He Voted for Trump. Now He’s Running for Congress as a Pro-Pot, Pro-Coal Democrat.
(Mother Jones) On most nights during the nine-day West Virginia teacher strike last winter, Richard Ojeda could be found at his office in Logan County, gesturing wildly at his iPhone. Ojeda, a 47-year-old ex-Army paratrooper who is rarely seen outside the state Senate chamber in anything other than a tight-fitting Grunt Style T-shirt, had been logging on for hourlong Facebook Live segments about once a week since getting elected in 2016. During his first year as a senator, he typically got a few hundred viewers for his riffs about the corruption in his Democratic Party, his campaign for Congress, or his proposal to turn reclaimed surface mines into vast fields of marijuana and lavender.
Then, in January, Ojeda became the first politician in Charleston to say out loud what the teachers in his district had begun to discuss among themselves: If the state didn’t shore up public-employee health plans and increase their pay, they’d walk. A few hundred viewers turned into a few thousand. By the time the protests got going, a quarter of a million people were viewing his videos. Families would gather around to see him recount the latest developments. And Ojeda went from a locally known figure to a rising star, someone who, in the eyes of his supporters, could not only upend West Virginia, but maybe offer Democrats in other deep-red enclaves a blueprint for fighting back.
“He’s like Elvis right now,” says Jay O’Neal, a middle school teacher from Charleston. “A rock star,” says Katie Endicott, a Mingo County teacher who helped organize the first round of walkouts. Ryan Frankenberry, executive director of the West Virginia Working Families Party, says, “It’s like watching people listen to Jesus.”
A gun-loving, pro-life, pro-coal Trump voter who once promised to “fistfight” Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency, Ojeda doesn’t fit the profile of a progressive firebrand, and in many ways he’s not. He’s seeking to replace Republican Rep. Evan Jenkins, who is leaving to run for the US Senate, in a district President Donald Trump carried by 49 points. But the strike was a catalyst for a Resistance of a different sort. In places like West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, teachers and other public employees were rebelling less against Trump than against decades of austerity while corporations—particularly extractive industries—bled their states dry. Ojeda, like the man he supported for president, has found a following in West Virginia by talking about the state’s economic and political powers with unusual directness. But he wants to channel that anger toward far different ends. And he might even win.
Mother Jones illustration; Mark Helenowski; Getty Images