Ojeda is looking for ‘Real Democrats’ in Michigan — and across the country

By: - March 29, 2019 5:28 am

Retired Army Maj. Richard Ojeda with L.A. teachers on strike | Twitter

Richard Ojeda is angry. Actually, he’s “pissed off,” and he thinks you should be, too.

The retired Army major and former West Virginia state senator — as well as, for a fleeting moment, Democratic presidential candidate — is in Grand Rapids this week to headline the Democratic counter-programming to President Donald Trump’s rally Thursday.

Retired Army Maj. Richard Ojeda speaks with voters in Rosa Parks Circle in Grand Rapids, March 28, 2019 | Jeff Winston, Michigan Democratic Party

And he’s hoping to fire up the state’s voters who, like him, may have voted for Trump at one point, but have soured on his pro-business economic policies.

If they haven’t done so yet, the former Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) instructor and teacher’s strike leader is willing to educate them on why they should.

“If you’re not angry right now, you’ve got problems,” Ojeda told the Advance Thursday afternoon. “I’m going to Trump’s rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., and they’re going to stand there. They’re going to scream to build a wall. And they’re going to scream that he’s making America great again, but the truth is that he’s attacking their health care. And their communities are no better than they were two years ago.”

In a lengthy interview with the Advance, Ojeda spoke about everything from Right to Work legislation (“garbage”), the idea that anyone can be president (“garbage”), and the Green New Deal (actually, pretty good).

The Advance also asked him about his Democratic favorites for the presidency in 2020, which ranged from the predictable (Bernie Sanders, Tulsi Gabbard) to the surprising (Universal Basic Income advocate Andrew Yang).

“Let me tell you something, the things that Donald Trump said [in 2016] were disgusting,” Ojeda said. “But he was the only one that said that he was going to do something for the coal industry… If the Democratic Party would have pushed somebody that was worth a dime for the people to vote for, [West Virginians] would have voted.”

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: What do Democrats in Michigan, and across the Midwest in other states that voted for Trump, have in common with Democratic voters in West Virginia?

Ojeda: You know, the reasons why the Democrats lost power is because, I tell people, they sucked. We had people that claimed to be Democrats that they wasn’t fighting for the working class. They wasn’t fighting for unions. They wasn’t standing up for our veterans or elderly. They’re claiming to be Democrats, but they were Democrats in name only.

And what happened was people got sick and tired of that. They got sick and tired of the same people running for office, doing absolutely nothing, and then showing up right before the election, writing three checks to the three biggest crooks in the county and then disappearing, and we’re not seeing them again until it’s election time.

And the Republicans were able to seize power. The issue that we have right now is that since the Republicans have seized power, they have absolutely attacked the working class. I mean, they’ve went after unions with this national Right to Work garbage, which is nothing more than a right to work for less. In areas like Michigan and West Virginia that used to be very strong with unions, they’re now struggling because the unions have been under attack.

Right now we’re in Michigan — Trump has a rally today — and there’s a lot of people that are going to that rally. I’m in a hotel, there’s people this hotel that are going and I’ve already heard their conversations in the lobby.

You know, I’ve got some guy that speaks about how he doesn’t really want to go stand in that line because he’s got a really bad back, and I’m thinking to myself, you know, this guy’s probably receiving coverage from the Affordable Care Act. And this is a guy that probably will stand up and scream “Down with Obamacare,” not realizing that that’s the Affordable Care Act. And he doesn’t know that while he’s over there praising Trump, Trump and his cohorts are working to do away with the health care system.

Retired Army Maj. Richard Ojeda speaks with voters in Rosa Parks Circle in Grand Rapids, March 28, 2019 | Jeff Winston, Michigan Democratic Party

Michigan Advance: Do you plan on talking to any of those Trump voters while you’re here?

Ojeda: I don’t have a problem talking to anybody. If they want to come up to me and talk to me, I don’t have a problem speaking to people. I’m all about trying to educate people and tell people what’s really going on. You know, I wrote this down — 690,000, I guess Michiganders? Is that what you’re called, Michiganders? I want to make sure I get this right, Michiganders.

Michigan Advance: You got it.

Ojeda: Under the Healthy Michigan Medicaid expansion plan, you know what, out of those 690,000 people, some of them are probably over there right now in that line, ready to go in there and start praising Trump’s name. And they don’t even realize that he is going to do everything in his power to do away with that capability to have the Healthy Michigan Medicaid expansion plan.

