If a mad scientist wanted to create an archetype of a thick mustachioed, cocksure conservative Midwestern lawman in a laboratory, the result would probably look like Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones.
Jones has taunted undocumented immigrants with billboard warnings that pointed toward his Ohio jail. And after thousands of letters poured in pleading Jones not to vote for Donald Trump in the electoral college, he turned them into kindling in videos posted to social media. “You see I got a lot of letters to burn,” Jones said in one video as he smoked a cigar. “I’m going to be burning letters all night.”
Now, Jones wants to be a uniter in the feverishly partisan social climate he has arguably intensified with his own actions.
“I’m just a lil' ol' sheriff in Ohio,” he told The Washington Post by phone Wednesday. “But I’m outspoken.”
In a letter delivered to Barack Obama and George W. Bush and posted online Tuesday, Jones called for the former presidents to tour the country and help repair civil discourse amid political and social turmoil, which he said was emblematic in the government shutdown and fierce rhetoric over immigration.
“Recent news reports and events occurring around the country are widely creating civil unrest among the American citizens. The extreme divide between our Democrats and Republican parties needs to be rectified,” Jones wrote.
He continued: “The country needs the two of you to show the American people that our political parties can get along even if opinions differ. We are a great nation with a history of great leaders. The people need to hear from you. America needs your help.”
It is an unusual plea from an elected official who has made no qualms about defending his controversial positions and diving into charged social issues while enforcing the law in a county that voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in 2016.
But Jones has said relations between Americans of all political stripes have been more hostile than he has ever seen. And he is concerned the breakdown will spur more violence if no one steps up to lead a movement of respectful dialogue and civic progress.
“I’m a supporter of the current president. But this is a bigger picture,” he said. “We need infrastructure, bridges, roads. Wars all over the world, and our military is about spent. We need to negotiate and fix health care. We need security on the border.”
And that, Jones said, is where Obama and Bush could step in as what he described as “respected leaders” in their parties. Trump can’t lead it himself, he explained, necessitating the need for outside voices to bridge social and political divides.
“It’s a mess, and we need help,” Jones said.
Jones has asked others to carry the torch of civility while zeroing in on the causes of civil decay. He pointed to partisan attacks in Washington, what he called flagrant media bias, the slow drip of the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the bombardment of dreary news as rock hammers chipping away at American social strength.
Yet he is an elected official who responded to anti-Trump letters, some of which he described as threatening, by launching a social media trolling effort complete with a Trump-Pence sign. And his charged immigration billboards provoked tension in Hispanic communities in his county, the New York Times reported in 2006.
So what about him, as a public servant and leader? Has writing his letter to the former presidents prompted any soul-searching for how he might have also fanned the flames of social discord?
Not exactly, Jones said. “I’m okay with my history.”