Democrat Richard Ojeda, a champion of West Virginia’s teachers, says he is running for president

by 24USATVNov. 13, 2018, 3:45 a.m. 273
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Richard Ojeda, the brash Army veteran from West Virginia who galvanized the state’s teacher strikes earlier this year, says he is running for president in 2020.

The Democratic state senator told the Intercept about his bid for the White House on Sunday, less than a week after losing his race for West Virginia’s Third Congressional District. He lost the seat by 12 points to his Republican opponent, Carol Miller — a race that was always viewed as a long shot. After all, Ojeda was a Democrat running for office in the heart of West Virginia’s coal country, a district Donald Trump won in 2016 by 49 points.

But the recent loss seems like it hasn’t fazed Ojeda. Maybe that’s because he did better than expected in the reddest district in the state. His 12-point loss represented the largest swing of Trump voters toward Democrats in any district around the country, according to the Intercept. It just wasn’t enough to topple a Republican in such a pro-Trump area.

Ojeda believes that his brand of Democratic populism is what the party needs to win in 2020.

“The reason why the Democratic Party fell from grace is because they become nothing more than elitist, that was it. Goldman Sachs, that’s who they were,” Ojeda told the Intercept. “The Democratic Party is supposed to be the party that fights for the working class and that’s exactly what I do.”

Vox reached out to Ojeda’s campaign, but had not received a response as of publication time.

Ojeda’s unapologetic criticism of coal companies and corporate America resonated with working-class voters in the region, and his outspoken defense of West Virginia’s teachers earlier this year launched him into the national spotlight.

The outspoken, tattooed combat veteran reflects all the contradictions of West Virginia politics: He is pro-gun rights and pro-labor; he’s also a Democrat who voted for Trump (and now regrets it). The state’s coal miners have aligned themselves with him, but it was his vocal support of West Virginia’s teachers that turned him into a working-class hero.

“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 school in the state shut down as teachers rallied outside the state Capitol, angry about a meager 1 percent raise and rising health insurance premiums.

Ojeda had strongly criticized 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. During the nine-day protest, teachers sported T-shirts and carried posters with Ojeda’s photo and took selfies with him.

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 educators.

Trump won the presidency in part by selling himself as a champion of the working class. Ojeda says that was all a farce, and that Americans are starting to see that.

About 73 percent of voters in Ojeda’s district cast a ballot for Trump, more than the state’s other two House districts. Ojeda cast a ballot for Trump too, but says he now regrets it.

“It’s been a friggin’ circus for a solid year,” he told Politico magazine in March. “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 cast their ballots for Republican presidents since George W. Bush first ran for the White House.

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

Ojeda has campaigned as a populist Democrat with a focus on labor issues. “Right-to-work needs to go,” he 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 voted down an anti-abortion bill.

His support for the teachers’ strike, however, gave him national name recognition; he was the subject of a glossy profile in Politico magazine in March.

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.

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.”

Ojeda will clearly face a lot of competition in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination — competition from candidates with far more star power.

But Ojeda thinks he has at least one advantage: He is not a millionaire or career politician.

He describes himself as “a working-class person that basically can relate to the people on the ground, the people that are actually struggling,” according to the Intercept. “I’m not trying to throw stones at people that are rich, but once again, we will have a field that will be full of millionaires and I’m sure a few billionaires,” he said.

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