Break­ing ground: An un­pol­ished voice in W.Va. speaks up.

A con­gres­sional can­di­date in coal-min­ing coun­try is hailed as an au­then­tic, un­pol­ished voice. Will it pro­pel him to the Capi­tol?

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY GREG JAFFE IN LO­GAN, W.VA. greg.jaffe@wash­post.com

Back when his cam­paign had raised just $7,000, when just about any­one who knew any­thing about pol­i­tics gave him zero chance of win­ning, Richard Ojeda de­cided to make a cam­paign video for his run for Congress.

He was a Demo­crat in a dis­trict where Don­ald Trump won 73 per­cent of the vote. His team for the one-day shoot last De­cem­ber con­sisted of Madalin Sam­mons, 26, who only a few months ear­lier had been work­ing at a Fam­ily Dol­lar store, and J.D. Belcher, a laid-off coal miner who made ads for a lo­cal car deal­er­ship and moon­lighted in a death metal band called Keep the Vic­tim Warm.

In other races, long-shot can­di­dates had used vi­ral launch videos to gar­ner na­tional at­ten­tion and catch fire.

“So, we knew we had to have one,” Sam­mons said.

The piv­otal mo­ment for Ojeda came near the end of the shoot. He was head­long into a rant about some­thing that no one can quite re­mem­ber when he reached into his back pocket.

“When you call my cell­phone, it’s this phone,” he said. “I’m the one that pulls it out of my pocket, and I’m the one that an­swers it.” He then re­cited his number. “What do you think about putting his phone number in the ad?” asked Belcher, who typ­i­cally closed his car ads with the deal­er­ship’s number.

“It could be re­ally great,” Sam­mons replied, “or it could be re­ally bad.” They asked the can­di­date. “I don’t give a s---,” Ojeda said. They de­cided to use it.

Ten months later, Ojeda was driv­ing past burned-out houses and aban­doned store­fronts in the lit­tle coal town where he had spent his child­hood and still lived. The polls had him neck and neck with his Repub­li­can op­po­nent in the race for a va­cant seat. It was 21 days un­til the elec­tion and his cell­phone was now ring­ing 100 times a day with calls from all over West Virginia, the United States and the world.

“Seat­tle, Gaithers­burg, Min­neapo­lis, Paris, France,” Ojeda said, scrolling through his calls from ear­lier that day. The Bri­tish am­bas­sador was com­ing to West Virginia and wanted to meet for break­fast.

At a mo­ment in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics when authenticity is ev­ery­thing, Ojeda is be­ing hailed as an un­pol­ished, au­then­tic voice. His sud­den rise is rem­i­nis­cent of Pres­i­dent Trump, who is hailed by his sup­port­ers for break­ing all the shop­worn rules of mod­ern pol­i­tics.

Some of that same magic has pro­pelled Ojeda, a 48-year-old re­tired Army para­trooper and cur­rent West Virginia state sen­a­tor.

“There’s good peo­ple up here,” Ojeda was say­ing as his cell­phone started to ring again.

“I just watched your ad on YouTube and I’m pray­ing for you,” said a caller from Olympia, Wash.

“I worry you’re too bom­bas­tic,” coun­seled an­other fan from Sil­ver Spring, Md.

“I can’t be­lieve you ex­ist,” added a caller from Muskegon, Mich.

Ex­ist he does, but authenticity was eas­ier for Ojeda when he had no money; when it was just he, Sam­mons, Belcher and a Sony A7S cam­era. Now his cof­fers were full. In the most recent quar­ter, he raised $1.4 mil­lion in cam­paign do­na­tions.

The Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee was send­ing con­sul­tants to south­ern West Virginia to help with more pro­fes­sional look­ing cam­paign ads and me­dia buys.

The money and at­ten­tion were help­ing Ojeda to blast out his pro-union, anti-es­tab­lish­ment mes­sage. But Sam­mons, a key aide, wor­ried the scripted ads and out­side con­sul­tants were mak­ing Ojeda sound too much like a con­ven­tional politi­cian. They were miss­ing the very thing that had ral­lied blue-col­lar West Vir­gini­ans to his cause.

Ojeda pulled onto Route 10, the two-lane high­way that cuts across his dis­trict. His phone rang again. He turned down the car ra­dio, which was play­ing Me­tal­lica. This time it was New York Mayor Bill de Bla­sio.

