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Chatting With Richard Ojeda, Who Might Pull Off the Biggest Midterm District Flip in 20 Years

A conversation with the in-your-face Democrat about Trump, West Virginia, opioids and what the party can learn from non-cookie-cutter candidates

Richard Ojeda sits next to campaign volunteer outside his campaign headquarters in Logan, West Virginia Thursday July 5, 2018.

Richard Ojeda sits next to campaign volunteer outside his campaign headquarters in Logan, West Virginia Thursday July 5, 2018.

Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

Richard Ojeda is a 24-year Army veteran who went on combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, but his closest brush with death may have come after he decided to get into West Virginia politics. “I was almost murdered two days before I won my Senate race,” he says of the afternoon in May 2016. “They hit me in the back of the head with a pipe and broke eight bones in my face.” Ojeda wasn’t fazed. A few months later he would enter the state’s legislature, where a different kind of battle was raging. “Once I got into politics, I saw the real fight, where big money controls everything, and where politicians care more about campaign contributions than the people they’re supposed to represent.”

Ojeda, a Democrat, quickly made a name for himself as an uncompromising advocate for the working class who isn’t afraid to call out “big money” politicians. He drew national headlines earlier this year after he inspired West Virginia’s teachers to strike for higher wages through a number of impassioned speeches on the statehouse floor. Soon thereafter, he secured the Democratic nomination to represent West Virginia’s 3rd congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. His campaign should have been dead in the water. West Virginia’s 3rd is one of the most conservative districts in the nation, and Trump pulled in 73 percent of the vote in 2016. In September, the president officially endorsed Ojeda’s opponent, Carol Miller. A few weeks later, he called Ojeda a “wacko” and “stone-cold crazy” at a rally in Charleston.

With less than a month until the election, the race is too close to call. It isn’t hard to understand why. Despite his tenure in the state legislature, the 47-year-old veteran is very much a political outsider. He wears combat boots and skin-tight muscle shirts. He sports a military-style crew cut and dozens of tattoos, including the names of those he served with who were killed overseas. His campaign has also been laser-focused on the needs of West Virginians rather than on towing the party line. For Ojeda, it’s not about Democrats versus Republicans; it’s about the working class versus the political elite beholden to corporate money. In other words, his party’s establishment could probably learn a thing or two from his campaign to pull off what FiveThirtyEight says would be the biggest party flip in a midterm since 1998.

Rolling Stone recently caught up with Ojeda to talk about his relationship with Trump, how to turn West Virginia’s economy around and what Democrats can learn from his success deep within the bowels of Trump Country. He even invited us down to West Virginia. “Let me tell you something, you’ll enjoy yourself,” he assured us. “I might even get you in a fist fight.”

You voted for Trump in 2016 and have since come to regret the decision. Do you run into a lot of West Virginians who feel similarly, or do the majority still support him as much as they did when they voted?
There are still a lot of people here who support President Trump. It is what it is. He came down here and spoke about the coal industry and how he was going to try to help the coal miners. When you’re from the coal fields like I am, that’s what we have. When the coal industry is down, everybody suffers. People can’t afford to buy cars, people can’t afford to go to restaurants. Hillary Clinton comes down here and talks about job training. But the jobs don’t exist in West Virginia, or they were minimum wage jobs. You cannot take a person who has worked in the coal industry, who makes $95,000-$120,000 a year, and tell them, “I’m going to train you for a job you have to leave and go to Kansas for, and if you don’t go, I’m sorry, but I trained you and apparently you don’t want to work.” That’s not what the coal miners want to hear. They deserve better than that. That’s why everyone gave Donald Trump a chance. The truth is that around here the coal mines are operational, the coal trains are moving. I have to give him the thumbs up in that respect. But there are a lot of things he hasn’t done. We are creating enemies of the people who have stood with us since World War II. Successful leaders surround themselves with intelligent people. He’s not doing that. Kick his kids out of the Oval Office. Get rid of Betsy DeVos. We know she’s a train wreck. There are others. He’s got good military minds in Generals Mattis and Kelly, but he’s not listening to them.

