Richard Ojeda’s passionate speeches on the floor of the West Virginia statehouse helped push the state’s teachers to strike for the first time in more than 20 years. His next challenge is to persuade the Trump-loving voters of his district to send him to Congress as a Democrat.
Ojeda, an Army veteran and state senator from Logan, West Virginia, sports a buzz cut, military boots, and more than 30 tattoos. He skyrocketed to national fame after a series of speeches in the West Virginia statehouse, excoriating Republican lawmakers for denying the state’s teachers a raise.
Ojeda referred to the “s-word” — strike — in his speeches, and West Virginia teachers did exactly that. Teachers from all of the state’s 55 counties walked out of their classrooms and went to the statehouse carrying protest signs. Ojeda became a sort of folk hero. Teachers swarmed him for pictures and signatures during the strike. One even wore a T-shirt with his name on it.
He returns the love: “Let me tell you something: Teachers are intelligent, they’re highly intelligent,” he told Vox in a recent interview. “I said this to legislators in the Capitol; I said, ‘Y’all done messed up, you pissed off teachers, and teachers are smarter than you are.’”
Now he’s counting on support from those same educators to send him to Washington in November. Ojeda, who is a one-term state senator, is running against Republican state Rep. Carol Miller in an open race for the seat vacated by Republican Rep. Evan Jenkins, who was first elected in 2014.
West Virginia and its struggling economy became the symbol of Trump country in 2016, but two years later, Democrats are angling to reclaim a piece of the state. Technically, there are more registered Democrats than Republicans, but the state’s political winds tend to the conservative, populist side.
If Democrats want to reclaim white working-class Trump voters in West Virginia, Ojeda may be their best hope to do so.
Ojeda — who cast a ballot for Trump in 2016 but says he now regrets the vote — is running as a populist, with a political message that combines elements of Trump and Bernie Sanders. He supports a public option and Medicare buy-in for health care. He talks about protecting the Veterans Administration from privatization and wants to legalize medical cannabis.
He criticizes the Trump administration’s lack of action on West Virginia’s opioid crisis but applauds the return of coal-mining jobs (which can’t entirely be attributed to Trump’s policies — economists say there are also short-term market forces at play, including a sudden drop-off in Australian coal production due to a recent cyclone).
“When [the] coal industry is down, everything suffers,” Ojeda said. “Right now, coal miners are working down here in southern West Virginia. You can go out here by the train tracks and see train cars full of coal moving.”
All this has national Democrats jumping at the chance to reclaim the Third Congressional District — which the Cook Political Report rates a daunting R+23. In any other year, that would be a write-off for Democrats, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has placed Ojeda on its Red to Blue list in hopes that he might convince some former Trump voters like himself to go blue.
“We’re giving Democrats a reason to vote Democrat again,” he said. “We outnumber Republicans 10 to 1, and I think we have given these people the ability to go to the polls and actually vote.”
I spoke with Ojeda recently about Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump, and West Virginia’s political identity. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
After 2016, there were so many pieces that came out about West Virginia as Trump country. You’ve been open that you voted for Trump and said you now regret that. But I’m curious what you make of West Virginia’s political identity and how people tend to vote.
In West Virginia, people here just want to feed their families. It’s not about party. No matter if you’re Republican, Democrat, or independent, the person that comes down here and can make these people feel like they’re the one that’s going to fight the hardest to help these people to put food on their table. That’s what happens, and that’s exactly the way that it is.
So it’s a state where, as you said, people don’t care as much about party politics. But your district is also rated R+23 by Cook. What’s your message to convince people to vote for a Democratic candidate?
First off, I’m one of them. I grew up in southern West Virginia; I retired from the military. I’ve got Republicans right now that are supporting me. They did a poll of 1,000 teachers — 97 percent said Ojeda. This wasn’t 1,000 Democrats, it was Democrats, independents, Republicans; they voted for me. They know I have their best interests at heart.
My message has always been simple: West Virginia deserves better. We’re tired of being the ones who worked the hardest and yet have the least. We built this nation. This nation was built by the steel that came from the coal that came from our mountains. When I was in front of those teachers, I told them I wanted them to chant, “We are worthy.” We are all worthy. Every West Virginian is worthy.
We have created more billionaires and millionaires — we made this nation wealthy while our people have remained dirt-poor without any opportunities. That’s the way it’s always been, and that’s the way the people at the top have wanted it. I’m tired of it. I didn’t spend 24 years in the military for this garbage, and I know my brothers who didn’t come home didn’t die for this crap.
Did you go to any Trump events in West Virginia in 2016? What was his appeal to voters there?
Well, he talked about coal mines. He talked about coal miners, keeping them working. When you’ve got everybody that you know in the unemployment line — I’m talking about everybody that I knew. I come from the coal fields in southern West Virginia, and when coal industry is down, everything suffers.
Funeral homes do cremations because people cannot afford to go through an actual funeral service. Small businesses absolutely shut down. When the coal was at its worst, and it was [the worst] in quite some time — during the election — literally, every one out of every two stores in the town of Logan was empty, with a sign on it that said “For Rent” or “Lease.”