“I’m do­ing great, sir,” said Ojeda, who apol­o­gized for south­ern West Virginia’s ter­ri­ble cell ser­vice and asked the mayor to call him back in 10 min­utes.

“This amazes me,” he said, turn­ing to Sam­mons. “I don’t think I’m spe­cial.”

“We don’t think you are ei­ther,” she dead­panned.

The first time Sam­mons saw Ojeda, he was in her Face­book feed rail­ing about the state of a washed-out mountain road that she trav­eled on her way to work. It was 2016, and Ojeda, who had re­tired from the Army af­ter 24 years and mul­ti­ple com­bat tours, was run­ning for state se­nate.

Sam­mons had dropped out of West Virginia Univer­sity af­ter be­com­ing preg­nant with her son and was work­ing at her tiny home­town news­pa­per. “I voted for him be­cause of that road,” she said of Ojeda, who pro­nounces his name “O’Jed­dah.” “He was the only per­son talk­ing about the one thing that mat­tered most to me.”

Days be­fore the Demo­cratic pri­mary, a man asked Ojeda to put a bumper sticker on his truck and then, as the can­di­date bent over to oblige, bashed him with a metal pipe. The at­tack broke eight bones in his face.

Ojeda, who says the at­tack was po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated, even­tu­ally won the se­nate seat.

Mean­while, Sam­mons, like much of south­ern West Virginia, was strug­gling. The news­pa­per where she worked shut down, her son was di­ag­nosed with autism, and the only place she could find work was at the Fam­ily Dol­lar. She said she was fired from her cashier’s job when she told her bosses that she needed to miss work to take her son to the doc­tor.

“I felt like I’d failed,” she said. “Peo­ple au­to­mat­i­cally think you’re scan­ning bar codes be­cause you can’t do any­thing else, but truth­fully some­times life deals you s---.”

In the sum­mer of 2017, Ojeda an­nounced he was run­ning for Congress. A few weeks later Sam­mons sent him a Face­book mes­sage of­fer­ing to vol­un­teer. In De­cem­ber they pushed out his launch video.

Ojeda’s break­through mo­ment came a month later when he took up the cause of the state’s teach­ers, whose pay ranked 47th in the na­tion. On Jan. 23, Ojeda stood be­fore sev­eral hun­dred teach­ers in Mingo County. A cell­phone cam­era cap­tured what hap­pened next.

“Why are we al­ways kick­ing teach­ers in the teeth?” Ojeda railed. “Be­cause that’s what we do!”

One month later the state’s teach­ers, bus driv­ers and cooks walked off work, the first of many such strikes that swept across the na­tion last spring.

Ojeda reg­u­larly took to Face­book Live to rally the strik­ing teach­ers and keep them up­dated on the lat­est moves in the leg­is­la­ture.

“Who has been the win­ners in this leg­isla­tive ses­sion?” he barked into his phone on a day when law­mak­ers tried to whittle down a pro­posed 5 per­cent pay raise. “Big en­ergy and big pharma.” The post drew 222,000 views.

The teach­ers won the 5 per­cent pay hike in March. “Make no mis­take about it — this vic­tory is yours!” Ojeda screamed through a bull­horn to teach­ers gath­ered in the capi­tol.

He eas­ily won the Demo­cratic pri­mary in May. A Mon­mouth Univer­sity poll in June gave him a nar­row lead over his Repub­li­can chal­lenger Carol Miller, the ma­jor­ity whip in the West Virginia House of Del­e­gates and daugh­ter of a former Ohio con­gress­man.

Sam­mons keeps a photo of that mo­ment from June on her phone. She had just wo­ken up and was still dressed in her Star Wars pa­ja­mas when she saw the news on­line and fell to her knees. “I was full-blown shak­ing,” she re­called.

Sud­denly vic­tory seemed pos­si­ble.

By Oc­to­ber, how­ever, Ojeda was nar­rowly trail­ing his Repub­li­can chal­lenger.

Ojeda blamed the take-no-pris­on­ers Se­nate hear­ings to con­firm Supreme Court Jus­tice Brett M. Ka­vanaugh, which re­in­forced the coun­try’s tribal pol­i­tics and whipped up anger at Democrats. Sam­mons wor­ried that the sense of hope and pride that Ojeda had in­spired dur­ing the teacher strike wasn’t com­ing through enough in the cam­paign.

