Associated Press writer Erik Schelzig contributed to this report, KnoxNews.com
November 9, 2010

NASHVILLE – State. Rep. Ulysses Jones Jr., described by colleagues as a passionate lawmaker and one of the first emergency medics to reach Elvis Presley when the entertainer died, died early today in his hometown of Memphis. Jones was 59.

Jones’ fiancee, Sandra Richards, told The Associated Press that Jones had pneumonia and died from complications at a local hospital.

“They said his lungs weren’t strong enough to fight off the infection,” said Richards, who had planned to marry Jones in March.

Jones, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1986, represented District 98 in Shelby County and was a battalion chief of the Memphis Fire Department.

Rep. John Deberry, a Memphis Democrat and chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus, said one of the reasons Jones was so passionate about people was because he had witnessed so many deaths in his profession as an emergency responder.

Deberry said Jones was among the emergency medical officials who worked feverishly to revive Presley on Aug. 16, 1977.

“I believe they all were disheartened because they couldn’t save Elvis,” he said

Deberry said Jones identified with Presley who, like himself, had spent time in public housing projects and made something of himself.

Deberry, who sat beside Jones in the state House, said his colleague was passionate about issues that affected “those people who didn’t have a voice, those people who were still … struggling.”

“If you wanted to see Ulysses stand up on the floor, you come with some issue that you felt would affect those individuals who were still struggling just to put food on the table, just to keep the lights on, keep a roof above their head and take care of their children, and he would be standing up and he would fight with every fiber of his being for those individuals,” Deberry said.

Gov. Phil Bredesen said he will remember Jones most for his public service.

“He’s somebody who had a job serving people, and he’ll be missed,” Bredesen said. “I thought Ulysses Jones was a good state legislator and represented his district really well.”

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton said Jones was good at “conveying and sharing our local positions and outlooks with his colleagues in Nashville.”

“He was a fighter and a negotiator, willing to wear whatever hat was needed to get the job done,” Wharton said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said issues Jones was most passionate about included “improving schools, expanding college scholarships to more students, and equal pay for all.”

House Speaker Pro Tempore Lois DeBerry of Memphis said Jones, who chaired the House State and Local Government committee through 2008, also had an uncanny ability to add a bit of humor when he debated lawmakers on the House floor, which often lightened the mood.

“He was a comedian in his own right,” DeBerry said.

Jones in recent years delighted in needling Republicans on the House floor about their support for local tax issues that he said was at odds with their overall anti-tax platform.

“I think it’s very hypocritical for a group to say we don’t support taxes, and they voted in favor of just about every tax bill that’s come before us from local government,” he said earlier this year.

Jones and House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada clashed publicly about his repeatedly challenging GOP lawmakers about the tax legislation, leading Speaker Kent Williams to threaten in April to have both men removed from the chamber if they didn’t stop.

Casada said Tuesday that he will miss Jones.

“Ulysses has my utmost respect,” the Franklin lawmaker said. “He told you exactly what he believed, and he fought for that belief. Tennessee has lost a warrior.”

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville said he and Jones were adversaries, but “in the purest sense of the word.”

“We often disagreed on issues of public policy – particularly in education – but we never disagreed that we were unified in working to do what we thought was best for the people of Tennessee,” Norris said.

Jones, however, was not immune to controversy. He acknowledged in 2005 that he was among the targets of a two-year FBI investigation called Tennessee Waltz that led to the convictions of five former state lawmakers. Jones took $1,000 in campaign contributions from an undercover agent, but later reported the contribution according to state law and said he refused greater sums of money. Jones was never charged with any wrongdoing.

After the sting, Jones told the AP about paying a courtesy call to a man trying to learn the “lobbying game,” who later turned out to be working on the FBI’s payroll.

“He was steady talking, and, I’m serious, he started laying money out. I said to myself, ‘No, he’s not doing what I think he’s about to do,'” said Jones. “He laid out $5,000 and he looked at it and pushed it over to me. I looked at it and pushed it back to him.”

The FBI came calling several months later asking about E-Cycle Management, the fake firm the man was purportedly lobbying for.

“I told them something just wasn’t right about that company,” Jones said. “Little did I know I was talking about their company.”

In a subsequent special legislative session to overhaul the state’s ethics rules for public officials, Jones took a lead in favoring “total disclosure” rather than a more strict crackdown on lobbyists and perks for lawmakers.

Jones said his amendments chipping away at the ethics bill were designed to address what he called “minefields and pitfalls” contained within the measure.

Nevertheless, Jones’ colleagues say his reputation won’t be tarnished.

“We’re certainly going to miss him,” said Rep. Larry Miller, a Memphis Democrat and close friend of Jones.

Funeral services were pending Tuesday.

More details as they develop online and in Wednesday’s News Sentinel.

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