Ink and iron: Stereotype-defying candidate aims to flip seat

Published: Jun. 15, 2018 at 6:11 PM EDT
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Richard Ojeda is a retired Army paratrooper with combat medals, 26 tattoos and a 300-pound bench press — no ordinary candidate for Congress.

But 2018 is no ordinary political year, and that has some Democrats thinking he's right for the moment, giving them their best chance at snatching a U.S. House seat from Republicans in West Virginia.

A win there would demonstrate new vulnerability for President Donald Trump in what has been a GOP stronghold in recent years. But Democrats still outnumber Republicans in West Virginia's 3rd District, leaving party leaders optimistic that the unconventional candidate could deal a damaging blow to the president's political fortunes.

Elected to the state Senate in 2016, the high-idling, fast-talking Ojeda became a friend to teachers during their fight for better pay and benefits. He also took up the cause of medical marijuana, successfully sponsoring legislation to make it legal.

Now Ojeda is pursuing the seat vacated by Republican Rep. Evan Jenkins' failed U.S. Senate campaign, running against GOP state lawmaker Carol Miller for the state's only open congressional seat. After a landslide win in the May primary, Ojeda could help Democrats gain ground in a state where Trump won 68 percent of the vote in 2016.

"He's not only not your typical politician; he's not your typical West Virginia politician," said Robert Rupp, a West Virginia Wesleyan political history professor. "We like candidates with experience. We like candidates that usually don't rock the boat. Our politicians are talented and ambitious, but the words extreme or fiery or charismatic don't usually apply."

In Ojeda's case, they do.

During a busy campaign, Ojeda tells his team he expects to fit at least an hour a day at the gym into his schedule.

"It's my stress reliever, ..." Ojeda said. "It allows me to be able to burn energy. It allows for me to be able to take away from what I've got going on at that time and remove it from my mind and just focus on taking care of my body."

The November race presents a contrast in backgrounds. Miller, who declined an interview request, comes from a political family. Her father is the late U.S. Rep. Samuel Devine of Ohio.

Ojeda never saw himself getting into politics.

After retiring from a 24-year Army career, Ojeda co-founded a nonprofit in the Logan area near the Kentucky border. The group helped cover up graffiti, removed tires from streams, gave shoe vouchers to thousands of schoolchildren and provided 10,000 meals to the poor and elderly. He said some kids in the coal region had it worse than ones he saw in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2012, Ojeda went to the Logan County Commission to see if it could help deal with some dilapidated structures that concerned him. He was turned away and told "shut your mouth," Ojeda said.

"I got into politics because I said I cannot sit and allow this garbage to go on," Ojeda said.

Ojeda said he grew tired of career politicians. In 2014, he ran against U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, who represented the 3rd District for nearly four decades, but lost in the primary.

In 2016, Ojeda filed for a state Senate seat. Days before the primary, he was attacked while placing a bumper sticker on a pickup at a cookout. Authorities said Jonathan Porter hit Ojeda in the face with a pipe and brass knuckles, then tried to run him over.

Ojeda, who suffered multiple facial fractures, believes the attack was politically driven, though he cannot prove it. He said the beating only motivated him.

"I was almost killed in Iraq five times. I was five minutes away from being kidnapped and killed in Afghanistan," he said. "Why am I going to come back to where I'm from and fear some of these people? If I quit, they win."

Ojeda won his Senate seat that November. Porter was sentenced to up to five years in prison but was released after six months.

This January, Ojeda made a passionate Senate speech in favor of teachers that foreshadowed the fight they would wage over pay and benefits. Ojeda's concern for teachers comes from the four years he spent as a high school ROTC instructor after retiring from the Army.

West Virginia teachers went on a nine-day strike in late February and won a 5 percent pay increase. Their success ignited similar walkouts in other states.

"I feel like I'm one of them," he said.

He also believes that voters are ready for something different. Despite his party's recent track record in West Virginia, he notes that Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in every county in the 3rd District, which stretches from the Ohio River through the southern coalfields to the Greenbrier Valley.

"I don't consider us to be a red state," Ojeda said. "If you look at the numbers, it's really a blue state."

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