Earlier this year, something truly inspiring happened. In the wake of an immense amount of cuts to education over decades—in a state where Donald Trump got more than 2.5 times the number of votes Hillary Clinton received—teachers went on a strike deemed illegal by the West Virginia State Attorney General. It was the literal picture of grassroots organizing, as labor collectively organized to protest the abhorrent conditions created by their Republican government. Which brings me to Richard Ojeda, the first man not named Michael Bloomberg to officially toss his hat into the ring for the 2020 Democratic primary.
Ojeda announced his candidacy in The Intercept, and let’s just start with their correction at the bottom of the story:
Update: November 12, 2018
A previous headline on this story stated that Richard Ojeda led the West Virginia teachers strike. The headline has been clarified to reflect the fact that he played a key role in the strike but it was led by the state’s public school teachers.
The initial story didn’t make clear whether that was The Intercept wrongly reporting that notion or whether that is how Ojeda presented it to them, but regardless, the story went out with an incorrect headline so everyone associated with it should be seen as culpable in that falsehood. West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee told WCHSTV in Charleston that calling him a “leader” is just flat-out wrong.
“He did not lead the work action. He was very supportive of the work action. The leaders of the work action were the thousands of educators who stood united and made the important decision to step out of the classroom for the students of West Virginia.”
That’s not to say that Ojeda wasn’t a big part of the strikes, as teacher Don Scalise told WCHSTV:
“The teacher strike was probably something that was a ground up movement, but Ojeda was one of the people who was sounding the alarm before it was popular to really be with the teachers.”
So basically, Ojeda did what politicians are supposed to do, and placed his megaphone in front of a grassroots movement. He did “lead” the strikes in the sense that he was one of the first people in the West Virginia legislature to support it, but to say he “led” the strike is to erase the bravery of the thousands of teachers who put their necks on the line before politicians like Ojeda gave them cover. I get that this unknown candidate needs to find a way to define his candidacy, but kicking it off with a mischaracterization is not a good start.
So what else do we know about this presidential unknown who just lost a race to represent West Virginia in the United States House of Representatives?
He spent 24 years in the U.S. Army—earning two Bronze stars—then fought to pass the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Act in the state legislature, said that the Affordable Care Act should include a public option, and campaigned in 2018 on holding opioid companies responsible for pushing a deadly and highly addictive product on West Virginia. His progressive bona fides are pretty staunch…until you get to the 2016 presidential election. Per Ojeda:
”Hillary Clinton came down here and said, ‘Hey guys, we’re gonna give you all job training.’ But the jobs don’t exist in West Virginia, or they’re minimum wage jobs. You can’t take a person that’s a coal miner making $100,000 feeding their family, and tell them now you can go get a job making $20,000 or you can move to Colorado. Because that’s not acceptable. And that’s what she was pushing.”
”I looked out my window, and I saw my neighbors, and I saw my family and friends, and they were struggling. So when you have somebody who comes and says, ‘Hey guys, I’m not asking you to … move away. I’m going to get coal going again.’ Everybody said, you know what, let’s give him a chance.”
“Him” is Donald Trump. Two years after voting for the president, Ojeda is trying to convince Democrats that he’s the right guy to take down the president. While his critique of the Democrats’ half-assed plan to rejuvenate areas being left behind by our economy is spot-on, voting for a lifelong con artist because of it is a gigantic red flag—far more of a red flag than whatever happened with the false claim of him “leading” the West Virginia teachers’ strikes.
I’ve long contended that a vote for Trump in 2016 should not be a disqualifying factor. Most people aren’t plugged in to politics, and Hillary Clinton was a historically uninspiring candidate, despite her historic candidacy whose symbolism was unimaginably inspiring. A Trump vote obviously is not great, but this country has grown a lot since 2016. Trump’s election served as a wake-up call for many who don’t pay attention to politics, and we should not outright dismiss folks who admit they made a mistake. A 2020 Trump vote is what’s completely disqualifying. The mystery is gone. White supremacy is here.
That said, Ojeda doesn’t fall into the general populace on the “not plugged in to politics” scale. Being a state legislator means that you must be knowledgeable about politics. It’s literally your job. A cursory review of Trump’s past would have proven that he is a hateful man whose words mean absolutely nothing, and “giving him a chance” ignores the litany of selfish acts that Trump has perpetrated over the course of a lifetime. How can a West Virginia man who feels empathy for his fellow coal miners trust a Manhattan socialite who has never done anything for anyone other than himself? At minimum, Ojeda’s 2016 Trump support demonstrates a disqualifying lack of judgement, which is backed up by a new quote from Ojeda conflating progressively problematic, but still liberal congresswomen Maxine Waters and Nancy Pelosi with de facto Trump supporter, Chuck Schumer.
Which is sad, because other than the “leading the teachers strikes” oopsie, the incorrect Pelosi-Schumer assertion and the 2016 Trump vote, Ojeda is an interesting candidate, as The Intercept detailed:
The Democratic Party’s coalition is fueled by women and an increasingly diverse base. When I asked if a white man from West Virginia could understand what was behind the Black Lives Matter movement, he argued that his experience living in and among the working class — which is heavily made up of black and Hispanic people — gives him insight into that struggle. “I can understand it far better than the millionaires and billionaires sitting around the conference tables in Washington, D.C. That’s a fact. Guess what? I’ve worked side by side with those people; I’ve served in the military with the people that lived in those communities,” he said. “I know far more about that life than [elites in Washington] know about that life. So when someone stands up that has a bank account that’s got $50 or $60 million in it, I personally could care less what they have to say about how they’re gonna … how they know what a single parent who is trying to put food on the table feels. Because they don’t.”
The Democratic Party’s biggest problem is that they are (rightfully) viewed as enemies of the lower class. Republicans are far worse, but they run on culture war red meat to distract from the fact that they are stealing from the Richard Ojedas of the world to give to the Donald Trumps of the world. The lesson the Democrats need to take from 2016 is that they can only win back the middle and poorer classes with policies that help better their lives. The policies they need to push are clear as day in light of deep-red states like Idaho, Montana, Nebraska and Utah passing Medicaid expansion in these past midterms, and a candidate like Ojeda is interesting from that perspective.
But can we trust him? It’s hard to say yes given the dual mistakes of “leading” the teacher’s strikes and his “we should give Trump a chance” in 2016. Losing a race for the House is not a traditional path to the presidency, and other than his current words, it’s difficult to see why he should be the bulwark the Democrats put in front of the largest authoritarian threat to the United States in ages.
Plus, it’s dismaying that in the wake of the most successful election ever for Democratic women, that we have spent the aftermath speculating about what Democratic men will run for president. Ojeda’s military service is no-doubt an electoral asset, but so is Tammy Duckworth’s. Ojeda’s broadside against the longtime Democratic mantra of preaching to the upper-middle suburban class is an unimpeachably good thing, but Elizabeth Warren was banging that drum long before the nation heard the name Richard Ojeda. I’m not saying that we absolutely 100% must nominate a woman in 2020, but given that the base of the Democratic Party is women, it would be insane not to focus our attention on the litany of female candidates lined up for 2020, instead of some non-descript West Virginia lawmaker who has never won an election for national office.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.