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.
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.