In Septem­ber, af­ter his cam­paign be­gan to amass a war chest and at­ten­tion from the party lead­er­ship, Ojeda had tapped the Wash­ing­ton-based firm that worked on Bernie San­ders’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. In one of the ini­tial ads they shot, Ojeda is dressed in a shirt and tie as he talks to vot­ers. A sten­to­rian voiceover de­scribed his plans to pro­tect So­cial Se­cu­rity, “di­ver­sify the econ­omy” and pro­tect the coal in­dus­try.

Ojeda com­plained that the ad didn’t feel like him. One of the scripts had him de­cry­ing Wash­ing­ton’s “cyn­i­cal ways.”

“I don’t say cyn­i­cal ways,” he said. “That’s not a word I use. I’d say ‘bootlick­ers.’ ”

Ojeda asked Sam­mons to take the lead in writ­ing the first draft of his next batch of spots, which be­gan run­ning in late Septem­ber.

In those ads he’s dressed in com­bat boots, cargo pants and mil­i­tary-themed T-shirts. “Blood is the ink of freedom,” read one. An­other car­ried the number “22,” a ref­er­ence to the number of vet­er­ans who com­mit sui­cide ev­ery day.

Sam­mons said that if the Face­book Live videos were bet­ter qual­ity, she would just run them. In those mo­ments, she re­called, Ojeda was to­tally un­scripted and sputtering with frus­tra­tion and out­rage. He sounded like her neigh­bors and friends.

With 19 days un­til the elec­tion, she was fret­ting over a script with Randy Jones, Ojeda’s 26-year-old po­lit­i­cal di­rec­tor, who grew up in Mor­gan­town. She hoped the ad would hark back to the rough and some­times rad­i­cal spirit that had fu­eled West Virginia’s coal strikes decades ear­lier and mo­ti­vated its teach­ers this year.

To her ear, though, the script didn’t sound like Ojeda.

“I’m Richard Ojeda and I ap­proved this mes­sage be­cause I’m not done fight­ing,” she read as she pinched her lower lip with her pink nails. “You and ev­ery other politi­cian,” she said. “It just sounds cheesy.”

Ojeda and Sam­mons climbed into his red SUV and headed to Pineville, 50 miles south, where a coal mine had gone bank­rupt a day ear­lier, leav­ing 400 peo­ple with­out jobs and wor­ried about their pen­sions.

“It’s so easy to steal from the bot­tom 99 per­cent,” Ojeda told two dozen min­ers who had gath­ered in a park­ing lot, “but try steal­ing from the top one per­cent and they put you un­der the jail.”

A few feet away Sam­mons was hold­ing her boss’s phone, which was buzzing with calls and mes­sages from around the coun­try: Ge­or­gia, Ohio, New Jersey.

“I don’t know if this is real, but I just saw your ad,” read a text mes­sage from Texas. “May God bless your fam­ily. I hope you win.”

Sam­mons pulled one of the min­ers aside to record a short mes­sage for Ojeda’s Face­book page. “This is a chance to let peo­ple know what your lives are like and what you’re go­ing through,” she said. She held up Ojeda’s phone and pressed record.

“I pray ev­ery­one across the na­tion sees us and don’t just put us in the cat­e­gory of dumb old coal min­ers,” the man said.

On a rare day off from Ojeda and the cam­paign, Sam­mons was driv­ing through Gil­bert, the coal town where she grew up.

“That used to be a gro­cery store,” she said, point­ing to an empty build­ing. “That was a hard­ware store. This used to be a flower shop.”

Sam­mons rolled to a stop in front of a bat­tered bun­ga­low where she lived un­til the fifth grade. Her fa­ther, who she said spent time in prison, stayed there now. “My dad just lives day-to­day,” she said. Sam­mons lives with her aunt and un­cle, who raised her and help her look af­ter her son.

She pointed to a rot­ting porch. “Dad was so proud when he built that for my mom,” she said. “Now you see it’s caved in.”

She knocked on the door. No an­swer. Sam­mons headed to McDon­ald’s to talk with the restau­rant man­ager, who had been her boss in high school. Now he was one of her sound­ing boards in a dis­trict where polling is no­to­ri­ously un­re­li­able.

She asked about Ojeda. “I’m kind of on the fence,” the man­ager said. “I like him but he’s the wrong party.”

