Finding an Authentic Political Voice in West Virginia

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Authentic voice. I’ve spent most of my professional life working with politicians (as well as corporate executives, non-profit leaders, and government officials) trying to help individuals find that voice. Too often, we TV shows and movies make it seem so simple. A flack or a strategist comes in, tells an aspiring politician what to say and do, and that aspirant rises to the highest levels of elected office.

Of course, it never quite works that way. In today’s 24–7 media environment — a world where media can build and/or destroy a public persona in a matter of moments — authenticity is incredibly important. When I worked with a congressman from Massachusetts, a chemistry professor by trade, it was about recognizing that he was a workhorse, not a show horse (the phrase we literally used in campaign commercials). He would never be the blow-dried, made-for-TV type. But he got the job done.

It helped that I cut my political teeth working for U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd. Whether meeting with foreign leaders and negotiating federal budgets or playing his fiddle on Hee Haw, Senator Byrd was the definition of an authentic voice. While some may look back at Byrd’s past and question some of the decisions of his youth, no one can say he wasn’t authentic. He said … and did … what he believed. One could take that to the bank. As a result, his constituents knew that “West Virginia believes in God almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter’s Little Liver Pills, and Robert C. Byrd.”

Now that the West Virginia teachers’ work stoppage has been settled, and Mountain State educators have received a 5 percent salary increase, the talking heads will begin dissecting the situation to determine who won and who lost in the 2018 teachers strike. The 1990 WV strike led to then Gov. Gaston Caperton transforming into the next “education governor.” It’s safe to say that won’t be happening with current Gov. Jim Justice, though.

What has happened, though, is the strike placed a spotlight on an individual who appears to be the textbook definition of an “authentic voice.” In the middle of the strike, as a proposal from Gov. Justice began to fall through, I happened to catch a video from a WV state senator hailing deep from the heart of West Virginia coal country. A Democrat in a sea of Republicans. An Army captain in an industry of career politicians. And about as honest and passionate a political voice as I’ve seen in my entire career in politics.

State Sen. Richard Ojeda appears to be the real deal. When elected to the WV State Senate two years ago, he was literally beaten bloody at a community rally. A Purple Heart war vet. A high school educator. And a voice of urgency in a culture that seeks measure, time, and patience.

I can appreciate that Senator Ojeda is now seeking a congressional seat in West Virginia, running what many may see as a Quixotic effort to take a seat in one of the reddest districts in an incredibly red state. And I can appreciate that his platform represents many of the issues and causes that appear in every upstart Democrat’s campaign literature.

Watching Ojeda advocate so passionately for families and kids and educators in his beloved home state, though, I’d suggest that his aspirations are misguided. It’s great that he wants to represent his hometown in Congress and be part of an effort that could, maybe, flip the House. But being a freshman Democratic congressman from a Republican state during the reign of a Republican president isn’t the most effective way to channel Ojeda’s passions, voice, and authenticity.

No, Captain Richard Ojeda of West Virginia should be making plans to run for president of the United States in 2020.

Sure, one typically doesn’t jump from a state senate to the White House (though Barack Obama practically did). But if the past few years have taught us anything, it is that the typical political rules have all but been thrown out the window. And it is that the American people are hungry for passionate leaders that they see as understanding them, caring about them, and fighting for their interests.

To date, the political media has put forward lists of 20 or 30 potential candidates for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. Many are names familiar to the nation, like Sanders, Warren, and Biden. Some are names seeking to boost familiarity, like Booker, Harris, Gillibrand, and Hickenlooper. Virtually all come with the resumes that one expects, careers moving up the political ladder, coupled with some experience in the private sector. Many sounding like the politicians created in a back room laboratory. Very few that speak with an authentic voice, and even fewer who regularly capture a passion and a sense of urgency that American politics today demands.

So why not President Richard Ojeda? Why not have Ojeda’s voice in the early primaries and the earlier debates, speaking in ways that we don’t often hear in national politics? Why not demonstrate political progressivism comes in more flavors than delivering speeches against the man? Why not show a Democratic bench embraces the military and the modern-day soldier? Why not Ojeda?

Yes, such thinking may be silly talk in American politics. But it wasn’t too long ago that the same could be said about electing a real estate deal maker and reality TV star as leader of the free world. Those of us in politics love to romanticize about the TV show, The West Wing. About the ability to pluck an obscure politician with an authentic voice and get him elected. Ojeda could be the modern-day Jed Bartlet, only with a Purple Heart instead of a Nobel.

Voices like Richard Ojeda’s don’t come along that often in politics. Handlers are quick to massage them, mute them, and package them into a typical box. Such authentic voices deserve to be amplified.

Father; education advocacy pro; ED of Best in the World Teachers; author of Eduflack blog; founder of Driving Force Institute; education agitator

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