Deep in Trump Country, a Democratic Populist Is Facing Off Against a Country Club Republican

In West Virginia, a pro-business Republican is facing a challenge from a progressive Democrat hoping to reestablish the party as a bastion of the working class.

UNITED STATES - MAY 3: Carol Miller, who is running for the Republican nomination in West Virginia's 3rd Congressional District, is seen at a National Day of Prayer event in Point Pleasant , W.Va., on May 3, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)
Carol Miller, who is running for the Republican nomination in West Virginia's 3rd Congressional District, is photographed at a National Day of Prayer event in Point Pleasant , W.Va., on May 3, 2018. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP

A big part of Carol Miller’s campaign to represent West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District in Washington was to present herself to voters as carbon copy of President Donald Trump. A senior state-level lawmaker, Miller spent big on television spots declaring her loyalty to the president and repeating his campaign promises to build a wall and cut foreign aid — now cast as part of Miller’s “America first” principles. The pro-Trump rhetoric helped Miller clinch the May 8 primary for the congressional seat, emerging victorious from a field of seven candidates by a slim 1,616-vote margin.

Under normal circumstances, the political chattering classes might consider the race over: Miller, the GOP majority whip in the lower chamber of the state legislature, should be a shoo-in for the November general election. A Republican trend has been steadily overtaking West Virginia’s 3rd District, which covers the southern part of the state. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 50 percentage points, making it one of the reddest seats in the state.

Yet Miller faces a strong challenger in state Sen. Richard Ojeda of Logan County, the Democratic nominee for the congressional district who has generated a recent wave of profiles in national publications. Ojeda is, by national Democratic Party standards, not much of a traditional candidate.

Ojeda is an Army veteran. A campaign video shows him pumping weights, as he tells the story of being physically attacked during his first bid for the state legislature. In Ojeda’s telling, after criticizing the local Democratic machine on Facebook, a family member of one of Ojeda’s political opponents asked him for a campaign bumper sticker at a barbecue organized for Ojeda’s local state Senate campaign. As he reached down, the man kicked Ojeda in the head and brutally beat him. The assailant pleaded guilty and was later sentenced to up to five years in prison.

Ojeda’s disquisitions on American history sound more like Howard Zinn than many progressives on the coasts.

Ojeda won his first race and quickly made a name for himself as a crusader for working-class interests. He frequently appears at union picket lines across the state and took to the floor of the legislature in January, the first to warn of a looming teacher strike. When the work stoppage later came to pass, Ojeda joined demonstrators to demand a pay raise for all public employees funded through a tax on energy companies. His signature legislative accomplishment in his only term in office is the state medical marijuana law, which he championed as a cheaper alternative to pharmaceuticals.

The pride Ojeda takes in his rifle and military service will be familiar among conservative Democrats, but his disquisitions on American history sound more like Howard Zinn than many progressives on the coasts. He refers to West Virginia as an internal colony used for resource extraction, one that has been exploited by outside capitalist interests at the expense of workers, an environment made possible by corrupt local politicians.

“Our coal was being pulled from our mountains, shipped to Pittsburgh to make steel, and then used to build Manhattan, while our people had to travel dirt roads and could barely afford to survive,” Ojeda has said. In an interview, he reiterated this view: “We are a colony, not a state.”

State Sen. Richard Ojeda, center, a Democrat, rallies with teachers outside of the State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., Feb. 27, 2018. A statewide teacher strike in West Virginia entered its seventh day on March 2, with teachers defying efforts by the state's governor and union leaders to end the walkout with a deal to raise pay. (Alex Flynn/The New York Times)

State Sen. Richard Ojeda, center, a Democrat, rallies with teachers outside of the State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., on Feb. 27, 2018.

Photo: Alex Flynn/The New York Times/Redux

Ojeda is trying to reverse a Democratic Party death spiral in Appalachia and throughout much of the Midwest. The party is no longer trusted to deliver economic opportunity and security, while Republican candidates leverage nativism and bigotry, particularly against Muslims, to seize power.

Meanwhile, suffering is widespread. The 3rd Congressional District is one of the poorest in the nation, with over 121,000 residents living below the federal poverty line. Amid the economic depression wrought by the collapse of the coal industry, an acute manifestation of the opioid crisis is ravaging these communities.

While some national party officials have written off areas like West Virginia’s 3rd District, local Democrats and some national progressives see the upcoming elections as an opportunity. The locals want to reassert themselves as the party of the working class. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, was one of the first to endorse Ojeda, declaring that the local state senator had “captured the fight of the people in West Virginia through his campaign.” Ojeda would, Ryan said, “make an excellent addition to Washington as someone who speaks for middle-class families, whether that be by standing with striking teachers, walking a picket line with CWA workers, fighting for retired miners’ pensions, or working to bring new opportunities to the people of West Virginia and rural America.”

