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Teachers may be the new coal miners in West Virginia

The third congressional district in West Virginia voted overwhelmingly for President Trump in the 2016 election. But Democratic candidate Richard Ojeda thinks with teachers on his side, he may have a chance.

Posted: Nov 7, 2018 1:51 AM
Updated: Nov 7, 2018 2:24 AM

Richard Ojeda is not a typical Democratic congressional candidate.

The heavily tattooed former Army paratrooper stomps around southwestern West Virginia in tight Grunt Style t-shirts, tactical pants and combat boots. He included his own cell phone number -- and a promise to answer it -- in his campaign kick-off video. In place of "hello" or "goodbye," his go-to greeting is "Airborne."

And he voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

Ojeda -- pronounced Oh-jed-uh -- is now running for Congress in a district Trump won by 49 percentage points on the message that the President has largely failed to deliver on his economic promises. Perhaps that's why at a recent rally in West Virginia, Trump singled out Ojeda, calling him "a total whacko."

"Right now it seems that it's a circus. It's all about Twitter," Ojeda said of Trump in a recent interview in Lewisburg, where he spent several days at the state fair. "Dude, you're the President. Don't worry about that. Focus on elevating this country."

Ojeda's campaign has at times been a one-man mission to call attention to one of the most economically desolate regions of the country -- a reality that explains some of his populist positions. Ojeda loves coal jobs but loathes energy industry executives. He favors marijuana legalization because, he says, it's a way to combat "Big Pharma" and loosen opioid addiction's grip on southwestern West Virginia. He likes the generals surrounding Trump, but sees wealthy appointees like education secretary Betsy DeVos as anathema to Trump's campaign promises.

He rocketed to stardom in West Virginia by leading the teachers' revolt over years of Republican budget austerity -- a backlash that quickly spread to other states. Now, educators have turbocharged his campaign, giving Ojeda an issue that appeals to voters of all political stripes.

His campaign has emerged as an important test for Democrats, who have watched rural, white areas like West Virginia's 3rd District vote overwhelmingly Republican, and feared that -- even with the right candidate and the right message -- those voters were lost to the party forever.

Polls in recent weeks have shown Ojeda in a single-digit race behind Republican Carol Miller. And national Democrats see Ojeda's previous support for Trump -- and the reasons he turned on the President -- as part of what makes him an appealing candidate.

"It's pretty simple the role that he fills: He is the return of the Democratic Party to really being the champion of the people. Not Wall Street, not Silicon Valley, not any corporate interest -- but really fighting for working people in every community," said Krystal Ball, a Democratic strategist who has worked closely with Ojeda through her political action committee, The People's House Project.

If he wins, Ball said, Ojeda would be an "instant national voice in the Democratic Party, just because the odds are so long for him to be able to win the district."

Teachers fuel Ojeda's run

Ojeda grew up in Logan County, West Virginia -- a mountainous part of the state's southwestern region where he says growing up, his options were to "dig coal, sell dope or join the Army."

He chose the Army. Ojeda served for 24 years, rising to the rank of major, earning two Bronze Stars serving as a paratrooper during two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan and, he says, nearly being killed five times. Of his 34 tattoos, 13 are the names of fellow service members who didn't return from combat.

Ojeda returned home to teach high school ROTC. Railing against corruption within the party, he lost a Democratic congressional primary in 2014 -- but won admirers, and was elected to the state Senate two years later.

During his 2016 state Senate campaign, Ojeda was attacked after an event by a man with brass knuckles, who then tried to run him over with a truck. It left Ojeda with 58 plates in his face.

The near-death experiences -- overseas and at home -- gave Ojeda a fatalistic way of looking at politics.

"I've been told by people, 'Ojeda, they are going to kill you.' They've already tried once,'" he said during a Facebook Live video. "You know, when I was almost murdered last year, I did not cower down. It fueled me to continue my fight. ... If God means -- if He means for me to be murdered up some holler someplace to open the eyes of every one of you all out there, then make no mistakes about it: I'll drive up that holler. I'm not going to be scared."

In the video, Ojeda says: "There's a purpose for me. And my purpose is to wake people up."

At the Statehouse, Ojeda became known for his fiery speeches. And this winter, he delivered a major one -- becoming the first lawmaker to say aloud what teachers had been thinking: If teachers didn't get raises, they'd go on strike.

"This is not something that we are going to be able to just look away and it not come back on us," he said on the Senate floor in January. "There are a lot of angry people across our state."

A month later, 20,000 teachers and public school employees walked out, shutting down schools for nearly two weeks. They returned only after securing 5% pay raises.

Ojeda became a champion for educators. And West Virginia's strike inspired similar actions in other states like Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky, where Democratic candidates have benefited from a backlash against years of state budget austerity by Republicans.

