Salon 2020: Meet Richard Ojeda, West Virginia populist and among the first out of the gate

He lost a congressional race but now wants a bigger job. He supports the Green New Deal — and he voted for Trump

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published January 12, 2019 6:00AM (EST)

WV State Senator Richard Ojeda (Getty/John Sommers II)
WV State Senator Richard Ojeda (Getty/John Sommers II)

Salon kicks off its series of interviews with 2020 Democratic presidential candidates with one of the first to announce and, it's fair to say, one of the real longshots. This week Richard Ojeda resigned from the West Virginia state Senate after losing a congressional race in November. Is he retiring from politics? No -- he's running for president.

Ojeda is not likely to be counted among the Democratic frontrunners, but he arguably has far better qualifications than the man who currently holds the job. Donald Trump has evidently shattered the precedent which held that you needed political or military experience to run for president, but Ojeda has both. In addition to his service in the West Virginia legislature, he served in the U.S. Army for 24 years, including stints in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He's also a full-throated economic populist who puts his body on the line for his principles, from appearing on picket lines and championing teachers' unions to surviving a brutal beating that he suspects was politically motivated. He has a racially diverse background -- his paternal grandfather was a Mexican immigrant. And believe it or not, he voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

That last detail might not be a positive in the Democratic primaries, of course. On one hand, millions of liberals and progressives remain furious with those who elected the 45th president; on the other, winning back at least some proportion of Trump voters could be key to victory in 2020. Ojeda lost his race against Republican Carol Miller in West Virginia's 3rd congressional district by 13 percentage points, which doesn't sound great until you learn that the  same district supported for Trump by 49 points in 2016.

In other words, Ojeda thinks he can be the dark-horse candidate who comes out of nowhere and sweeps to the Democratic nomination. Consider his latest video attacking one of the potential frontrunners in that race, Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas (who hasn't yet announced whether he's actually running).

I recently spoke with Richard Ojeda by phone. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How you plan on standing out in what is likely to be an exceptionally crowded field of candidates?

I think that I already stand out against the typical candidate that’s out there. I say what I believe and I put boots on the ground. I do live videos. I believe in being accessible. Some of the things that I'm pushing already are things that there's no way that the people that are also thinking about running would be willing to do. I'm the one that’s calling for lobbyists to wear body cameras because I'm not in the pockets of these people.

We know that there's quite a few people out there that try to say they're fighting for the working-class citizens, but their actions prove that they're not. I think that I already show that I'm different than the majority of them. Basically, the field of Democrats are spending their times in corporate boardrooms and I have no problems walking the picket line, and I've proven that.

How do you strike a balance between appealing to what we might call the Bernie Sanders crowd, which is attracted to your populist economic message, and the Donald Trump crowd which tends to be more conservative on economic issues? How do you appear sufficiently progressive to the former without alienating the latter?

To me, it's about working-class citizens and their jobs. I'm trying to stand up so that the middle class, the working class, can finally have a say. I put them as my No. 1 priority. I don’t think the rest do that.

Okay. I have a friend who was a Bernie supporter in 2016 and has said that he's thinking of supporting you in 2020. He wants to know what your plans are to secure stable jobs with a living wage for working Americans across the country when manufacturing and other industrial work is disappearing?

Well, I think it deals with strengthening our unions. I think that’s the key. Unions have been under attack for quite some time and I think a lot of the jobs that we need to create in this country need to be union jobs. People want to be able to get a job that they can rely on to feed their family and pay their bills. I believe that if we are going to create jobs in this country, then let's create jobs that will absolutely put the working-class people at work to the point where they have one job. They don’t have to work three, because they have to work Wendy's, McDonald's, and Walmart to survive.

You lost your recent campaign for Congress, but came much closer to winning than anyone expected and significantly outperformed expectations. What lessons would you apply from that campaign to-Iowa and New Hampshire and the other early states?

I think first and foremost, I'm going to be me, but this comes down to the party. It's about actually finding the person out there that can best relate to the people on the ground, the working class citizens out there. That’s something that we have not had. What I did in West Virginia was — by going around and speaking to people and letting them know that I was doing everything in my power to give them the ability to have that again — it was something that they really appreciated. I proved that with my actions. Once again, I don’t have a problem going to a picket line. I don’t have a problem standing with people who deserve the best.

What the Democratic Party also has to realize is that if you're continuing to push these people that are cookie-cutter politicians, then you can get ready to lose again in November. It's time to find some people that actually mean what they say.

I'm going to go ahead and throw this out right now. Everybody wants to call Beto O'Rourke the knight in shining armor, but the truth is this: Beto O'Rourke takes more money from big energy than, I believe, any other congressman in this country. The Democratic Party needs to take a stand against corporate greed. When you have people out there that say they want to fight the opioid epidemic but they're taking money from Big Pharma, they're wrong. And people see this. But once again, it's about the Democratic Party reaching out and finding the person that can get in there and is actually wanting to fight for the right reasons, not to pad their pocket or increase their power.

