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Richard Ojeda, a champion of West Virginia’s teachers, could flip a House seat for Democrats

Ojeda is counting on Trump voters to send a pro-labor Democrat to Congress.

West Virginia teachers from 55 counties rallied for higher pay and better benefits outside the Virginia State Senate Chambers in Charleston on March 5, 2018.
Tyler Evert/AP

Of the three congressional House seats in deep-red West Virginia, the one with the best chance to flip blue is in the heart of coal country.

Seven Republicans are vying to take West Virginia’s Third House District, left open by Rep. Evan Jenkins in his bid for US Senate. But a Democrat, Richard Ojeda, has made the most noise so far, thanks to fierce support from thousands of teachers in the state.

Rep. Evan Jenkins, (R-W.Va.), right, on a tour of Warwood Tool Company in Wheeling, W.Va., on May 2, 2018.
Rep. Evan Jenkins, right, on a tour of Warwood Tool Company in Wheeling, West Virginia, on May 2, 2018.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

The brash, tattooed Army veteran, who is currently a state senator, reflects all the contradictions of West Virginia politics: He is pro-gun and pro-labor; he’s a Democrat who voted for Donald Trump (and now regrets it). And while the state’s coal miners have aligned themselves with him, it was his outspoken defense of West Virginia’s teachers that pushed him to the national spotlight.

“We are sitting on a powder keg,” said Ojeda during a Senate speech in January. “If you think teachers across this state are not saying the s-word, you are wrong.”

The “s-word” was “strike” — and that’s exactly what happened. A few weeks later, every single school in the state shut down as teachers rallied outside the Capitol, angry about a meager 1 percent raise and rising health insurance premiums. During the nine-day strike, teachers sported T-shirts and carried posters with Ojeda’s photo and took selfies with him.

Ojeda had blasted lawmakers about the 1 percent raise and introduced several other bills with the teachers in mind. One gave teachers a tax break for buying classroom supplies; another aimed to stabilize health care premiums for public employees; a third gave public employees a $5,000 raise over three years. The bills never passed, but Ojeda did advocate for teachers during the strike, giving speeches outside the Capitol and on the Senate floor, and voted for the final bill that ended the strike.

In the end, teachers got the 5 percent pay raise for all public employees they were demanding, and the strike and its aftermath turned Ojeda into a hero to the teachers.

On Tuesday, primary voters in southern West Virginia will choose between Ojeda and three other Democrats on the ballot: Shirley Love, a state House delegate and former broadcast journalist; Janice Hagerman, a nurse from a coal mining family; and Paul Davis, the head of the state’s public transit system.

So far, Ojeda has the momentum. He’s raised the most money and snagged the endorsement of the state’s powerful coal miners union. But his endorsement from the state’s teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers of West Virginia, may prove even more powerful. He might just be the first Democrat to win a congressional seat because of his prominent role in the teacher unrest spreading through conservative states.

Ojeda is asking Trump voters to send a Democrat to Congress

West Virginia’s Third Congressional District has been described as the reddest part of the state. About 73 percent of voters here cast a ballot for Trump — more than the state’s other two House districts. Ojeda cast a ballot for Trump too, but he now regrets it.

“It’s been a friggin’ circus for a solid year,” Ojeda told Politico magazine. “All he’s done ... is shown that he’s taking care of the daggone people he’s supposed to be getting rid of.”

Ojeda has been careful not to bash Trump too much. His rural district includes West Virginia’s coal mines and timber farms, and it’s the poorest district in the state — more than 60 percent of residents live in poverty. Yet voters here have been casting their ballots for Republican presidents since George W. Bush first ran for the White House.

The idea that this district could flip blue is still considered a stretch. The Cook Political Report doesn’t think it’s a competitive race, labeling the outcome as Likely Republican. It’s not even on the radar of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which forecasts the outcomes of competitive races.

But it’s worth noting that Democrats still outnumber Republicans in every county in the district. In fact, the House seat Ojeda is running for has historically been held by Democrats; it wasn’t until 2015 that Jenkins flipped it Republican for the first time in 40 years.

Kari Wenck, a fourth-grade  teacher from Huntington, W.Va., holds a sign near the entrance of the state Senate chambers in Charleston, on Feburary 22, 2018.
Kari Wenck, a fourth-grade teacher from Huntington, West Virginia, holds a sign near the entrance of the state Senate chambers in Charleston on February 22, 2018.
John Raby/AP

Ojeda has campaigned as a populist Democrat with a focus on labor issues. “Right-to-work needs to go,” Ojeda said in a Facebook Live video, referring to the state law that lets workers opt-out of their local labor union. “If we take back the state of West Virginia, we will be the first state to overturn right-to-work.”

But he has also taken positions that might not be as popular in red America. For instance, he was instrumental in passing the state’s medical marijuana law and has voted down an anti-abortion bill.

So far, Ojeda has raised the most money out of all the Democrats — about $208,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s still about half as much as lead Republican contender Carol Miller, a well-financed state House delegate who has raised $463,000. Miller opposed the teachers strike, a position that could hurt her in November.

Support for the teachers could be key in West Virginia

Ojeda’s support for the strike could be the decisive factor in flipping the seat blue, Robert Rupp, a West Virginia Wesleyan political history professor, told the Associated Press.

“Ojeda not only made his opinion known, he made his presence known,” Rupp said. “Rather than just saying ‘I’m for the teachers,’ (he’s) there fighting for them.”

A big part of Ojeda’s fight has been calling on his colleagues to raise taxes, something few lawmakers in this conservative state have been willing to do.

The 47-year-old Ojeda hasn’t been shy about wanting to raise taxes on corporations. He blasted former legislators for “giving away” the state to coal companies without getting anything in return for residents. He added that legislators needed to raise taxes on natural gas companies putting pipelines throughout West Virginia.

“There will be billions pulled from our state,” he said during a Senate speech in January. “If we allow that to go, and do not think of the citizens of West Virginia, then shame on all of us.”

The state has been cutting corporate and business taxes for more than a decade. The idea was to attract investment in the state, but it was never enough investment to offset the lost tax revenue. Then came the recession. But instead of raising taxes, lawmakers just slashed spending, hitting schools the hardest.

As a result, public schools have been losing millions of dollars each year in state money, which is the main source of funding for local schools, followed by local property taxes. The amount of money the state of West Virginia now spends on each student is 11.4 percent lower than it was before the economy tanked in 2008.

“We’re not listening to our teachers,” Ojeda told fellow lawmakers during a Senate floor session, according to WVNews.

But the teachers are paying attention to them. On Monday, members of the West Virginia Public Employee’s Facebook Group, which organized the nine-day strike, wanted to know which candidates voted against the pay raises.

“I’m looking over my ballot right now and crossing off names,” one teacher in the group commented on Monday. “Just because these people are in my party doesn’t mean they are getting my vote ... if I didn’t get theirs ... they aren’t getting mine.”