How much concern is there regarding the long-term sustainability of the coal industry? The mines may be working now, but the future of doesn’t look good.
I don’t know if we can squash the fears of the coal miners. I want to diversify our economy here. We need wind, we need solar, hemp and cannabis production. Things we can use to get these people wonderful jobs. In terms of coal, as an energy source, there is definitely a need to have a stockpile of coal in the instance we have a deep freeze in this country. Natural gas will not get us out of that problem. Coal will, and it’s happened before in the past. Natural gas is far cheaper, and when you look at it from a business perspective, you’re going to go with what saves you money. But in terms of infrastructure, we know that the steel that comes from my coal, that comes from our mountains right here in West Virginia, is the best steel. We know that this country has infrastructure issues, and that the military’s might needs to be rebuilt after 17 years of continuous combat. You want to have the best steel to be able to make the equipment to protect our sons and daughters who are in harm’s way, and to build our bridges and build our cities. But we must make sure that we’re being mindful to our environment — protecting our water, protecting our air. It’s something that must be done. I think if we can find that balance, then we can  allow our miners to mine that coal.

You mentioned hemp and cannabis, which has been a big cause of yours. What can medical marijuana do for West Virginia?
West Virginia happens to be in the middle of the teardrop of the greatest place on Earth to grow marijuana. Colorado yields one crop a year, West Virginia yields two. We could double the success that Colorado sees. Colorado gave their teachers the highest pay raise in our history. We could double it. We could fix our roads. The tax, the revenue, the jobs that come from it. With the money being made from those crops you could afford to pay your people phenomenal wages and give them the best benefits money can buy, and you’re still going to make millions upon millions.

Legalization can be a lot easier for people with preconceived notions about marijuana to accept when you frame it in terms of the economy.
It can solve a lot of budget issues. We’re talking about thousands upon thousands of people across West Virginia that are struggling. Multiple sclerosis, severe ADHD, Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, PTSD — it goes on and on. It was used for thousands of years to heal people. It was villainized because of alcohol, which is far worse than marijuana has ever been. But we attack it because Big Pharma doesn’t know how they can put money from marijuana, a seed, into their pockets. That’s the problem that we have today. Nobody has the guts to stand up and check Big Pharma, who are murderers. We’ve been at war now for 17 years, and the Taliban and Al Qaeda combined hasn’t even scratched the surface of death compared to Big Pharma. They grease the pockets of our legislators at the state level and at the national level to provide protection. Right now they’re talking about coming out with a pill to fight the opioid epidemic that they created. Right now, I’m running for Congress and my opponent owns stock in the very company responsible for throwing that oxycontin and hydrocodone on our people like Tic Tacs. When do we stop this? We can stop it, and we need to stop it now.

Richard Ojeda

Richard Ojeda speaks with Roll Call inside Hot Cup, a local coffee shop in Logan, West Virginia Thursday July 5, 2018. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

It seems like you’ve taken just as much of an issue with Democrats as with Republicans. Outside of their inability to address the opioid epidemic, what is your biggest issue with the Democratic establishment?
My state was the working state. My state was blue through and through. The reason why my state went red is because my state is a hard labor state, and the Democratic party pulled pitch and ran away from this place and left our people to fend for themselves with nothing. We built this nation. This nation was built from the steel that was made by the coal in my mountains. When the rich wage war, it’s the poor who fight and die, and there’s not one state that has answered this nation’s call and shed more blood than West Virginia. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you owe me anything. But daggonnit, we’re down and we’ve been down for a long time. All I’m saying is, “Can we get a hand up? Can we get some opportunities here? Can we get our roads taken care of? Do we have to always struggle? Can we have people that are willing to stand up and fight for the working class citizens? Can we do something about our middle class so that it doesn’t completely disappear on us?”

What lessons do you think the Democratic establishment can take from your campaign?
Stop trying to run the cookie-cutter politicians. They’ve got the typical guy who does the commercial where he stands with the map in his hand and he’s pointing off into the distance like he sees the future and the way ahead. How about stop that garbage? How about you find someone in that area who can relate to the people and who truly cares, who cares about the working class citizens, who cares about our sick, our veterans and our elderly and wants to help get people out of poverty? That’s how we can do it. Not all Dems are the same.

