‘He’s JFK With Tattoos and a Bench Press’
CHARLESTON, W.Va.—After pushing 90 for the better part of an hour to get here to the gold-domed Capitol from his home in rugged, woebegone Logan County, the former Army paratrooper and current state senator with 36 tattoos, bulging muscles and a dry-razored buzz cut jumped out of his red Jeep and bounded across a parking lot toward the snaking line of hundreds of striking teachers.
They rushed to shake his hand.
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They clamored for snapshots and selfies.
They waved homemade signs. “HEAR US NOW.” “SUPPORT WV TEACHERS.” “UNITED WE STAND.”
“We got your back, you got ours!” one teacher called out, and they roared.
“You keep making that noise, ladies and gentlemen!” he bellowed back. “This is what union is right here! Hey! Shoulder to shoulder! Don’t take a step back! Y’all deserve it!”
As he tried to make his way through the pulsing crowd, another teacher stopped him, asking him to sign with a Sharpie the chest of her shirt that had on it a picture of him looking stalwart and stern in his military fatigues.
The people chanted his name.
Richard Ojeda, hard j, is a first-term lawmaker from southern West Virginia. He’s 47 years old, a husband and a father of two, and he’s won exactly one general election in his life. He is running now for the open seat in West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, which seems like a monumentally precocious act for somebody who has served slightly more than a year in any elected office at all. But Ojeda has made his mark on the volatile politics in this state with a stunning suddenness. Though he is a Democrat in a legislature in which his party is outnumbered almost 2-to-1, he spearheaded in his freshman session the passage of a bill legalizing medical marijuana. Then, this January, he stood on the Senate floor and argued in fiery speeches that energy companies should pony up more taxes so teachers could get better benefits and pay. A strike, he warned, was not out of the question. A month later, teachers from all 55 counties walked off the job—a first in the history of the state—instantly making Ojeda the father of one of the region’s largest labor actions of the past 30 years.
In hard red, Donald Trump-loving West Virginia, Ojeda has become a kind of one-man blue wave, threatening to defy a conventional belief that the only kind of Democrat that can win big races here—or anywhere, for that matter, in Appalachia or the industrial Midwest—is somebody like Joe Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the United States Senate, a pragmatic, pro-business social conservative. Because here is Ojeda, a pro-labor, twang-talking, plainspoken populist, scrambling the state’s recent rightward shift by harkening back to a deeper, more radical vein of its rich political history. In the early 20th century, miners fought and died for higher wages and safer working conditions while wearing red bandanas and carrying Winchester rifles. Now, teachers are the new miners; in fact, in a place all but defined by its coal heritage, there are some 20,000 teachers and fewer than 12,000 miners, making the teachers—plus the 13,000 staff who walked off the job with them—by far the largest union in the state. And here, as I hustled after Ojeda into the bustling Capitol, the striking school employees weren’t armed—but many were dressed in red. And some of them had knotted around their necks those bandanas.
Their songs of unrest ricocheted off the marble of the rotunda inside.
“We’re not gonna take it … we’re not gonna take it … we’re not gonna take it anymooooooore!”
With me and Ojeda in this crush of energy was Krystal Ball, the former MSNBC host who’s the president of the People’s House Project, a PAC that has endorsed Ojeda’s congressional candidacy. In the middle of the maelstrom, Ball had to shout to be heard. “He’s going to win!” she announced. She said this with a certainty that startled me. I had to lean in to make out her words. “And it’s going to be an instant national story! And Richard is going to be an instant national figure and face of the Democrats!”
I gave Ball a skeptical look. West Virginia, after all, voted overwhelmingly for Trump, and the 3rd District was the most pro-Trump district. The Cook Political Report doesn’t even label the district as “competitive.” Evan Jenkins, the current GOP representative, won so decisively in 2016, he decided to run for the right to run against Manchin for Senate. And in Logan County, where Ojeda grew up and still lives, just shy of 80 percent of voters chose Trump—and one of them was Ojeda himself. He’s not on Massachusetts congressman Seth Moulton’s tally of veterans he has endorsed, and he’s not on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” list, either. He’s been a mostly limited fundraiser, too, in part because he takes no money from anybody except individual donors and labor unions. There is next to no standard reason to think Ojeda could win—except for the visceral evidence that was swirling around us. The more than 5,000 teachers screaming his name. Ball looked at me and laughed.
By this time, we had lost him. When I spotted his skin-shorn flattop sticking out of the crowd, Ojeda was surrounded by a rapt half-moon of teachers. His eyes were wide, and he was jabbing the air with a finger. “We are on the next Saudi Arabia!” he was hollering. “They’ve said that—the energy people said that! So, if we’re on the next Saudi Arabia, obviously they want it to be just like Saudi Arabia, where you have about 10 people driving around in Lamborghinis and everybody else eatin’ sand sandwiches! That’s what they want. Guess what? No!” He told them the people who give him money are regular folks. Labor unions. That’s it. “I don’t give a shit about Big Energy!” he yelled. They erupted again in applause.
Over the course of the next two days, the first two days of the West Virginia teachers’ strike that remained unresolved as of Thursday, I saw signs that read: “OVER WORKED UNDER PAID” and “TEACHERS ARE WORTH MORE.” One just said, “Help Us Ojeda. You’re our Only Hope!” I heard people ask him to run for governor, so they could vote for him, too, even if they lived in the northern two-thirds of the state. I heard him described as a “rock star” and a “folk hero.” I even watched one teacher propose to him. Literally get down on one knee and ask him to marry her. It was the only time I saw him (a little) flustered and (very briefly) speechless. “I’m married!” he finally blurted out. And everywhere I went with him, it was never too long before that chant started up again.