Ojeda again ran for Congress, this time winning the Democratic primary to replace retiring Republican Rep. Evan Jenkins. And teachers are the most powerful force behind his campaign -- putting at the center of his House race an issue and core group of supporters that defies national partisan dynamics.

"Sometimes we felt like we didn't have a spokesperson, and then Ojeda came along," said Tega Toney, a high school teacher and union leader in the 3rd District. "And I think what's so captivating about Ojeda is that he's authentic and he's real and he's one of us."

Populist politics

The other issue where Ojeda made his name at the Capitol was his successful push to make West Virginia the 29th state to legalize medical marijuana.

He'd go further, he says, and support the decriminalization of recreational marijuana. West Virginia is among the best places on earth to grow it, he said. And, he said he believes it would help a region that's at the heart of America's opioid crisis escape the grips of the pharmaceutical industry.

"If we de-schedule it, we take it out of the hands of Big Pharma. They don't get a say in it. So let's de-schedule it, and let it go from there," Ojeda said.

"Big Pharma" is one of Ojeda's go-to targets. He frequently highlights that his opponent, Miller, and her husband own pharmaceutical stock.

"It's everywhere. Our towns, in some areas, look like episodes of The Walking Dead," he said. "This is a crisis. Yet we do nothing. We do nothing to Big Pharma."

Another frequent Ojeda target is "Big Energy." It's not that he objects to coal mining, he said. It's that the wealth created by the energy industry is concentrated at the top. It means, he said, "10 people driving Lamborghinis and the rest of us are starving to death."

His populist approach to politics also explains his opposition to Trump's calls for a wall along the US-Mexico border.

"That border wall's not going to put one single West Virginian to work," he said. "Do you want know the real wall that needs to be built? Our levy walls."

It's all part of Ojeda's sense that West Virginia has given much to the country -- powering its growth and providing troops to fight its wars -- and, now that the state is struggling and young people are fleeing to find work elsewhere, is owed something by Washington.

"We did build this country, OK? The infrastructure that was used to build this country comes from us. When the rich wage war, it's the poor who fight and die," he said. "I don't want to have to buy a plane ticket to see a grandchild. And right now that's the reality for West Virginia, and we deserve so much better."

The Trump factor

Ojeda's populist campaign doesn't neatly fit into the moderate or progressive boxes of many Democratic candidates this year.

He says he backed Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary -- and then was alienated by Clinton's tour of Appalachia.

"Hillary Clinton came down here and said, 'Hey guys, we're gonna give you all job training.' But the jobs don't exist in West Virginia, or they're minimum wage jobs," Ojeda said. "You can't take a person that's a coal miner making $100,000 feeding their family, and tell them now you can go get a job making $20,000 or you can move to Colorado. Because that's not acceptable. And that's what she was pushing."

That led him to back Trump over Clinton -- the same choice many voters made in a district that, like the western Pennsylvania region where Rep. Conor Lamb won a special election earlier this year, has many long-time, registered Democrats who have been voting for Republicans in presidential contests for decades.

"I looked out my window, and I saw my neighbors, and I saw my family and friends, and they were struggling," he said. "So when you have somebody who comes and says, 'Hey guys, I'm not asking you to ... move away. I'm going to get coal going again.' Everybody said, you know what, let's give him a chance."

Ojeda says he gives Trump "a thumbs up" for rejuvenating the coal industry. But, he said, Trump's promises to bring businesses back from overseas have fallen short. He also complained that Trump surrounded himself with the kinds of people Ojeda believes he campaigned against -- citing education secretary DeVos in particular. He also said he doesn't think Trump is listening enough to cabinet members like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Otherwise, he said, Trump never would have shared a stage and praised Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"They're absolute brilliant military minds. Listen to them," Ojeda said. "It bothers me that that's not happening."

Miller, a Republican state representative, declined CNN's interview requests.

Her campaign is attempting to seize on Ojeda's appearance in a new project by left wing filmmaker Michael Moore. In a trailer, Ojeda says he is "sick and tired of people telling me America's the greatest country. Because we can whip your ass?"

GOP officials backing Miller have sought to tie her closely to Trump.

"Carol Miller is going to be a strong supporter of the Trump jobs agenda in a district that President Trump carried overwhelmingly," West Virginia attorney general Patrick Morrisey, the Republican challenging Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin this year, said in an interview at the state fair.

"We need someone who's going to work with this President to put people back to work," Morrisey said. "I think Carol Miller understands that in a way Ojeda can't possibly. So this is really a critical race, because as the 3rd District goes, you have to win that seat to make sure you keep the GOP majority and you prevent the obstruction that Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and others have in mind."

Ojeda has said he will not vote for Pelosi for House Speaker if the Democrats take control of Congress in the midterms.

Asked, though, if he would vote for a Republican instead if Pelosi is the choice of the Democratic caucus, he said: "Well, I'll tell you, I pray that it doesn't get to that. I pray it doesn't get to that."

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