And she asked about Miller, who rarely talks to the me­dia and has de­clined to de­bate Ojeda. “I don’t hear noth­ing from her,” the man­ager said. “I need to Google that girl and learn some­thing about her.” (Miller did not re­spond ques­tions for this story.)

Sam­mons asked her former boss which was more im­por­tant to him: A con­gress­man who un­der­stood his life and would fight for him or keep­ing the Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity in Congress. “Keep­ing the ma­jor­ity,” he said. Sev­en­teen days un­til Elec­tion Day. Ojeda and his team gath­ered to make the last batch of four cam­paign ads. On that first shoot, 11 months ear­lier, the crew con­sisted of only Sam­mons and Belcher.

Now it was about a dozen peo­ple, in­clud­ing the di­rec­tor, who had flown in from Wash­ing­ton.

Ojeda and the team ran through the spots with the di­rec­tor, in an Amherst Col­lege base­ball cap, coach­ing the can­di­date, in his 82nd Air­borne Di­vi­sion T-shirt.

“A touch more en­ergy this time,” he told Ojeda.

“Move your left arm down,” he prod­ded.

“A lit­tle grav­i­tas,” the di­rec­tor coun­seled.

One of the ads was de­signed to blunt Trump’s recent crit­i­cism of Ojeda as a “wacky” and “stone cold crazy.” Ojeda’s ini­tial, off-the-cuff re­sponse had been to em­brace the la­bel.

“If I’m crazy . . . be­cause it’s hard for me to sleep at night know­ing that we got kids who go to bed hun­gry, then I’ll be a crazy wacky,” he thun­dered in a cell­phone video that Sam­mons posted to Ojeda’s Face­book page.

In the scripted ad, Ojeda was more mea­sured, not­ing that he had voted for Trump in 2016 “be­cause he came here and said he would help.” He promised to “work with the pres­i­dent when he puts West Virginia first.”

A few days later, Ojeda and Sam­mons watched the fin­ished prod­uct from the Wash­ing­ton team. Ojeda wanted an ad that con­nected to south­ern West Virginia’s work­ing-class roots and its long his­tory of la­bor un­rest. “There’s a deep sense of pride that goes back cen­turies to the mine wars and be­ing on the front lines of work­ing-class is­sues like the teach­ers strike,” Sam­mons said.

The ads from the Wash­ing­ton team didn’t cap­ture that spirit, Sam­mons wor­ried.

In the fi­nal days of his cam­paign, Ojeda had all the money he would ever need to make a pol­ished po­lit­i­cal ad. He de­cided the best move was to re­turn to the mo­ment when no one took his cam­paign se­ri­ously, when he had only a few thou­sand dol­lars in the bank.

He asked Sam­mons to call Belcher, the former coal miner who made his first video. “We want an ad that wraps up the last year,” she told him in late Oc­to­ber.

Could he pull all of that to­gether in a 30-sec­ond clos­ing spot?

Belcher had more than four hours of in­ter­views with Ojeda from the De­cem­ber ad shoot and sec­ond ses­sion in May. He had also filmed Ojeda lift­ing weights and ral­ly­ing teach­ers and com­mu­ni­ca­tions work­ers dur­ing sep­a­rate strikes in Fe­bru­ary.

All that footage went into the spot, which took a half day to make.

“I wanted it look like a ‘Bat­man’ trailer,” Belcher said, “not an ad for Congress.”

Ojeda saw it and in­stantly de­cided to go with it.

“I’m sick and tired of the same pa­per cutout politi­cians,” the can­di­date thun­ders in the open­ing line of the new ad. It ends with him cheer­ing on the strik­ing teach­ers at the Capi­tol.

“I will stand with the work­ing­class ci­ti­zens over all else,” he yells to them. “West Virginia built this na­tion . . . we de­serve re­spect.”

The com­mer­cial fades out with a shot of Ojeda and his son stand­ing atop a mountain.

“Win or lose,” Sam­mons said a few hours af­ter the fi­nal de­ci­sion had been made. “That’s the mes­sage we want to close on.”

MELINA MARA/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

JEFF SWENSEN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: Richard Ojeda speaks at a union hall in Smithers, W.Va. The Army vet­eran’s tat­toos honor sol­diers he served with. Aide Madalin Sam­mons wor­ried that con­sul­tants were mak­ing Ojeda sound too much like a con­ven­tional politi­cian.

JEFF SWENSEN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.