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A New Kind of West Virginia Democrat

Democrats from the Mountain State are a peculiar breed, conservative and beholden to coal operators. Richard Ojeda hopes to change that.

Mason Adams

In 2016, Richard Ojeda, an Army veteran who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, challenged state Senator Art Kirkendoll in a Democratic primary in Logan County, West Virginia. Two days before the election, Ojeda was attending a campaign event when a guy he grew up with asked him to place a bumper sticker on his truck. Ojeda bent down and was affixing it to the vehicle when the man jumped him from behind. Witnesses say the assailant attacked Ojeda with brass knuckles and tried to run him over with a truck. The man later pleaded guilty. Ojeda went on to win the primary, then the general election.

Ojeda, in other words, is no stranger to fighting. And he’ll need to sharpen his elbows for what will be his biggest fight yet: a full-scale melee for U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins’s (R) seat in West Virginia’s 3rd District. Ojeda ran for it once before, in 2014, when it was held by 38-year incumbent Nick Rahall, a Democrat of the old West Virginian mold: culturally conservative, beholden to Big Coal. Jenkins’s departure—he is running for the U.S. Senate—has set off a mad dash among several candidates, with more likely to emerge in coming months. The question is whether voters in West Virginia are ready for someone like Ojeda, a politician who represents a new kind of West Virginia Democrat.

The challenges in the 3rd District are real and pressing. West Virginia’s poverty rate in 2015 was 17.9 percent, 45th in the nation, and its effects are felt most deeply in southern parts of the state. “A lot of drugs, a lot of poverty. Very few people up this holler here have decent employment,” Ojeda said as he drove his red Jeep Wrangler up Bradshaw Hollow one morning in September. Many of the trailers and houses, set against steep, tree-covered ridges, were charred or rotten. Every now and then a person stood outside, watching us drive past. “I’m going to tell you, if I drop you off up here in this holler and you walk out of here, I don’t know that you’d make it,” Ojeda said.

Roads throughout the region run past neighborhoods pockmarked by burnt, boarded, and decrepit buildings. Opioid abuse wreaks havoc on communities. And while the coal sector has recently seen a production and employment bump due to a rise in global demand for metallurgical, steel-making coal, it has been devastated by bankruptcies, layoffs, and large-scale shifts to mechanization and cleaner sources of energy.

The 3rd District once was solidly blue, but no longer. Jenkins won his 2016 re-election bid by 44 percentage points, while Donald Trump won an eye-popping 73 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 23 percent—an even greater margin than his 69/26 statewide win. Those numbers underscore the feat Rahall managed by holding on to the seat until 2014, longer than most other Appalachian Democrats, who once dominated the region.

“When you look back over its history, my district even voted for McGovern over Nixon back in 1972. It was one of the few districts in the nation to go against Richard Nixon, a Republican,” Rahall said. “Now it’s just turned 180 degrees.”

Democrats still hold an advantage in the number of registered voters, with 51 percent to Republicans’ 27 percent (a bigger advantage than the statewide numbers of 44/32). Yet that gap has shrunk over the decades: In 2007, Democrats held a 67/23 advantage. In 1994 it was 75/22.

That trend is reflected among elected officials in the district. There is Jenkins, who grew up as a Democrat but switched in 2013 to challenge Rahall. Two of the Republican candidates who seek to replace him next year—Beckley physician Ayne Amjad and Logan County Delegate Rupert “Rupie” Phillips—were Democrats up until this year.

Governor Jim Justice, who was elected as a Democrat last year by the same voters who went hard for Trump, switched parties last month at a Trump rally in Huntington. Former Governor and current U.S. Senator Joe Manchin has remained a Democrat, but he too has been tempted by Republicans, including with a possible appointment as Trump’s energy secretary.

Manchin so far has stuck with the Democratic Party and held firm on key votes, including GOP attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. However, Manchin’s conservative tilt, along with his status as the last Democrat standing in West Virginia’s congressional delegation, have defined what “West Virginia Democrat” means in 2017.

“Joe Manchin and others who continue to talk about a ‘West Virginia Democrat,’ they’re trying to talk in code because they know that the voters do not support the Democratic agenda,” said Jenkins.