And that’s why people need to be educated. That’s why it’s up to us to educate the masses. You know, a lot of people don’t want to do the research, to look and see if the things being said are true or not. They just automatically run with it.

The problem we have today is we have a notion that if it’s seen on social media, it must be correct. And they immediately go with it. And we have both sides that participate in this type of activity, where you know, they publish things and they may not be true, because they know that people will run with it no matter what. And you know, those activities should be absolutely made illegal, you should not be allowed to try to dupe the American people.

And that’s what’s going on in this country. And unless people wake up, I’m telling you right now we are on a path that is dangerous. And I’m telling you, I love this country. But I fear that if we don’t get off of this path, this country’s going to fail one day, and it’s going to be sooner than later.

Michigan Advance: You described the negative reasons why voters have left the Democratic Party. Having voted for Trump yourself in the past, what do you think it is about what Trump says, and his platform, that appeals to those same people?

Ojeda: Politicians in the past were like watching paint dry. And then all of a sudden, you have a guy that comes in there and he’s bringing fireworks. And everybody wants to watch. And he’s saying things to people that you’ve never heard before during a presidential debate.

U.S. Capitol | Creative Commons

You know what? Maybe we do need to start having some people that are willing to stand up and fight. And if you’re not pissed off enough right now to stand up and start fighting, then you’ve been asleep. That’s the problem is we don’t have enough people that are willing to get in there and actually fight for what’s right.

You know, I’m sick and tired of these politicians that want to come in here, and they’re no different from anyone in the past. You’re gonna sit there and tell me that you want to fight the opioid epidemic? Well, how much money have you taken from Big Pharma? Oh, you’ve taken millions. So don’t even try to tell me that you’re going to fight the opioid epidemic. You know, what is it, the lobbyist playbook? Where the first thing is they do to try to get a legislator to be on board with them is just to promise them a job. And you know what? It works.

Until we push legislation that says it is illegal for anybody that is a representative — Congress, Senate, whatever — to ever become a lobbyist, It’s never going to change. Never going to change. The least we should do is state that they have to wait 10 years before they can become a lobbyist. Because right now, that doesn’t exist. And a person can lose an election and walk right across the street and get a 1,400-plus percent pay raise.

Michigan Advance: They’re trying for just a two-year limit here in Michigan.

Ojeda: Well, look at the devastation in Michigan. I’m here right now in Grand Rapids and … last night I was walking and I was like, this is a pretty nice place. I didn’t see no people here, but you know, obviously it was a pretty nice place. But then I realized that every other building is owned by the DeVos family.

President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Van Andel Arena on March 28, 2019 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Grand Rapids was the final city Trump visited during his 2016 campaign. | Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

I spoke to a guy today that supported me when I ran for Congress and we had a good conversation. He said, you know, if you leave here and you just drive a good 30 minutes to an hour in any direction, you’re going to see those towns that had their hopes just absolutely crushed. Because they were the ones that were screaming, “He’s going to make America great again, he’s going to bring back our towns.”

Crowds lining up for blocks to see President Trump in Grand Rapids, March 28, 2019 | Nick Manes

And right now when you go to those places, they haven’t been brought back to greatness. As a matter of fact, they’re in the same shape, if not worse, than they were when Trump came through here and promised everybody he was going to put people back to work — when in reality, his tariffs have caused a trade war that has absolutely hurt the working class.

He doesn’t care about the auto industry workers; they don’t care about the blue collar workers. Go to their communities and look at how they’re struggling, and how it hasn’t gotten any better for them. They’ve been under attack.

And oh, by the way, how did they do this year on their taxes? Oh, they didn’t get back nearly as much as what they got back last year, because they’re no longer allowed to claim so many things now because of what’s going on [with the 2017 federal Republican tax law]. But the top 1 percent? Well, they did pretty daggone well. Congratulations to them.

Michigan Advance: What did you learn about politics working with the teachers’ union in West Virginia?

Ojeda: You know what, that’s the most important profession that we have in America today. They are the ones that mold the minds of the of the leaders of tomorrow, and we treat them like garbage. We treat them like trash, and we have no respect for the school service personnel. You know, where I come from those meals that are prepared in that cafeteria are the only decent meals those kids get.

Those bus drivers out there, that transport our children to and from school safely are doing so on some of the roughest roads in America. And oh, by the way, I see that you guys got that here, too, in Michigan. Don’t these people deserve to have respect? They do. And it took teachers and school service personnel standing together for nine days demanding respect for them to finally get some respect.