Nobody could buy cars; as a matter of fact, all the cars around have “For Sale” signs on them. Men making $90,000 a year are left without a job. You can’t give them a promise of a minimum wage job or job training of jobs that don’t exist in West Virginia and expect them to be happy.
How do you feel about Trump’s jobs performance since he’s been elected? What are your friends and neighbors in West Virginia saying about the job he’s doing as president?
Well, you know, there has been an uptick in coal. Right now, coal miners are working down here in southern West Virginia. You can go out here by the train tracks and see train cars full of coal moving all throughout southern West Virginia. And for us down here, that’s a big plus because that means you’ve got people working, and they’re making those $90,000-a-year jobs and their feeding their families. They’re shopping in the local stores.
Am I happy with everything? No, I’m not. There’s a lot of things that I’m frustrated with. But the people here are working again, and that’s why people in southern West Virginia, regardless of what goes on in the national news, they’re saying, “Hey, I’m working, and I’m feeding my family.”
Besides jobs and the economy, what are you hoping to get accomplished if you can win this seat and go to Washington DC? ,
No. 1, I’ve got to fight — and I’m going to work side by side, hopefully he will be there, with US Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) — to fight, to win those coal miner pensions. Like I said, I live in the coal fields. The majority of our people around here that are elderly are retired coal miners, and if those coal miner pensions dry up in about two and a half years, those people are done and we cannot allow that to happen. We promised cradle-to-the-grave care, and it’s important we give that to them.
Also, I want to protect Social Security and Medicare. I come from a place where we work hard labor, so these people need that. I’ve got to fight for the funding to be able to address the opioid epidemic here in southern West Virginia when we have only 75 beds and we need far more.
I need to fight for broadband capability. For the past 20 years, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) has always said, “Broadband, broadband, broadband,” but it’s never happened. The truth is, no Fortune 500 company will ever relocate to southern West Virginia if they have to go back in time and they have no computer connectivity to conduct their operations.
We must protect the VA system, not privatize the VA system. And last but not least, I’m absolutely a big supporter of medical cannabis. We know for a fact that it can help thousands upon thousands of people with multiple sclerosis, severe ADHD, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder.
Have you given any thought to whether you’d support a Medicare-for-all bill in Congress?
I support a public option. I think we should give people the ability to buy into Medicare, and I believe if we can get that, all the other insurance companies out there would have to compete with Medicare, which would mean they would have to lower premiums and offer better benefits. And if they don’t, then they go out of business. If they do, then people have got all kinds of choices. A lot of people don’t want the government involved in their health care. They should be able to choose.
What do you think of the Trump administration’s response to West Virginia’s opioid crisis?
When I came home [from the military], the major issue was the opioid crisis that had destroyed our community. People that I grew up with were no longer here; they were dead from overdoses. It is the No. 1 topic that comes up on the campaign trail, because every single family has been affected by it. I think there needs to be more done about it. I don’t feel right now that anything is coming from Washington, DC. It’s bad. The work that’s being done is being done by our communities.
I know the West Virginia teachers strikes ended a few months ago, but I’m wondering if people are continuing to be politically active since the strikes — if that energy is continuing?
Absolutely, they’re more politically active. A lot of people who do not pay attention to what goes on in the capital of West Virginia started paying attention. And when they did, they were disgusted with the actions that were going on. Now, the teachers are motivated to go to the polls — and by the way, when they go to the polls, they bring their family members to the polls.
And let me tell you something: Teachers are intelligent. They’re highly intelligent. I said this to legislators in the Capitol; I said, “Y’all done messed up, you pissed off teachers, and teachers are smarter than you are.” Teachers know how to research, and that’s exactly what they’ve done.
I’m going to tell you, that people are far more motivated. It affects everyone in the community. They’ve even started their own political PACs. Make no mistake about it, they’re letting people know who are their friends and who are their enemies.
What do you think was the tipping point that got everyone so motivated this year?
It comes with the legislation that they were trying to push. I didn’t know when I got that speech that it was really going to start this huge fire. Pay has always been a huge issue. If your child is taught English, science, and math by the assistant wrestling coach, your kids are not going to be able to compete at the collegiate level, and that’s just a fact.
So when they started trying to do that without thinking how hard it’s going to be for our kids, basically that’s when the teachers finally said, Look — we’re done, these people don’t listen to us, we’ve been telling them this for a long time. And they started having meetings, and at those meetings, they started using the s-word.
There’s a lot of questions about whether House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has enough votes to become speaker if the Democrats retake the House in 2018. Will you vote for her?
I’m not supporting Nancy Pelosi. I think that Nancy is bad for our party; I think we need some working-class Democrats that actually know what it’s like for the average citizen out there. The most important person in the United States of America is not Nancy Pelosi or President Donald Trump, it’s the person who puts their work clothes on every day and goes out to feed their families and pay their taxes. And when that comes to an end, it all comes to a screeching halt.
Do you think the “blue wave” hype is real? Does it actually have a chance to hit West Virginia?
I know we can’t let up. We are going to go nonstop until the general election. We can’t just go ahead and assume. I do think we are going to have a blue wave; I think we’re going to have a blue wave in West Virginia because of the teacher strike, and the actions of our Republican leaders have basically sealed their fate.