“Mark my words, he will be an instant force on the national scene.”

Krystal Ball, founder of the People’s House Project, which is working to recruit populist Democrats around the country, was even more enthusiastic in her endorsement. “Major Ojeda has the sense of urgency that comes from laying your life on the line for your country, only to come home and realize that your own community has been ravaged,” Ball said. “You’ve got to have candidates who connect with their communities, rather than with the check writers on the coasts. When he comes to Washington, he’s going to trigger a complete rethink of the Democratic Party approach. Mark my words, he will be an instant force on the national scene.”

Democrats aren’t the only ones trying to burnish their populist bona fides in West Virginia’s 3rd District. Carol Miller portrays herself at her campaign events and in her advertisements as a local bison rancher and “small-business owner” fed up with the status quo in Washington, D.C.

“On my farm, I do the dirty work myself,” Miller says in a campaign ad. “In Washington, I’ll cut the bull from politics.” Other ads from her campaign depict Miller’s legislative record as mainly spiritual in nature, noting that she worked in the legislature to make the Bible the state book. Miller’s campaign says she will focus on asserting national sovereignty against Islamic law and work to make English the national language.

The reality of Miller’s personal background, however, is less humble than the image she projects: Her politics are more in line with country-club Republicans — tied to business interests and close to establishment power — than the country farm image in her advertising. Miller hails from a powerful political family. Her father was Samuel Devine, an ardent anti-communist from Ohio who used a local McCarthyite witch hunt to claim a seat in Congress. Devine produced a report in 1953 that alleged certain labor unions and youth groups had communist ties, and sought to create criminal penalties for the 1,300 Ohio residents he accused of communism.

Along with her hard-line pedigree, Miller’s interest in business-friendly political work goes hand in hand with her own background: Her financial disclosure form shows that her household controls a business empire that includes real estate, car dealerships, and other investment assets worth at least $11 million.

Miller’s legislative work has been broadly in line with corporate interests. She was part of the GOP leadership team that worked closely with business interests to slash workplace safety rules, cut corporate taxes, repeal the prevailing wage, and enact laws designed to drain labor union membership.

While her campaign videos depict her agenda as primarily biblical, her legislative history reveals attempt after attempt to reduce the corporate income tax and restrict the ability of state legislators to ever raise taxes on corporations in the future, seeking instead to cut public services when budget issues arise. (The Miller campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Miller’s husband Matt Miller inherited the car dealership fortune known throughout West Virginia for its ubiquitous Dutch Miller advertisements. Her financial disclosure form shows that the ownership stake in car dealerships in West Virginia and North Carolina is worth at least $5 million, generating at least $1.3 million in income last year. The real estate investments generate at least another $400,000 in annual income. The family owns extensive investments in other assets, including corporate stock holdings and an investment in a golf course.

That wealth has fueled Miller’s congressional campaign. The Miller campaign war chest is funded by $275,000 in loans from the candidate and her husband — more than 10 times the annual income for many district residents. Miller also brought in $11,000 from auto-dealer political action committees, including one devoted to electing lawmakers who will support free-trade deals that allow foreign automotive imports.

After winning office in 2006, Miller eventually ascended the ranks of leadership. She was elected as assistant majority leader to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 2015, and now serves as the majority whip. She also secured a senior appointment with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative nonprofit that connects corporate lobbyists with state legislators.

In this Wednesday July 26, 2017 photo paramedics tend to a woman believed to be overdosing on methamphetamine on a street in Charleston, W.Va. Paramedics have been flooded with calls related to overdoses, stretching their already limited resources. (Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

Paramedics tend to a woman believed to be overdosing on methamphetamine on a street in Charleston, W.Va., on July 26, 2017.

Photo: Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP

The national opioid epidemic is especially acute in the corner of West Virginia where Ojeda and Miller are duking it out. A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative series by the Charleston Gazette-Mail found that drug companies shipped over 780 million opioid pain pills to West Virginia towns. One town with only 400 residents was deluged with 5.7 million pills. Several of the “pill-mill” pharmacies, which fueled a lucrative drug trade that has claimed thousands of lives, were located in the 3rd Congressional District, and the crisis is featuring prominently in the race.

Miller, for her part, lists “ending the opioid epidemic” on her campaign website. But the site lists no details or policy plans.

