When Hillary Clinton tries to vanquish Bernie Sanders in West Virginia’s Democratic presidential primary next month, she will also have to watch out for Keith Judd.
That should be no sweat, right? Judd is a political nobody and a felon, who barely scraped together the $2,500 needed to get his name on the May 10 ballot by using his wages from a job at a Texas hotel.
Tell that to President Barack Obama, who couldn’t stop Judd from winning 41 percent of the state’s primary vote four years ago.
Judd was still behind bars then, and many West Virginia voters had no idea who he was, but they were determined to rebuke Obama, whose clean air regulations remain deeply unpopular in the coal-producing state.
“You really don’t expect to get that many votes when you’re sitting in a prison cell,” Judd told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Now after 15 years in prison, Judd, 57, is a free man, and he is improvising another run for president. His old campaign photo, which looks more like a police mug shot, still shows him with a bushy dark mullet on his website, “Keith Judd for President of USA 2016.”
In person, Judd has gone gray, cut his hair short and wears a suit and tie. He’s taking this race seriously enough to have gotten onto primary ballots in Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Texas, failing to muster even 1 percent of the vote anywhere.
He’s hoping to do much better in West Virginia and then California, the last primary where his name appears.
With coal’s future looking grimmer than ever, the potential for another protest vote in West Virginia looms large, particularly because the state’s primaries are open, enabling independents to vote for either Republicans or Democrats.
Clinton trounced Obama in 2008 in the state, but has since broadly endorsed the federal government’s clean air policies, and now trails far behind Trump and Sanders.
It didn’t help when she said recently that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business — we’re going to make clear that we don’t want to forget those people.” Many West Virginians, already feeling abandoned, focused on the first part of her comment.
Judd, who accuses Obama of waging “War on People” by declaring a “War on Coal,” said he got permission from his probation officer to campaign in West Virginia this weekend, and “bring some other issues into the national spotlight.”
Judd’s incarceration prevented him from touring four years ago, when Obama won only 59 percent of the vote and lost to Judd in 10 of West Virginia’s 55 counties. The party later denied Judd a delegate at the 2012 convention because he hadn’t filed some paperwork.
“What’s different this time is, a majority of West Virginians are familiar with Judd,” political scientist and historian Robert Rupp said with a chuckle. “Obama’s not on the ballot, Judd is known and we have a very spirited campaign between two formidable candidates, Sanders and Clinton.”
Rupp, a professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, also notes that Judd was the only other candidate on the state’s Democratic primary ballot when Obama was running for re-election. There are six names to choose from this time, including a West Virginia lawyer, a California businessman and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who dropped out months ago.
“We will look back at Judd’s showing in the 2012 primary as an aberration,” Rupp said.
Judd has had political aspirations for decades. In the 1990s, he ran for mayor of Albuquerque and governor of New Mexico. Since 1996, he’s managed to get on presidential ballots.
His 1999 conviction, he says on his website, involves false allegations that he was threatening and trying to extort his ex-wife during their divorce. He was released in June 2013, then returned to prison five months later for violating parole. Released for good in October 2014, he now shares a home in Midland, Texas, with several of his hotel co-workers and volunteers in his local Baptist church.
In the coal county of Mingo, where Judd got 60 percent of the vote last time, Ashley Kominar of Kermit said she simply dislikes Obama, and didn’t know when she voted for Judd that he was doing time in Texas.
“I still would have gave him my vote,” said Kominar, a registered Democrat who now supports Trump. “He still would have gotten it. That wouldn’t have been a factor for me at all.”