mixed it up with the likes of Bill Maher and Larry King.
While his opinions are highly followed today, however, his tenure in Congress was brief, thanks to gerrymandering that redrew a highly competitive congressional district that both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Jolly each managed to win twice and crafted a new district that Obama had won by about 11 points. No longer a winnable district for a Republican, Jolly spent his last year in Congress – widely considered the most vulnerable incumbent.
However, that didn’t mute his penchant for bold – sometimes brash – moves necessary to force the arc of politics and policy toward more independent thought and urgent action. As Norah O'Donnell opined during a 60 Minutes profile of Jolly and his legislation to ban members of Congress from directly soliciting campaign contributions, the 43-year-old congressman was engaged in either a “courageous act” or “political suicide.”
Moreover, Jolly spent a night on the House floor working with his Democratic colleagues engaged in a sit-in to protest Republican inaction on guns following the murder of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Jolly forged a solution among colleagues that led him to the front page of the New York Daily News (CNN’s Alisyn Camerota even commented, “Congressman Jolly, you’re making too much sense”).
In addition, Jolly urged his Republican colleagues to accept the science of climate change so that they could credibly speak to conservative policy prescriptions regarding rising sea levels, and alternative and renewable energies. He pushed his party to embrace marriage equality, sought to ban offshore oil drilling, and became the only Republican to co-sponsor universal gun background checks – and coverage of his aggressive campaign finance proposals wasn’t limited to just 60 Minutes. It landed him at the National Press Club, was the subject of a glowing Washington Post editorial, and even convinced famed Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank to scribe, “Jolly tells the truth.”
Upon exiting Congress in 2017, another columnist even added, “Farewell to the one congressman willing to compromise.” For those who knew Jolly then, and particularly those who also knew his predecessor and mentor, none of this was a surprise; he worked under the longest-serving Republican in the history of the Congress, Representative C.W. “Bill” Young, who held Jolly’s seat for 43 years prior to Jolly’s election. Jolly bore witness to the axiom Young often joked about as he fondly recalls Young saying, “When I was elected in 1970, I was considered a right-wing conservative, but today I’m considered a squishy moderate. Funny thing is, I haven’t changed at all.”
Young passed away in office, with Jolly at the side of the congressman and his family. Five months later, Jolly would enter the Congress as Young’s successor, walking into the very office space he had stepped into to interview for a junior staff position with Young 19 years earlier. Between a special election, party primaries, and general elections, Jolly faced six elections in three years, before succumbing to the reality of his newly-drawn district in November 2016. But the question is: Did his floor statement in 2015 impact the results in November 2016? “I really don’t know,” says Jolly. “I said what needed to be said by a Republican, and I owed it to my constituents to be honest and straightforward, and let them know I wouldn’t support Trump. I wasn’t thinking politically. I was thinking as an American. I’m glad I did it, and I would do it again.”
Jolly officially left the Republican Party in the fall of 2018, explaining that his beef was with more than Trump – it was really with the whole GOP, which, as Jolly stated, had finally succumbed to its darkest elements. “My leaving the party is thus a personal rejection of Donald Trump, but it is also a rejection of today’s GOP orthodoxy,” explains Jolly who, at the same time, took a shot at the raw partisanship in America he believes has to change. “Though parties have their important and proper roles, we know that George Washington warned against their contribution to factions, and two centuries later, Barack Obama was still warning of the din of partisanship.” Those who knew former congressman Young claim that Jolly is carrying on his legacy – and that he learned the importance of being his own man from his former mentor. While some point to Jolly acting on his personal faith convictions, others suggest that it is simply raw political talent.
On another note, Jolly is a popular figure on social media – among Democrats and Republicans alike – garnering follows, likes, comments, and shares. As of press time, he boasts an impressive 6.79 engagement rate on Twitter. When compared to Donald Trump’s 0.16 and Joe Biden’s 0.20, it’s easy to see the influence he wields. It’s important to note, also, that an engagement rate between 0.33% and 1% is considered to be very high, according to HYPR. Over the past six months, Jolly’s Twitter following has grown by over 41,000 followers, and his total sits at a robust 127,000 today. Over the past year, furthermore, he’s had 1.5 million mentions with a positive impact rating (PIR) of 70%. Jolly doesn’t follow the party line, and that has led to his organic rise as a political influencer by speaking his mind and shepherding opinions people want to hear.
Jolly’s decision to step away from the Republican Party was an easy one. Today, he is comfortable with his decision, realizing that he must be his own man to be comfortable in his own skin. “Laura and I call it the sleep-well-at-night test. We may get some calls right, but we’re done wasting time following party for the sake of party. We want to do what’s right, be confident in spirit, and set a good example for our new daughter. That’s the only thing that matters right now,” he adds. “The question for each of us is, ‘What emerges from this most consequential political moment?’ It is as much a calling as it is a question. For me, I look forward to a renewed faith in both our country and our political system as a member of a coalition of those not affiliated with any major party and willing to work constructively with thought leaders on either side of the political spectrum.”
Therefore, Act II for David Jolly has been a fulfilling one and one that has taken on a life of its own as a social influencer. He feels that his role is to shine light on the intersection of politics, current events, and history – that we learn from past mistakes and can prevent history from repeating itself by spotting trends and understanding historical facts. With his current social-media popularity – and cult-like following amongst MSNBC viewers – it’s undeniable that there is a place for Jolly in the political arena. That question looms large for Jolly, as well as for many of his followers and former constituents. Will Act III for David Jolly be a return to public office? “I don’t know what the future holds. I’ve had talks about a statewide run in 2022, or in joining a Democratic administration in 2021. But my future may instead be in TV. It’s not something I worry about. What I know is that, for Laura and I, we’re in the right place for right now,” he shares. “I may have lost my office, but I haven’t lost my voice. Nor do I ever intend to.”
Writer: Matt Anthes
Photographer: Mark Arroyo
Photographer Assistant: Kyle Dunn
Stylist: Dolly Pratt
Stylist Assistant: Jenna Crawford
Men’s Grooming: Vassilis Kokkinidis (vassiliskokkinidis.com)
Media Producer: John Cruz
Editor: Eiko Watanabe
Special thanks to Resca (@rescanyc - rescanyc.com) & EPK Media (@myepk & @epkmedia - epkmedia.com)