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14 Nov 2018 20:43
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  •   Home > News > International

    Midterm elections: Former Donald Trump voter Richard Ojeda aims to flip key seat for Democrats

    Richard Ojeda is a Democratic candidate in the Republican stronghold of West Virginia. Against all odds, the tough-talking former Trump voter could flip a pivotal midterms seat.

    Richard Ojeda is a tattooed and tough-talking former paratrooper who lifts weights in his campaign videos and shares his personal mobile phone number with the public.

    A Democratic House candidate in West Virginia's 3rd district in the upcoming US midterm elections, Mr Ojeda's tactics have him within a single-digit polling margin in a district where almost three-quarters of the population voted for Donald Trump.

    Mr Ojeda himself was a Trump voter in 2016.

    Though they stand on opposite ends of the political spectrum, the President and the candidate share a similarity: Neither considers himself to be a true politician.

    "The people know that I resonate with the people," Mr Ojeda said.

    "I come from a family of coal miners. I don't have a silver spoon in my backside."

    Despite his campaign style and rhetoric, Mr Ojeda doesn't call himself populist in the mould of Mr Trump, although others do.

    But, like many of his supporters, he says, he hungers for a return to an era of American politics when improving people's lives was paramount.

    He first attracted national attention when West Virginia teachers went on strike earlier this year.

    Then a state legislator, Mr Ojeda emerged as a leader for the cause, rallying with teachers in the state capitol for three weeks and joining in song when they won.

    The teachers ended up with a salary increase of 5 per cent. Mr Ojeda gained a platform to build a campaign.

    First strikes, then to the ballot box

    Jake Fertig, a public school teacher in the small town of Belle, fills a cupboard in his classroom with everything from snacks and bottled water to toiletries and sewing kits — things that his high school students often can't get at home.

    "We have a lot of children that are in crisis," he said.

    "A lot of kids that have homes where there is a lot of drug addiction, a lot of extreme poverty, alcoholism, abuse."

    Like his students, Mr Fertig's worry doesn't stop when the school bell rings.

    He once worked four simultaneous jobs to make ends meet for his family. With a disabled child and chronically ill wife, he's had to choose between buying medicine and paying bills. There's not always money for both.

    Mr Fertig was one of the 20,000 teachers whose strike shut down schools across the state, affecting some 250,000 students.

    Though he makes more than the average teacher in West Virginia, the state as a whole is still ranked 48th in US teacher salaries.

    He and his fellow teachers' union members are motivated to vote blue on election day.

    They're hardly the only labour group in West Virginia hoping for political change, motivated by a very specific desire for increased salaries and better conditions.

    'Trump Digs Coal,' but resurgence could be short-lived

    Coal mining, once West Virginia's premiere industry, has declined substantially in recent years in part due to environmental regulations passed by former President Barack Obama and rising demand for renewables and natural gas.

    Despite the cleaner energy options, Mr Trump has vowed to bring the coal industry back from the brink of extinction.

    At an August campaign rally for Mr Ojeda's opponent, Mr Trump renewed such promises before a crowd wearing hard hats and waving "Trump Digs Coal" signs.

    For West Virginia voters, jobs in the coal industry are top of mind.

    Coal production has risen 27 per cent since 2016, mostly to meet demand for overseas steel production. Over 3,000 coal industry jobs have been recreated.

    Yet they're among 52,000 jobs in the industry compared to 90,000 at its peak. And only 13,000 jobs are in West Virginia — a state with a population of nearly 2 million.

    Experts predict the uptick won't last. A recent report by West Virginia University forecasts that the states' coal production will level out in the next two years, then sharply decrease over the next two decades.

    Mr Fertig has seen firsthand the need for a new industry in the state and feels his work as a teacher could be all for naught if change isn't near.

    "For a student coming out of high school, it's really fast food or the military or just leave and find something somewhere else," Mr Fertig explained.

    "Even if you get a college degree, there really isn't a lot of jobs outside of working in the school system you can use those for."

    And walk into a fast food outlet, he says, and you're more likely to see adults rather than teenagers serving burgers, because that's the only work that's available.

    Voters see spark of hope in pro-jobs, pro-labour stance

    Mr Fertig recognises his support for Mr Ojeda is similar to the trust and faith many on the other side of the aisle see in Mr Trump and the Republican Party.

    "A lot of West Virginians … they're horribly depressed. We're in a terrible situation. Why would they not cling to that hope?" he says.

    "I don't consider myself populist. I'm a Democrat. But I am Democrat because I am what the Democrat Party is supposed to be," Mr Ojeda says.

    "Taking care of the working-class citizens, supporting our unions wholeheartedly, taking care of our sick, giving them a non-addictive form of pain management, taking care of our elderly, not letting people stick their hands in things like Medicare, social security, taking care of our veterans.

    "That's not what the Democratic Party has always been. That's how they fell from grace. We got to get back to that."

    Mr Ojeda remains an outsider to win in West Virginia, but for Democrats, he's one of those carrying hopes that there'll be a Blue Wave of voters across the country next week.

    © 2018 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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