Standing side by side with those teachers was a highlight in my life. Because it was the first time that I saw unions standing together. What won that teachers’ strike was not the teachers and school service personnel standing together.

What won that was when you saw 28,000 teachers and school service personnel standing side by side with the United Mine Workers of America. The Teamsters, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the carpenters and painters, the pipefitters, the boilermakers. All of those unions were standing in solidarity shoulder to shoulder, refusing to take a step back.

Oakland Unified School District students, teachers and parents gather at Oakland City Hall on February 21, 2019 in Oakland, California. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

What brought the [federal] government shutdown to a halt wasn’t politicians working together to find a solution. It was when finally the air traffic controllers and the members of the TSA that make our flights safe were not able to pay for gas to go to and from the airport, and to all these politicians they said, “Hey, you know what? You’re not going to be able to fly home this week and you may have to take the daggone Greyhound.”

You know what I say to that? I say stand together and shut it down.

Michigan Advance: You launched a presidential campaign, and when you ended it, you wrote that “unless someone has extreme wealth, or holds influence and power,” they can’t become president. Do you still think that’s true?

Ojeda: Absolutely, I believe it’s true. I mean, think about this, you know, for almost three months I ran for the presidency of the United States of America. I was on “Morning Joe;” “Meet the Press;” “State of the Union.” And a month and a half later, MSNBC was still not even listing me as a candidate.

But you know, what’s sad is that we got a billionaire that happens to be a coffee guru [Howard Schultz] decides he wants to throw his hat in the ring. And what happened? CNN is giving him a one hour town hall. How come Richard Ojeda never got a town hall? Why is it that the billionaire automatically gets the red carpet, but the person out there, the average citizen, who is absolutely trying his best to fight for the working-class citizens doesn’t get a voice?

That’s the problem that we have in this country.

At one time, we told our children if you study hard, say your prayers, do what’s right, you can grow up and be president. That’s garbage now. Unless you have a powerful family and access to millions upon millions of dollars, and the backing of corporations and things like that, you don’t have a snowball’s chance to win the presidency. And that has to change.

Michigan Advance: Do you see anyone running right now as an exception to that?

Ojeda: I mean, look, I can’t come out and do any endorsements … But I will tell you that, you know, there’s people that are running that I do think are phenomenal. You know, I’ve always been a [U.S. Sen.] Bernie Sanders supporter. I mean, absolutely, he was my pick until they stole it from him. [Ed.: Numerous conspiracy theories about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “stealing” the presidential nomination from Bernie Sanders have been debunked.]

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during an event to introduce the Raise The Wage Act, January 16, 2019 in Washington, DC. | Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

You know, I think [U.S. Rep.] Tulsi Gabbard, her speeches are phenomenal. You know, I like listening to [former tech entrepreneur] Andrew Yang. There’s a lot of people out there that are running that I think are absolutely capable to be phenomenal leaders. We need to find those people out there that are willing to do what’s right for the people.

Michigan Advance: If you look at the map that Democrats won [the U.S. House] with in 2018, a lot of areas where they gained support were more wealthy, educated suburban areas. Do you think it’s possible for a national ticket to both appeal to those communities and to the more working-class communities that have traditionally made up the Democratic base?

Ojeda: We’re gonna have to educate people. You know, I’m from the coal fields of West Virginia. And I’m one of the few people who is willing to stand up and say, “Look, we’ve got to bring in the clean energy; we need the Green New Deal.” I want to bring those capabilities to places like West Virginia, to places like Michigan, to places like Kentucky, that literally have, you know, coal is the only thing they have in certain areas — the auto industry’s the only thing they have in certain areas.

… I want to bring in other opportunities so that we can start allowing these people to transition over to those jobs of the future. I don’t want to hear how right now, the employment rates are the best ever. Yeah, maybe they are. But that’s because instead of being a person making $70,000, you got to work three jobs making $20,000 each working part time at Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Walmart.

Michigan Advance: After the election last year [Ojeda lost to Republican U.S. Rep. Carol Miller (R-W. Va.)], you said that voters will “vote against their best interests every time.” If you accept that premise, what is it that pulls voters away from those interests even when they’re presented with an alternative message like yours?

Ojeda: You know, I’m wanting to bring in these green new energy jobs. But the truth is, is a coal miner doesn’t want that. A coal job is a job where you don’t need to have a college degree and you can make $90,000 to, you know, I know guys who are making $160,000 a year as coal miners. So you know, they don’t want to go to a job that makes $70,000 a year — they like those $160,000, $90,000 jobs.