During a debate earlier this year over state legislation to address the crisis, Miller voted down a number of amendments designed to hold the pharmaceutical companies responsible for flooding West Virginia with addictive opioid painkillers. Delegate Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha, proposed a 10-cent tax on every opioid prescription in the state, an idea modeled after Kentucky’s recently enacted bill imposing a 25-cent tax on opioid prescriptions as a way to fund drug addiction programs. Another amendment, sponsored by Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, required drug firms to disclose how many pain pills they ship to West Virginia. Miller voted against both measures, legislative records show.

Campaign finance disclosures reveal that the pharmacy and drug lobby in West Virginia have donated to Miller’s state campaigns. EPIC West Virginia PharmPAC — a group representing local pharmacies, including the Hurley Drug Company, one of the pill mills identified by the Gazette-Mail that received an inordinate amount of opioid painkillers — donated regularly to Miller. An investigation by the Associated Press also named Miller as one of the West Virginia lawmakers who had received campaign donations from opioid manufacturers fueling the addiction crisis.

“They threw OxyContin at my people like Tic Tacs. Believe me, I support wholeheartedly going after these drug companies for what they’ve done.”

Miller’s financial disclosure also shows that her family holds between $15,000 and $50,000 in stock from McKesson Corp., the health care distribution company that flooded small-town West Virginia pharmacies with suspicious opioid shipments. The Gazette-Mail reported that McKesson shipped around 8.1 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to two small-town pharmacies over a period of a few years. The company is facing a shareholder lawsuit claiming it violated its own safeguards to flood pharmacies around the country with addictive painkillers.

Ojeda, speaking to The Intercept, said he sponsored the state’s medical cannabis effort as a direct response to the opioid crisis. Medical cannabis, he says, is safer alternative for those with chronic pain issues. Instead of just funding drug treatment centers, he’d like to hold the pharmaceutical corporations responsible for the pain they’ve inflicted on his state.

“They threw OxyContin at my people like Tic Tacs,” Ojeda said. “Believe me, I support wholeheartedly going after these drug companies for what they’ve done.”

“Let me tell you something: I got communities that look like the walking dead,” he went on. “The addictions that have been thrown upon our people, it has destroyed our families, it has made children orphans, it has made grandparents have to raise the kids.”

In the state legislature, Ojeda and Miller have a history of clashes. Miller opposed Ojeda’s bid to have energy companies pay for the increase in state worker salaries and pushed for a smaller pay raise than Ojeda demanded. Miller, who refers to marijuana as a dangerous gateway drug, voted to place an array of restrictions Ojeda’s medical cannabis proposal.

Ojeda’s campaign appears to many observers to be fighting an uphill battle. Not only is he running in a Republican district, he is doing so while pledging no donations from corporations or business PACs. The grandson of a Mexican immigrant from a family of coal miners, Ojeda ethics disclosure make clear that he has no personal fortune to spend on his campaign.

Ojeda’s campaign may be getting just the sort of lift from voters that he needs: Nearly 20,000 more voters participated in the Democratic primary than the Republican one.

If primary day is any sign, though, Ojeda’s campaign may be getting just the sort of lift from voters that he needs. Nearly 20,000 more voters participated in the Democratic primary than the Republican one, despite a much closer GOP contest. Ojeda won 29,837 votes, more than all top-three Republican candidates combined.

“To be honest with you, I’m not worried about her,” said Ojeda of Miller. “Carol Miller’s got an atrocious voting record. She’s a member of ALEC, she accepts money from big pharma, while she lives in the opioid overdose capital of the world. She’s from three generations of absolute wealth. Her father was a congressman. So she was born in the swamp. I’m not worried about her.”

Ojeda is not only working to win the general election, but also to transform the Democratic Party in the process. “I stand with working-class citizens. And I can ensure you that I’m going to raise a lot of noise,” he said.

Ojeda has hit the road, organizing public employees, mine workers, and disaffected voters from around the district to build a grassroots network for the upcoming campaign. Along the way, his colorful speeches and campaign tactics have inspired a particularly dedicated following. One local supporter, Dale Harper, a Christian country singer, recently posted a video to Ojeda, celebrating the candidate as an “unlikely hero of the common people, of the overworked and the underpaid.”

“The reason the Democratic Party fell from grace,” Ojeda said, “is because a lot of them absolutely forgot what the Democratic Party was about, which was taking care of the working-class citizens and helping our veterans, our elderly, and creating opportunities for people to elevate themselves out of poverty. And that’s exactly what I stand for. And I think if I start doing that, it’ll wake up a lot of people out there who are good Democrats who agree with what I’m doing.”

Top photo: Carol Miller, who is running for the Republican nomination in West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, is photographed at a National Day of Prayer event in Point Pleasant , W.Va., on May 3, 2018.

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