The truth is also that they have to put boots on the ground. They can’t just expect that someone is going to shower them with money so they can have billboards. They’ve got to get out there and meet the people. If they’re not willing to put boots on the ground, wear out a couple of pairs of shoes, put 100,000 miles on their vehicle, then they need not apply. If we just keep going for the Democrat that has the most money, well, guess what? The Republicans drown the Democrats out three-to-one every time. If you get the guy that has the most money, they usually drown out the guy who can relate to the people, and then all you have is the lesser of two evils. Then it just comes down to who can get the most commercials through the wheel of fortune.

Your platform is remarkably specific to your district in West Virginia, and it contains a lot of points that don’t exactly fit along the party line. How do you anticipate some of these positions translating if you make it to Washington and have to start working with the rest of party on what’s best for the entire nation?
I don’t care what their plans are. I’m going there to represent the people of the 3rd congressional district of West Virginia. Those are the people I work for. I have already sat down with over 40 different congressmen and congresswomen and I’ve told them that if you’ve got people in your backyard who are struggling, have no fear, I’ll be there for you. But I expect you to do the same for me. I’ve got coal miners who are about to lose their pension because they’ve retired and these companies use bankruptcy loopholes to keep from paying them, and they get away with it. That’s unacceptable. The people who did that should go to prison and everything they have should be sold off to make sure that those coal miners don’t lose anything. But the problem is that nobody wants to fight for the working class citizen anymore. That’s exactly what the problem is. We need somebody who’s willing to fight for them. We have knocked on over 2,000 doors this weekend alone. We will not be outworked. When I get to Washington, D.C., I will have no problems calling anyone out who wants to reside in the pockets of Big Pharma when they’re killing our people. I don’t care if you’re a Republican or Democrat. If you side with Big Pharma, then I’ve got a problem with you.

It’s strange how novel it seems to just advocate for the people in your district rather than some larger idea of what it means to be a Democrat.
I’m going to tell you right now that there’s a lot of people out there that are going to start realizing that this is the way to be. You want to win races? You’ve got to get out there and you’ve got to be vocal and you’ve got to work. When you win, you’ve got to actually represent. You’ve got to be willing to fight your party. When I got medical cannabis, my bill SB-386 passed in West Virginia, I was told by everybody, “Don’t even try it, Ojeda. You’re going to get crushed. They’ll never let it go through.” What happened? I said, “No, I don’t want to hear what you’ve got to say. I’ve got 22 veterans that are committing suicide every single day in the United States of America, and as a retired military guy that has the names of my brothers on my back that didn’t come home, it’s my mission to reduce that number from 22 to 0.” So I don’t care what party you’re from and I don’t care who you are, I’m fighting this battle. In the end, we won, and West Virginia became the 29th state.”

How do you assess the job Trump has done for veterans?
I know that right now they’re talking about privatizing the VA, which is absolutely horrible. We cannot do that. Right now they’re trying to chip away at the Choice Program. We need to strengthen the Choice Program. We need more vet clinics throughout the areas. Everybody says that when the veterans come home we’ve got to take care of them, but we’re not. We cannot allow them to privatize the VA. You might as well take all the information that’s been gathered, from Agent Orange to traumatic brain injury and PTSD and throw it out the window. We cannot allow that to happen. I’m not happy right now because these things are in jeopardy.

What was your reaction when Trump called you a “wacko” when he was down in West Virginia the other week?
I’m a wacko because I’m sick and tired of watching our elderly people cut their medicine in half because they’re living on social security, which West Virginia taxes. They’re taking care of their grandkids because mom and dad are addicted to drugs. If me being angry about that and wanting to fight for it makes me a wacko, then I’ll gladly carry that moniker. If being angry that our unions have been under attack for decades now, that they don’t want our working class citizens to have a seat at the table, that they’ve used bankruptcy loopholes to keep from paying our coal miners what they deserve in their pensions, then I will be a happily stone-cold crazy human being. If that’s what makes that then I am glad for that.

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