- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 28, 2002

RICHMOND Every time those rowdy Duke boys wrecked the General Lee in TV's fictional Hazzard County, it was the good old boy grease monkey Cooter who got the blaze-orange hot rod road worthy.
Ben Jones, the actor-turned-congressman who portrayed Cooter on "The Dukes of Hazzard" in the 1970s and '80s, is working in Virginia to jump-start a political career that ran off the road 10 years ago in Georgia.
Mr. Jones, 60, is unopposed for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Rep. Eric Cantor in the fall in a district engineered to keep Republicans safe.
He owns Cooter's Place, a restaurant, bluegrass hangout and "Dukes of Hazzard" memorabilia emporium in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. He just opened another Cooter's in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
Mr. Jones senses some unfinished business in Washington.
"I'd been in for two terms a substantial member of Congress, and then that was interrupted," Mr. Jones said in a lunch interview last week, after procuring suburban Richmond office space for his campaign headquarters.
In 1988, he unseated Rep. Pat Swindall, Georgia Republican. He was re-elected in 1990, but lost the Democratic primary in 1992. Two years later, in another district, he challenged Newt Gingrich in the election that started Mr. Gingrich's turbulent term as speaker of the House.
Mr. Cantor, 38, is a Richmond lawyer who represented the city's well-to-do western Henrico County suburbs for eight years in the House of Delegates. There, he was a strongly pro-business conservative whose top contributors were from the fields of finance and insurance, health care, law, real estate and retailing.
He won his seat in Congress in 2000 over a little-known Democrat, but only after a narrow victory in a bitter primary earlier that year.
Mr. Cantor said he takes this year's challenge seriously. As of March, he had raised $681,754 about 40 percent of it from political action committees and spent $600,642, according to Federal Election Commission data.
"If you look at his voting record, it's in stark contrast to my voting record," Mr. Cantor said.
"I've demonstrated a record as a common-sense conservative. I'm going to run a positive campaign based on what's important to Virginians: national security, economic security and Social Security," he said.
Mr. Jones describes himself as a "Harry Truman, Harry Byrd Democrat," uneasy with the more liberal bent of his party nationally. He supports a lower capital-gains tax, the death penalty and gun-ownership rights.
"I'm as strongly for the Second Amendment as I am the First Amendment," he said.
He has sworn off political action committee contributions this year.
"I don't like the appearance it creates. You take PAC money, and you feel like they own you. I did take it in 1990, and I didn't like it," he said.
And on that issue, the campaign took its first nasty turn.
In a newsletter in May to key supporters, Mr. Cantor's campaign noted Mr. Jones' no-PAC pledge and accused him of accepting $461,000 from PACs in his loss in 1994 to Mr. Gingrich. According to the FEC Web site, Mr. Jones took $6,685 from PACs that year.
"They know that's not right, and if they don't correct it, that's an intentional falsehood, a lie," Mr. Jones said.
Matt Williams, Mr. Cantor's campaign manager, acknowledged in an interview that he got the year wrong, but he defends his contention that what Mr. Jones says today doesn't match his record.
"While he says PAC money is bad, I say that as a sitting congressman, he took hundreds of thousands of PAC dollars," Mr. Williams said.
According to the online FEC filings, Mr. Jones' cash and in-kind contributions from PACs were $277,101 in 1988, $427,478 in 1990 and $170,450 in 1992.
"He talks about Virginia values, but votes the way Hollywood wants," Mr. Williams said.
Mr. Jones acknowledges opposing a constitutional amendment to ban burning the U.S. flag, but bristles at the suggestion that it makes him less patriotic.
"I'd probably beat somebody I saw burning an American flag. I think you ought to take a tire tool after them. But you don't gut the Bill of Rights just because you see some nut burning the flag," Mr. Jones said.
Mr. Jones, who grew up in Portsmouth, settled in Rappahannock County in 1998 to write a science-fiction novel. That was sidetracked when he opened Cooter's Place in 1999. With his time divided between his Virginia base and Gatlinburg, he's trying to win in the 7th District, where Democrats consistently get 40 percent of the vote or less.
"That's one of the safest seats in the country," said Robert Holsworth, a political analyst at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Jones has to work extremely hard and hope that there is a good break that occurs in the campaign, and he has to hope that a lot of people don't know Eric Cantor very well in parts of that district."
Mr. Jones says pundits and the press overestimate the redrawn district's Republican potency. Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine got 50 percent of the vote there against Republican Jay Katzen in the fall, he said. In 2000, however, George Bush took 61 percent of the presidential vote, and Republican George F. Allen won 60 percent in denying Democrat Charles S. Robb a third term in the U.S. Senate.
"Here was a freshman, and no one was going to run against him in a district that's a tossup. What's Eric Cantor got going for him? He's a Republican, and that's it," Mr. Jones said.


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