Phillips, a delegate since 2010, grew up as a Democrat. But in recent years he has opposed federal clean air regulations enacted by President Barack Obama’s administration, which, combined with the rise of natural gas, has plunged the coal industry in a downward spiral. Phillips’s license plate is ”COALDEL.” His Twitter bio reads, “I eat coal for breakfast.” In 2016 he ridiculed climate change by handing out bottles of sunscreen to other delegates during a snowstorm, and he made a show of attending a Donald Trump rally.

“West Virginia Democrats are Bible-thumping, gun-toting, God-fearing people,” Phillips said. “If you’re going to be in D.C. as a Democrat, you will support gun control, abortion, immigration. That’s not what southern West Virginia is.”

The candidates running for the 3rd District who have retained the “D” next to their name don’t resemble national Democrats, either.

Steve Williams is mayor of Huntington, the second-largest city in West Virginia, which attracted headlines in 2016 when it saw 26 opioid overdoses in a four-hour period, and then again this year as host of the Trump rally that saw Justice’s party change. Williams, a self-identified conservative “blue dog” Democrat who served in the state house between 1987 and 1994, said he’ll work with Republicans like Justice and Trump if it will help southern West Virginia.

“What we’ve found to be successful in Huntington is when people expect us to zig, we zag because it’s out of the norm,” Williams said. “That has proven to be tremendously successful on the good things and the bad. With that, all i’m looking for is a partner. If the governor is seeking not to come in and tell me what to do, but to show me how he’ll partner with me, I’ll work with him. I’ll be the same in Washington with the president and members of Congress.”

In that sense, Williams would be a lot like Manchin, who shared supper with Trump earlier in September for a discussion of tax reform. That’s not a bad look, considering that an August poll showed that Manchin was the only statewide official with a better-than-50-percent approval rating. He even ranked three percentage points higher than Trump.

After the Justice’s party flip, however, some West Virginia Democrats have started to turn on Manchin, who helped recruit and support Justice. Jeff Kessler, a former state senate president who lost to Justice in last year’s party primary, said Belinda Biafore, a Manchin ally, should be replaced as chairwoman of the state Democratic Party.

Former party vice chairman Chris Regan, a lawyer in Wheeling, also has been a vocal critic of the party’s status quo. That’s due in large part to the Manchin wing ousting him from his party leadership post last year. Regan said that with Justice, West Virginia Democrats sacrificed principle in pursuit of winning. “The party essentially gave itself away to someone who didn’t care about it,” Regan said. “If you ask right now what are they doing—what do they stand for, what is their message—there’s nothing there. There’s no answer to that question.”

Democrats did put up a legislative fight against Republican efforts to turn West Virginia, long a labor stronghold, into a right-to-work state and repeal its prevailing wage law, but failed on both counts.

As the country has become more polarized along party lines, and as the divide has grown between urban and rural areas, West Virginia has increasingly tilted toward Republicans on social issues, guns, and coal. Its politicians have followed. In many cases, the so-called “West Virginia Democrat” looks a lot more like a Republican. Certainly that was the case with Justice, who Democrats elected by a 2-1 margin over Kessler and former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin.

On the other hand, that same set of voters pushed Bernie Sanders to victory over Hillary Clinton in all 55 counties in the 2016 presidential primary. That raises the possibility that voters weren’t necessarily attracted to Justice and Sanders’s policy positions, so much as their personalities and opposition to the political establishment.

That possibility is what makes Ojeda an intriguing candidate.

Ojeda’s military background gives him near-automatic credibility in a state that was born in a war and continues to revere the armed forces. Ask him to name role models and Ojeda will rattle off a list of men, dead and alive, with whom he has served, long before he names a politician. (He finally mentioned John Kennedy when pressed on that point.)

His upbringing ties him to southern West Virginia culture. One branch of his family mined coal, he said, and the other sold drugs. “Growing up you had three choices: Dig coal, sell dope, or join the military. I chose the military route,” Ojeda said.