All of this has made Ojeda as confident about his prospects as Ball. “I’m going to blow through my primary,” he matter-of-factly told me in his office. That’s in May. And in the general election come November? His campaign manager is an over-the-road truck driver, his communications director is a single mother who lives in Mingo County with her parents and her 5-year-old son, and most of his unlikely, ragtag campaign staff isn’t being paid—and yet, fresh internal polling Ojeda shared with me shows he’s not only projected to win the race, but he’s beating his two likeliest GOP opponents among GOP voters. “I’m kicking the shit out of the Republicans,” he said.
I first got interested in Ojeda late last year after I watched the launch video for his congressional campaign. It was unlike any campaign video I’d ever seen. Shots of him toughing out pullups and bench press reps. A picture of his battered, bloodied head after he suffered facial fractures in a brass-knuckles attack at a campaign picnic before his primary in 2016—an attack Ojeda believes was politically motivated. Anybody who’s not out to help “the people,” he says into the camera, somewhat menacingly, “they need not darken my doorstep.” It was the creation, I would learn later, of a young man named J.D. Belcher, a former coal miner who taught himself filmmaking after taking a liking to The Walking Dead TV series and who used to be a member of a heavy metal band called Keep the Victim Warm. In the video, Ojeda also gave out the number to his cellphone. A few weeks ago, I called it.
After I introduced myself, Ojeda uncorked a nearly unbroken, 13-minute tirade in which he called lobbyists “the absolute scum of the earth,” said they should have to wear body cameras in the Capitol, said they shouldn’t even be allowed “in the damn Capitol,” and told me one of the first things he did as a state legislator was give energy industry lobbyists a tongue-lashing. “I threw Big Energy out of my office!” he said. “They said, ‘Well, is there anything we can do to change your mind?’ I said, ‘You can get yo’ ass out of my office.’” He continued by scorching lawmakers for making decisions based on corporate campaign contributions instead of the interests of their constituents.
“Bootlickers!” he screamed into the phone.
I asked when I could come visit him.
He picked me up at my hotel in Logan early in the morning on the first day of the strike. The back of his Jeep was covered with stickers. “AFGHANISTAN I SERVED,” said one. “IRAQ I SERVED,” said another. “IT’S NOT THAT I CAN AND OTHERS CAN’T,” said a third. “BUT I WILL AND OTHERS WON’T.”
As we raced toward Charleston, Ojeda railing away about lobbyists and “bought-and-paid-for politicians” and Big Pharma and Big Energy while taking the curves in the four-lane highway so fast it felt at times like we were riding on just two wheels, it was hard not to consider his improbable path to this juncture.
His grandfather was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who came to this part of West Virginia because coal was booming and he could make a living. His father was a nurse. Ojeda graduated from Logan High in 1988. “Where I come from, when you graduate high school, there’s only three choices—dig coal, sell dope, or join the Army. And I chose the military.” He served 24 years. He went to Korea and Honduras and Jordan and Haiti. Afghanistan. Iraq. He almost died five times, by his count, an IED blast, a couple of dud mortars, the Taliban. He earned two Bronze Stars and retired as Major Ojeda. “I’m a combat soldier,” he told me. He wants his ashes spread on Sicily Drop Zone at North Carolina’s Fort Bragg, the paratroopers’ training facility, which he considers “hallowed ground.”
Toward the end of his time in the Army, he helped start a Junior ROTC program at an area high school and established a nonprofit organization called the Logan Empowerment Action and Development that did community cleanup projects and Christmas toy drives and served meals to the poor and the elderly and raised money for new shoes for kids. He began writing long letters to the editor to the Logan Banner. They always signed off the same way: “Sappers Clear The Way! Airborne All The Way!” It all somehow led to an invite to the 2013 State of the Union as the guest of Manchin. The senator and his staff at the time were not expecting Ojeda to run for office. “He was just excited to take a Capitol tour,” said Mara Boggs, Manchin’s state director, who served with Ojeda in the Army. “All I saw was the passion,” Manchin added. But after the speech that night, Ojeda heard Manchin talk about some “manufacturing hubs” slated to come to West Virginia—to the northern part of the state, though, not the southern part of the state that often feels even more overlooked and left behind. And he decided that was the fault of Nick Rahall, the Democrat who then represented the 3rd District. Rahall wasn’t “standing on his desk,” as Ojeda put it to me, doing his job. So he ran against him in a primary in 2014.
“I was unknown, and had no money, but I got 34 percent of the overall vote against Rahall,” Ojeda said. “And I beat him like a drum in Logan County.”
“Such a thorn in our side,” John Moffett told me. Moffett is the executive director of the People’s House Project and an Ojeda booster now, but back then, he was a Rahall aide who developed a grudging respect for the novice challenger who got a third of the vote “with literally no campaign structure.”
Two years later, Ojeda ran for the state Senate and got attacked—physically, brutally. The assailant, who had ties to Ojeda’s opponent, later was sentenced to one to five years in prison—bringing to a close the violent episode that elicited his first round of national news coverage, a trend that’s continued. In 2016, though, even after the attack, Ojeda won, anyway, and then won in the general, and then went to Charleston, where he in no time was the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 386, Creating WV Medical Cannabis Act, which became law three months after he showed up at the Capitol and willed the legislation to the governor’s desk. He saw it as a big win against Big Pharma.
Ojeda arrived in Charleston for his second legislative session, determined to take on the state’s most powerful political force—the energy companies that get rich off West Virginia’s resources, he says, while leaving the state and the vast share of its people “none the better.” A state with such wealth under the ground, he believes, shouldn’t rank 48th out 50 states in teacher pay.
“We’re not paying attention or speaking to the people that are on the ground and at the front lines of education,” he warned last fall in an interview with the Huntington Herald-Dispatch.