[Note: O'Rourke accepted more donations from oil and gas executives than any other Democrat in Congress,]

I want to go back to something you said before that you would support lobbyists having to wear body cams. Would you be willing to wear a body cam to prove that you are–

Won't bother me a bit. Will not bother me a bit. I think we should put cameras in everyone's office. Look, transparency is the key. We've got to stop allowing these backdoor dealings. We've got to stop these organizations like ALEC that basically wine and dine legislators in order to get them to go back and push legislation that they have created which benefits them and the top one percent. Right now, Americans don’t trust their government. We got to give them a reason to trust them again, and transparency is how we can do that.

You're running as an outsider candidate from a small, rural state. You've never held federal office. If you were elected president, you'd need a vice-president and advisers who have more experience, which means they're more likely to subscribe to this establishment mentality that you're trying to buck. How do you strike a balance? What kinds of people would you surround yourself with as president?

Well obviously, successful leaders surround themselves with intelligent people. I'm going to always look out for absolutely the best of the best to come and be able to give me the information that I need so that whatever decision I make, it's going to absolutely help and not hurt. I'm going to find someone who is not bought and paid for. That’s my biggest litmus test right there. I think that’s important: When we're talking about medical issues, I want to speak to somebody who is an absolute expert in the field. But when you're talking about work, the working-class citizens, I believe in talking to the people on the ground as well, not just listening to somebody in the corporate boardroom.

What stories have voters told you — whether it's teachers on the picket line or people who work blue-collar jobs who are suffering — that really resonate? What lessons have you learned from talking to and listening to the people?

Once again, you also have to remember, the whole teacher strike that took place in West Virginia, the reason why I got up and I gave that speech was because I spent four years in the classroom after retiring from the military. I consider myself a working-class citizen, I believe anybody who spends their time in the military can consider themselves working class. But when I got out of the military, it was what I found when I come home that absolutely just sickened me.

We have people struggling to make ends meet. We have a drug epidemic that’s ripped apart our communities, has killed thousands upon thousands of people. We got elderly cutting their meds in half. These are the things that are happening all over this country. And I hear these same issues everywhere I go. The 19 months that I ran for Congress, I received phone calls and emails and letters from all over America, and that’s what really made the decision to go ahead and run for the presidency of the United States, because the problems that we were facing in West Virginia are the same problems we see everywhere else.

How did your experiences in the military shape your views not just on social and economic issues but on foreign policy?

Spending 44 years in the military, I've worked with militaries from all over the world. There's a lot of things that I've seen and have been a part of that lets me know diplomacy must be the first option. I've deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times. I've got the names of people that never come home on my back. When I first deployed to Iraq, I went there and I was proud to deploy. I was a company commander. I was doing exactly what I had trained my entire adult life to do, which was fight and win this nation's wars.

But it didn’t take me long, once I got boots on the ground in Iraq, that I realized that a big of part of it is money. The things that you see were … we were spending $200 per troop per day for food and we wasn’t eating that, but Halliburton, Brown & Root were getting that money. And if you look today, we're still in Afghanistan building roads where I would say 90 percent of the people don’t even own a car. Why are we still there today when we took Osama Bin Laden out in 2010*? Why are we still there today? Because somebody is making a lot of money from us being in that area.

What specifically has Donald Trump done as president that you would oppose or try to reverse? And for that matter, going back to other administrations,  what about Barack Obama or George W. Bush?

I would tell you that, No. 1, the worst thing for me as someone who spent over 20 years in the military -- I've served side by side with military forces from all over the world: Nepalese, Jordanian, Australian, Kiwis, Canadians, you name it. I've served side by side with them and never once have I looked to my left and my right and ever saw a Russian. Yet right now, we've got a person who has no problems burning bridges with those allies that have been with us for decades to what? Lay down a red carpet for the Russian government? Who now we pretty much feel participated in trying to rig an election? Yeah, I disagree wholeheartedly.

There are people who might oppose you because you supported Trump in 2016. What would you say to those Democratic voters?

First and foremost, there were a lot of people out there that voted for Donald Trump. Democrats have got to stop allowing their hatred for Donald Trump to become their hatred for middle America. The reason why many people voted for Donald Trump was because they didn’t feel like they had an option. OK? Where I come from, I supported Bernie Sanders, but that was taken away from the West Virginia voters, and it become basically the lesser of two evils. And a lot of people in West Virginia were not very happy with the person who basically spoke about taking jobs away from a lot of West Virginians, but yet we had one that came down there and said he was going to put the coal miners to work. It was about feeding the family. That’s what it was about. A lot of the things that he was saying a lot of people were not happy with, but at the end of the day, it comes down to being able to put food on the table, and that’s where it was.

How do you going to reconcile a pro-working-class agenda with the fact that, for example, the coal jobs that left West Virginia aren't going to come back? How can you help people without coming across as either disingenuous or naively optimistic regarding the future of the coal industry?

That's why I support the Green New Deal. But once again, when it comes to the Green New Deal, I want to make sure that it's not leaving working-class citizens in the communities left behind, and also to make sure that it creates union jobs. Then I want to make sure that energy costs don’t go up for the poor and the working families. Once again, I want to see jobs come to West Virginia so that the coal miner can transition to something else. But it's got to be more than Wendy's and Walmart. As long as you can do that, I'm behind it wholeheartedly.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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