‘You’re Going to Know My Name! I’m Richard Ojeda!’

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Thursday, 8 November 2018

‘You’re Going to Know My Name! I’m Richard Ojeda!’


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‘You’re Going to Know My Name! I’m Richard Ojeda!’

WILKINSON, W.Va.—After he lost, the loudest, feistiest, most in-your-face congressional candidate in the country this year didn’t credit his opponent. He blamed Donald Trump.


“To the president of the United States, I did not lose this race because of Carol Miller!” boomed Richard Ojeda, the buzz-cut, tattooed Army paratrooper turned populist Democrat. Technically, it was a concession speech he was delivering at a wedding venue called Special Occasions by Angie here in West Virginia’s isolated, economically depressed, Trump-loving 3rd Congressiona District. But it sounded much more like a counterattack. “Because of you, the people in southern West Virginia will have another voiceless representative that supports legislation that hurts our working-class citizens!”


He wasn’t done. “On several occasions, you came here to speak for Carol Miller! You called me a stone-cold crazy wacko and then you mispronounced the way I say my name! But make no mistake about it! You’re going to know my name! I’m Richard Ojeda! I’m Richard Ojeda! I’m Richard Ojeda, and I’m not done fighting, and neither are we!” he crescendoed, pointing from behind the lectern on the stage out to the now standing, shouting crowd of a couple hundred people. “Neither are we! Sappers clear the way! Airborne all the way!”


Thus concluded the improbable push for a seat on Capitol Hill for the man who took to pitching himself as “The New Face of the Democratic Party.” That many people thought he even had a shot here was a function of his fiery, forthright, take-no-prisoners persona. The final result, though, was a face slap of local political reality. Trump won this district two years ago by just short of 50 points. Even Ojeda himself voted for Trump before quickly coming to regret it. And his combative energy in his campaign was no match in the end for an opponent who brandished her Trump endorsement by donning a red MAGA hat at the president’s rallies but mostly lay low simply to let gravity prevail. Tuesday night’s 12.8 percentage point margin marked a rather remarkable 31-point shift toward blue, but it was a deficit also noticeably larger than polling had predicted. Miller won with ease.


Losing candidates don’t admit defeat easily, and they seldom acknowledge missteps so soon after the votes have been tallied. But Ojeda, who pronounces his name , hard , insisted to me even in the wake of the loss that he still believes how he ran his race should be a “blueprint” for how Democrats should run races in red states everywhere. He vowed to continue to be a voice and a force. He’s still a state senator—one with an above-average national profile. Nobody will be surprised if he runs again for Congress in 2020, and some here have bandied about his name as a potential gubernatorial candidate.


“I’m not scared,” he said.


And he really did just start.


After 24 years in the Army, Ojeda, 48, ran a quixotic campaign for Congress in 2014, losing handily in the primary. He was elected to the state Senate in 2016—and as a novice lawmaker promptly spearheaded the passage of medical marijuana legislation. He intuitively saw the appeal of the drug to injured blue-collar workers and people wracked by opioid addiction, two kinds of people West Virginia has plenty of. He first piqued the wider interest of politicos and others around the country less than a year ago with a rousing 4-minute intro ad in which he lifted weights and laser-stared into the camera and gave out his cellphone number. But he really vaulted into the limelight by stoking the 55-county teacher strike in this state in the spring. He became, practically overnight, it seemed, a folk hero not only to he teachers but to members of unions of all kinds all over the state. He seemed to revive a style of Democratic politicking that was once common in the state, evoking West Virginia’s laws-changing, rights-earning labor uprisings of the past. And it made hungry progressives here begin to believe. In his bid in this hard-red place, could he actually … ?


“Ojeda oozes sincerity,” said Ryan Frankenberry, executive director of the West Virginia Working Families Party. “There’s not a bullshit bone in his body.”


West Virginia University political scientist Scott Crichlow described to me the burgeoning Ojeda brand as “grab the torch.”


National reporters flocked.


But strengths can be weaknesses, too, of course, and Ojeda’s energetic, unadulterated, off-the-cuff style inspired support while also lending his opponents ample fodder for attack. Earlier this year, for instance, he agreed to an interview with famed liberal filmmaker Michael Moore for his anti-Trump documentary “Fahrenheit 11/9.” It was something an even remotely circumspect politician in a deeply conservative district would not even have considered. And then Ojeda showed up in the movie’s trailer, spitting dynamite. The first: “I’m sick and tired of people telling me America is the greatest country—because we can whip your ass?” The second: “I don’t give a shit who you are. I’ll fight you in the damn street right now.” Even Moore appeared to not quite know how to respond. But Miller and her GOP allies certainly did. Fairlyor not—welcome to the big leagues—Ojeda’s comments let them question the veteran’s patriotism and paint him as menacing and unbalanced. It worked. Stephen Noble Smith, a rising progressive star in the state, heard about it knocking on doors. “I don’t know if I can vote for him because of that,” people told him, he said.