Retired Army Maj. Richard Ojeda speaks with voters in Rosa Parks Circle in Grand Rapids, March 28, 2019 | Jeff Winston, Michigan Democratic Party

So as long as you got somebody that’s willing to stand in front of him, even though that person is not going to tell them the truth, and say, “I’m going to continue allowing you guys to do what you do,” they’re going to support it.

You know, I wanted Bernie Sanders. When they stole it from Bernie Sanders, he won all 55 counties in West Virginia, and they still gave it to Hillary Clinton. So No. 1, you had a lot of Democrats that voted for Bernie Sanders; he won every county. And then all of a sudden they get to choose between Hillary and Donald Trump.

Let me tell you something, the things that Donald Trump said were disgusting. But he was the only one that said that he was going to do something for the coal industry. And a lot of people in my area, to include myself, as much as the things that he was saying I did not agree with and did not like… If the Democratic Party would have pushed somebody that was worth a dime for the people to vote for, they would have voted.

Michigan Advance: What role do you see yourself playing in the 2020 election?

Ojeda: I’ve got a lot of people that want me to look at running for office. There’s a lot of people out there. They’re like, “Hey, you know, you need to take on [West Virginia’s Republican U.S. Sen.] Shelley Moore Capito.” You know, there’s a lot of people saying that they want me to run for governor.

State Senator Richard Ojeda salutes his campaign supporters during his first campaign event of his presidential run at a rally at the Teamsters 783 head quarters on November 19, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky. Ojeda, a retired Army major, announced his presidential bid for 2020. | John Sommers II/Getty Images

Honestly, I enjoy doing what I’m doing right now. I’m enjoying going around the country and meeting with people and trying to sit down with folks to talk to them about the facts. I want to talk to veterans.

And I want to look at veterans in the face and say, “What do you think about how we allow someone [Trump] who claimed bone spurs, who has never known a life that wasn’t a life of privilege, speaking down and speaking negatively of a man [the late John McCain] who was shot down and spent over four years in a prisoner of war camp in Vietnam… who after retiring as a United States Naval officer dedicated the rest of his life to this country, and his having his name drug through the mud by somebody like what we have right now — what do you think about that? “

Because I want veterans to look me in the eyes and tell me they think it’s a good thing. Because then I’m going to look at them and I’m going to say, “You are what’s wrong with this country.”

You know, being a being a person that serves this nation is not a 9 to 5 job, it has never been a 9 to 5 job. You show me a person right now that’s serving in this country and I’ll show you somebody who’s had to leave their family, and spend years in combat zones, where they’ve had to risk their life, where they have sustained injuries, where they have lost the closest people in their lives in combat.

And we’re gonna let somebody who lied to get out of military service degrade the sacrifices of our veterans? Not on my watch.

Michigan Advance: What advice you would give to Democrats in Michigan going forward toward 2020?

Ojeda: Get active. Get active. Be a real Democrat, you know, stand up for what’s right. Don’t walk past something that you know was wrong and fail to comment. If you do, you have accepted a lower standard. It’s time to start calling people out. Don’t sit and think that, you know, well, I don’t want to be combative. I don’t want to anger anybody. If you’re not angry right now, you’ve got problems.

This country is going to fail if we continue down the path that we’re on. And everybody who wants that not to happen must get involved. Just going in 2020 to the polls and casting a vote is not enough. It’s not enough. You’ve got to start making phone calls and speaking to your friends, you’ve got to go and you’ve got to look at all these people that you know that are your friends that might have drank the Kool-Aid.

It’s your responsibility to come to them and say, “Look, man, we’re friends. We’ve known each other for a long time. But you posted something, and I just want you to see the facts. You posted something on social media that says this, and it’s not true. And I want to make sure you know that.”

President Donald Trump holds a 2020 campaign rally in the Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, March 28, 2019 | Nick Manes

Because right now, that’s the problem that we have people are falling for anything. That is your responsibility. And that’s what we have to do — every Democrat out there has to now educate the masses. I’m going to Trump’s rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., and they’re going to stand there. They’re going to scream to build a wall. And they’re going to scream that he’s making America great again, but the truth is that he’s attacking their health care.

And their communities are no better than they were two years ago. As a matter of fact, most of them are significantly worse.

Michigan Advance: All right, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

Ojeda: I’m going to come back. I’m going to be back in Michigan quite a bit. I enjoy it. I like coming here, and I want to speak to people and travel around and I want to see things and do everything in my power to try to wake some people up.

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Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson

Derek Robertson is a former reporter for the Advance. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.