But most of all it’s the take-no-prisoners fighting tendency that might give Ojeda an edge next year. In 2016 he ran hard against Kirkendoll and, by extension, his financial and political ties to the Logan County establishment. Now, Ojeda said, he’s taking aim at the Manchin political machine, which he suggested has backed Williams, the blue dog Huntington mayor.

Williams shrugged the accusation off: “Politics is not a team sport,” he said. “Joe’s got to go get his votes where he can get his, and I’m certainly going after my votes.”

Ojeda’s campaign starts with Logan County, which he won with 61 percent of the vote in the 2014 primary against Rahall, even as he lost the district 66.5 percent to 33.5 percent. He grew that base to include Boone, Lincoln, and parts of Mingo and Wayne counties in his state senate district. His congressional campaign is based so far around Facebook Live events in which he answers questions. He swings at every question, and occasionally a voter will tap an apparent nerve as he gets unexpectedly animated about an issue.

Ojeda’s positions generally fall within the mainstream of the Democratic Party. He grew up in the culture of organized labor, and when coal comes up he takes an old-school approach that praises the worker but looks skeptically at the operators. He defends the beauty of the mountains as an important economic asset and asserts that the industry should clean up its messes.

He thinks that Obamacare needs to be fixed, not replaced. He’s not entirely in favor of Medicare for All but thinks that patients should be able to purchase a government plan as one of several insurance options. He successfully carried a bill this year to legalize medical marijuana within West Virginia.

On the flip side, he has an 86 percent approval rating from the NRA, and like other West Virginia Democrats supported Trump in 2016.

Ojeda’s campaign is less about a platform than it is about integrity and his willingness to fight. Williams suggested that Ojeda’s confrontational style is not conducive to good politics.

“When I’m yelling at someone, nothing is getting done, but when we find a common goal and purpose, and start collaborating together to create partnerships, we can get something done,” he said. “As mayor you have to be able to articulate a vision and start to build consensus and get people to come in this direction.”

But come the general election campaign, scrappiness may be what Democrats need. The Republican bench continues to develop—state Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas, for example, said he’s still weighing his options and will decide in the next two months—but already has seen viable candidates emerge.

Eleven-year delegate and House Majority Whip Carol Miller of Huntington is a lifelong Republican and daughter of longtime congressman Samuel Devine, who represented a central Ohio district from 1959 to 1981. Miller’s political pedigree and pragmatic approach to policy brings to mind U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, who forged a 13-year run representing the 2nd District before her ascent to the upper chamber.

“I feel very strongly that a Republican woman will be a positive for United States Congress,” Miller said. “Most West Virginians are pretty basically moderate conservatives. That’s who they are, party affiliation or not. It’s my job to do the best I can for those people who elect me. They pretty much know who they’re getting.”

And then there’s Phillips, who seems to be Ojeda’s opposite in many ways. Ojeda dismissed his fellow Logan County resident and former Democrat as a “mouthpiece for the coal industry,” and Phillips doesn’t like Ojeda any better.

“I have a personal problem with Ojeda,” Phillips said. “He’s made up lies up like crazy on me. The reason he doesn’t like me is that when he ran for Congress in 2014 I wouldn’t support him. He’s the type of guy who said, ‘It’s my ball. You play the way I want to play, or I’m taking my ball and going home.’ I’m not a whiner or a keyboard jockey. I’m a get down and get it done kind of guy.”

Democrats and Republicans will determine their nominee for the 3rd District by primary next year. Their choices will affect not just the district’s next representative in Congress, but also the shape of their respective parties in southern West Virginia.

“There is a path forward for Democrats, and I think it’s just going to take a little time and money,” Rahall said. “But right now, the memory of Barack Obama is too vivid, and the delight at Donald Trump is still there. He says the right things, appeals to the right gut issues, and he appeals to those who feel that the system is rigged against them.”

The Democrats running in 2018 remain optimistic, however. Williams radiates confidence in his chances next year, while Ojeda talks like a man on a mission.

“I believe there is a purpose for me,” Ojeda said. “I was almost killed five times in Iraq. I was five minutes away from being kidnapped or killed by 60 Taliban fighters. I almost got beat to death on the banks of Whitman Creek.” He added, “I’m a stubborn individual. I believe we should have better. I’m trying to fight so that people can have better.”