Trump personally did his best to finish Ojeda.


Miller “is running against a total wacko,” the president told a crowd at a rally in Wheeling in late September. “Now I’ve seen this person. You can’t have that person in Congress. That person is stone-cold crazy.”


“Carol’s opponent,” he said last week at his rally in Huntington, “is a radical left-winger named Richard Ojeda.” The people hooted and booed. And the Spanish-accented way Trump said Ojeda’s name was conspicuous. .


“Please don’t fall for the garbage and the lies,” Ojeda said to a Democratic get-out-the-vote gathering the next night at a pig roast in Peach Creek. “My military service has been attacked by people who have never picked up a rifle and manned a post.”


But people in the 3rd District listen to the president.


Already, yard signs say TRUMP 2020. And catty-corner from Ojeda’s campaign headquarters in Chapmanville? A tall and elaborate billboard of sorts, paid for by Republican state lawmaker Rupie Phillips, featuring unflattering pictures of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Maxine Waters and a bullhorn-toting Moore. “NOjeda,” it said. “Deplorables … You MUST Vote!!!”


Inside Ojeda’s spartan headquarters, next to Big Eagle Gun & Pawn, notes of support from coast to coast adorned the otherwise barren walls. “Make it count,” one donor had written in blue ink on yellow paper. “Save us.”


Ojeda sat in an upstairs office early Tuesday afternoon. The man who frequently campaigned in combat boots and Grunt Style shirts instead wore an uncharacteristically conventional blue suit and red tie. But he talked the way he always talked. He let it rip. “Richard Ojeda’s not unhinged,” Ojeda said. “Because if Richard Ojeda was unhinged, I’d’ve already smacked about 50 people in the mouth.”


He unapologetically argued campaigns like his were the answer for Democrats in places like this.


Who works here as a Democrat at this point?


“The Democrat that is a Democrat,” he said, “the Democrat that says, ‘Look, you’re a working-class citizen, and I respect you. I’m going to do everything in my power to protect you. I’m going to do everything in my power to fight to make sure you have a seat at the table.’


“This is the blueprint,” he added. “This is the blueprint for how we win across the United States of America. Everywhere. This is how you win in Middle America. It’s talking about picking the people that can relate to the people. Don’t talk about it. Be about it. Stand up for the working-class citizens. Stand up for our sick. Stand up for our veterans. Stand up for the elderly. Protect things like Social Security. Stop allowing people to stick their hands in the cookie jar. Create opportunities for people who live in poverty to elevate themselves out of poverty with a hand up, not a hand out. That’s what being a Democrat is!”


A few hours later, though, at Special Occasions by Angie, Ojeda aide Madalin Sammons chain-smoked in the dark on the porch. She said she felt like she might vomit.


The returns were dispiriting from the start and never got better.


Backers gamely responded with glass-half-full resolve.


“Whatever hill he’s climbed here shows a Democratic message can still gain traction,” Frankenberry said.


“Ojeda has awakened a sleeping giant in southern West Virginia,” added Nick Rahall, the Democrat who represented this district for nearly 40 years before losing in 2014 as the state all but finished the sweeping ideological shift from which only Senator Joe Manchin seems to be immune.


“It’s still a victory for the people in West Virginia,” Randy Jones, Ojeda’s political director, told me, “because we weren’t even supposed to get close. When you align yourself with working class people, anywhere in the country, you can do something unexpected. This race, win or lose, has in some ways changed the fabric of the Democratic Party for the next 20 years.” The key in his mind: an authentic, charismatic candidate, running on a populist, economy-oriented platform as opposed to toxic, divisive culture-war issues.


“Blueprint,” Ojeda reiterated when I caught up with him after his concession speech.


Journey of a thousand miles and single steps and whatnot. But still. “Scoreboard,” I felt like saying.


He was, after all, the loser.


“Had the president not come down here and stuck his nose into this race,” Ojeda said, “I would be the winner.”


He kept talking.


“I will tell you right now. I’m not scared of the president of the United States. And I’m not scared to stand up against the president of the United States. We’re going to sit and think about what the way ahead is. I’m not scared. I am not. I think that we need a voice that is willing to actually say what needs to be said,and I think there are a lot of things that need to be said. This country’s not going down the right path. This country right now is going towards a path that should scare people. He is catering to the top 1 percent while absolutely turning his back on the bottom, the working class.”


He didn’t stop.


“I cannot sit here and say I was beaten by Carol Miller. Because Carol Miller did not show up. She did not debate me. She basically avoided everything and just said, ‘I’m with Trump, I’m with Trump.’ And sadly, that’s apparently a victory here in a place like southern West Virginia.”


Ojeda finally wrapped up—by giving future foes additional ammunition.


“People here,” he said, “will vote against their best interests every time.”


Politico.



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