WASHINGTON, Va. Congressional candidate Ben “Cooter” Jones wants everyone to know he’s just a good old boy, never meanin’ no harm.
He’s just proud of his Southern heritage and that includes the Confederate battle flag, says Mr. Jones, the former star of “The Dukes of Hazzard,” CBS’ hit TV show of the early ‘80s.
But Mr. Jones’ campaign around Virginia’s 7th Congressional District in a replica of the General Lee, the orange 1969 Plymouth Charger featured in the TV show, has hit a road bump. Some fellow Democrats have objected to the Confederate flag painted on the muscle car’s roof.
“Those who attack the General Lee, it’s as if they are attacking Roy Rogers or Gene Autry or any other piece of Americana,” he says. “That show is enjoyed around the world for its family values, and I have never heard a complaint from anyone, anywhere, about the car.”
Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the country’s first elected black governor, has publicly chastised the state’s Democratic Party for not objecting to Mr. Jones’ displaying the flag in his campaign against Rep. Eric Cantor, a Republican from Richmond who had been running unopposed.
“Without the people who are offended by this, where would the Democratic Party be? There has to be some recognition by the party leadership that they can’t be involved in kowtowing to these subliminal messages,” Mr. Wilder said this month in a letter to state party leaders.
Saying Mr. Jones is displaying the “Confederate flag as a campaign strategy,” Mr. Wilder suggested that the former actor is seeking to attract votes from rural white people and is insulting black voters.
“As governor, I had removed the confederate emblem from the uniforms of the state’s Air National Guard and rejected the flying of the flag over public buildings,” he wrote. “We have made historic strides in Virginia and we need people in office who recognize that we need to keep Virginia moving forward not backwards.”
Mr. Wilder has apparently forgotten his own advertising adventures, said Lawrence H. Framme III, chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, in an open letter to the former governor in defense of Mr. Jones’ campaign.
“I do recall that in your 1985 campaign for lieutenant governor you advertised heavily on reruns of the ‘Dukes of Hazzard,’” Mr. Framme wrote, adding that Mr. Wilder’s campaign manager had said advertising on the show was a “conscious decision made to reach a particular type of voter.”
The state Democratic leader also noted that a photograph of Mr. Wilder stumping in front of the Confederate battle flag graces the cover of Dwayne Yancey’s book “When Hell Froze Over,” a chronicle of the 1985 Wilder campaign for lieutenant governor.
Mr. Wilder has yet to respond to Mr. Framme’s recollection. Mr. Wilder, the grandson of slaves, made it a point to keep the portraits of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson when he moved into the governor’s office in 1990. At that time, he said he understood that Jackson and Lee are important icons of Virginia’s history.
“I am trying to be a person who brings people together,” Mr. Jones says. “It’s all these politically correct people that are trying to drive us apart.”
Mr. Jones achieved fame and some fortune by portraying ace mechanic Cooter Davenport in “The Dukes of Hazzard” throughout its 1979-85 run.
He parlayed his TV role into a two-term stint in Congress, representing a district in Georgia from 1989 to 1993.
“I don’t recall there ever being a problem [with him]. I always found him to be very sensitive, and I consider him a friend,” says Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and a leading civil rights advocate during the past 40 years.
Mr. Lewis adds that there is nothing offensive about Mr. Jones’ campaigning in the General Lee. “That car is a part of his early life as an actor, and it will help bring him attention. That’s OK. We should not be making too big a deal of it,” says Mr. Lewis, an eight-term black congressman.
Mr. Jones was raised in Portsmouth, Va., and returned to his home state and opened Cooter’s Garage, a museum in Sperryville that pays tribute to the show, four years ago. A replica of the General Lee sits in front.
He has campaigned with the race car “four or five times” without complaint before Mr. Wilder, that is, he says.
Visitors to his museum have never complained either, employees say.
“We get a lot of black people out here who come and jump in the car, and no one has ever said a word,” says Sharon Wimer, who has worked at Cooter’s Garage for 3 years. “I think this whole thing is a waste of time. It is not going to make him a bad representative for Virginia just because he has a Confederate flag on the top of this car.”
The 7th Congressional District consists mostly of metropolitan Richmond but includes rural areas in a section that stretches into the Blue Ridge Mountains. According to the Almanac of American Politics, the district is about 82 percent white and 13.5 percent black, and is heavily Republican.
Mr. Cantor, the freshman Republican congressman Mr. Jones is seeking to unseat, says the problem is not the car and the flag but Mr. Jones’ insistence on talking about his roots.
“We are debating some serious issues here, including the upcoming resolution on war with Iraq that will probably be coming next week, and all he wants to talk about is Southern heritage,” says Mr. Cantor, who is white and a lifelong Richmond resident. “He is constantly talking about the South and Southern heritage, and these are just not the issues on the minds of voters.”
Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Democrat from Richmond whose 3rd District adjoins the 7th, agrees with the Republican incumbent.
“If I had my choice, I would not campaign with the Confederate flag,” says Mr. Scott, a five-term black congressman. “And it seems to me there are a lot of issues, like Medicare and Social Security, that we should be discussing.”
Describing himself as a “student of the South,” Mr. Jones acknowledges that the Confederate flag has been used by certain racist groups but adds: “I not only could not separate myself from this heritage, I would not. It’s impossible.”
He speaks with pride about his great-great-grandfather, Harley Jenrette, who fought for the Confederacy from South Carolina. “You don’t stop loving your family or your culture.”
The interior of Mr. Jones’ converted 18th-century farmhouse is awash in Civil War photos and books. Last year, he recorded “The Ghosts of Dixie: Volume I,” a CD of original music and poems paying tribute to Southern heritage.
In one poem, he says of the Confederate flag, “When we fly it, it’s about pride. We are still going to feel this way in a thousand years, it’s who we are.
“You can’t legislate away honor,” he says.