Rahall to face newcomer
HUNTINGTON — As conservative and liberal groups have spent millions slugging it out in TV ads denouncing or supporting U.S. Rep Nick Joe Rahall II, D-W.Va., and Republican challenger Evan Jenkins, some may have forgotten that there is a primary election on May 13.
Rahall, a 38-year incumbent, must win the May primary against retired Army Maj. Richard Ojeda II, who has never held political office, before getting a chance to defend his Congressional seat in West Virginia’s 3rd District in the fall.
To a large extent, the primary contest boils down to Rahall’s contention that experience counts greatly in the nation’s capital, while newcomer Ojeda says it’s time for 3rd District voters to make a change in who represents them.
Ojeda, a Logan County native, said the bombardment of ads launched back and forth over his head have both helped and hurt him.
“I think the downside to all of that is people might think that a vote for me is a wasted vote,” Ojeda said. “I don’t want people to look at it that way, because I honestly believe I can win.”
The 24-year military man said he doesn’t blame his party for not supporting him when he signed up to run.
“They didn’t know who I was,” he said.
However, he believes the party is now trying to “force-feed” Rahall to the people of the 3rd District.
“I don’t think I should have to ask for permission to run for office, I don’t think I should have to kiss anyone’s ring to do that, and I won’t,” he said. “People want you to believe you can’t survive without this person in office, but you can.”
Ojeda’s major criticism of Rahall is that he is a career politician and a reactive one at that, showing up every two years when votes are needed. He also said he believes going against Rahall is a hard fight because there are people in positions of power in the state who benefit from their relationship with the congressman.
“I’m tired of hearing politicians say they built this bridge, or they did this or that for you,” Ojeda said. “No they didn’t ... all they did was allocate your tax dollars, which is their job.”
Rahall didn’t disagree.
“That’s exactly right, I am allocating the people’s tax dollars, and I’m working very hard to put that money into my district,” he said. “It is the people’s money, and they should have some of it coming back to benefit them.”
He pointed to various projects in Southern West Virginia, like Pullman Square in Huntington, the expansion of the Tolsia Highway and the Hatfield-McCoy trail, as projects that started with or were helped by federal money he helped attain.
“I feel like I’ve accomplished things for my district no matter what the political climate in Washington has been,” he said. “I commend (Ojeda) for his service to our country, and I know he goes over well with the young crowd. But we need experience in Washington. There are too many people like (Ojeda) in Washington, who are constantly on the attack, and that’s why we can’t get anything done right now.”
Ojeda is a strong supporter of term limits in Washington, and said “no one should get rich off of politics.”
Rahall’s response is that he believes term limits already exist.
“They’re called elections,” he said. “Get out there and vote.”
Support for coal
Both candidates say they staunchly support the state’s coal industry, and object to the Obama Administration’s strict regulations that have emerged over the past few years.
When it comes to coal, Rahall is more than a little upset that the right has tried to tie him with Obama’s EPA, both with coal mining operations and stricter regulations on coal-fired plants.
“Did I start out trying to work with them? Absolutely,” he said. “Did it stay that way? Absolutely not. Things went south very quickly, and I’ve been fighting this administration every day for our coal industry.”
Ojeda says he favors clean water and wants to preserve the environment for his children and grandchildren, but regulators should be fair and not pick on the coal industry.
“Fining a coal mine to the extent that they can’t operate isn’t fair,” he said. “And it hurts the miners, who really don’t have anything to do with what may be going wrong at a mine operation.”
At the same time, Ojeda said the state has to stop looking at the coal industry as its only resource.
“You look at a place like Lincoln County, where just about everyone is living below the poverty line, a manufacturing hub would do amazing things for a place like that,” he said. “We need to work with Washington, including our own people there, and start bringing some of these things to Southern West Virginia. Right now, everything is going to the north.”
Drug abuse efforts
Drug abuse in West Virginia is also a major focal point for both candidates.
Rahall, who was participating in a drug abuse summit in Atlanta during a telephone interview, said that treatment is vital in reversing the problem.
“It takes all of us together, from the parents in the home to the teachers in the school to the people in our churches to our law enforcement,” he said. “There is no one piece of legislation, one silver bullet, that’s going to end the problem. It’s a complex, multi-faceted issue.”
Ojeda sees treatment as an opportunity not only for rehabilitation, but for economic development.
He envisions a system of rehab facilities covering specific regions throughout the state, which would create jobs not just through medical personnel, but the people it would take to run such facilities day to day.
And he thinks rehab for an addict, rather than continuing to stuff overcrowded jails, is the solution.
“You can’t drive through Logan County today without passing a prostitute who is doing that to support their habit,” he said. “You’re never going to get a prostitute off the street by arresting her. You can’t shame her.
“We have to rehabilitate these people and, when they complete rehabilitation, we as communities need to open our arms to them and offer them a job, and offer them support. Otherwise, they’ll just go back to what they were doing.”
The two also have similar views of foreign policy.
In fact, that’s one of the major reasons Ojeda decided to run for office.
The veteran has been deployed three times to Iraq, and once to Afghanistan, and said he knows first hand enough is enough. Ojeda has said more than once he has been on deployment in hostile territory just to come home and find the situation progressively worse, with rampant poverty in Appalachia.
“In Afghanistan, you don’t know if the people you’re training are going to turn their guns on you,” he said. “You don’t know who the enemy is. You try your best to win the hearts and minds of the people while protecting yourself to the best of your ability.
“We have to stop being the police force for the rest of the world. And I’m not buying that we’re going into these places because we care about the people of the world. If we cared about the people of the world, we would have been in Africa years ago putting an end to the genocide and hunger there. But until dry river beds and sand become a natural resource, we’re not going into those countries.”
Rahall said he has “lost my patience” with persistent military presence in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We do not seem to be winning the hearts and minds of the people there, and I think it’s time for a withdrawal,” he said. “I think we should be spending the peace dividends on things like our own infrastructure, and creating jobs through transportation.”
Follow reporter Ben Fields on Twitter @BenFieldsHD