Joe O’Dea was finishing up his bachelor’s degree. He only needed to complete a few more classes — not even a full-time semester’s worth.
A star student, O’Dea made dean’s list his first semester and was awarded a scholarship that paid for part of his education for the rest of his time studying construction management at Colorado State University.
But he was anxious to start working.
“I still had, I think, six or seven credits left,” O’Dea told Fox News. “They were filler courses,” like psychology and “letter writing.”
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“And they needed a full semester of tuition, which was about 2,500 bucks, I think, at the time,” he continued. “My scholarship covered a little more than half of that.”
O’Dea had put his education on pause once before: he took a break for a few years after high school to work as a union carpenter.
“I’ve had to work my entire life,” O’Dea told Fox News. “Nothing’s been given to me.”
But when a love interest — whom he eventually married — enrolled at Colorado State, he followed her to Fort Collins and started working on a degree of his own. Ultimately, he decided the final semester wasn’t worth the price.
“I dropped out because they didn’t want to pay for another semester of tuition,” O’Dea said. “I needed to get to work.”
By then, he and his wife, Celeste, were married. Together, they started a construction company out of their basement.
Now, more than 30 years later, O’Dea has a realistic chance of unseating Michael Bennet, Colorado’s senior U.S. senator who’s served for 13 years. The Republican challenger trails in the polls, but is within striking distance. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich compared O’Dea to a truck driver who unseated New Jersey’s state Senate president last year.
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“I understand the plight of working Americans and how hard it is to kind of make things add up at the kitchen table,” O’Dea told Fox News. He’s repeatedly leaned on his humble background to relate to Colorado voters as inflation continues to surge at 40-year highs.
“Americans are feeling stretched right now and very insecure,” O’Dea said. “That’s why my candidacy makes a lot of sense for Colorado.”
“We need some new policies in place that’ll that’ll help working Americans,” he continued. “And that’s why I’m running this race.”
Bennet’s campaign declined to make the senator available for an interview and did not provide comment for this story.
In August, Bennet, a Democrat, questioned whether O’Dea was as in touch with working class Coloradans as he claimed.
“This is a guy who literally posted on Facebook a picture of him and his wife riding their horses to buy sushi in his fancy neighborhood,” Bennet said on MSNBC.
O’Dea later responded that he’d been riding horses his entire life.
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‘Work hard every day’
O’Dea grew up in a part of southeast Denver that was then mostly fields and cattle.
The adopted son of a police officer, the fourth-generation Coloradan said he was raised with respect for cops — an upbringing that still influences his political positions surrounding law enforcement.
“As a cop’s son, you’re constantly worried about embarrassing your dad because you know if you do something out of line, the wrath will follow you,” O’Dea said. “He also ingrained in us respect for law and order.”
“I think the other thing that growing up in a cop’s house really gives you a sense of is how dangerous that job is,” O’Dea continued. “I can remember going to sleep as a five- or six-year-old kid and wondering whether or not your dad was going to come home from his job.”
But his father also stressed the importance of education. When O’Dea’s grades dropped, his parents transferred him to an all-boys catholic school.
In his junior year, O’Dea started a carpentry apprenticeship. He was a journeyman by the time he graduated and worked as a union carpenter for several years before starting college.
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When O’Dea dropped out of college, he planned to eventually finish.
“I just decided that, ‘You know what? I can make it make up for it later. I’ll get to it later,’ O’Dea said. “Later never happened.”
The construction company he and his wife started out of their basement quickly took off.
“When you’re working 8,000 hours a week on your business, you don’t have time to do a paper or those kind of things,” O’Dea told Fox News.
From there, O’Dea built his company from the ground up. He said he’d wake up at 4 a.m. to do payroll and pay bills before leaving home.
“I was usually on the job site by 6 a.m., and I was there ‘til seven at night,” O’Dea told Fox News. “When I get home, maybe I have time for a little bit of dinner, say hi to my wife, hit the hay by 9:30, 10 and get up and do it again.”
“I can remember several Sundays that I worked on changing an engine out of a loader or out of a truck because we couldn’t afford mechanics,” he continued. “My partner and I did it ourselves.”
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O’Dea’s company, Concrete Express, today employees more than 300 Coloradans. He said he’s seen “all sides of the construction industry” and has survived through three recessions.
“You gotta be tough enough to weather the storm,” O’Dea told Fox News.
The Republican boasts his business successes in hopes that he can win over Colorado voters. But the Denver Business Journal reported earlier this month that Concrete Express has faced $135,000 in fines for 28 violations of federal safety standards since its 1988 founding, though the publication also notes that the company has won awards for safety.
“I think anybody who’d been involved in a business understands it because they’ve been a victim of it,” O’Dea told the Journal in response. “I’ve got literally hundreds of employees who have worked here and retired here … I’m just going to stand by that record.”
Regardless, O’Dea said his business background will benefit him in the Senate.
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“That gives me a significant advantage over Sen. Bennett,” O’Dea told Fox News. “I know what it’s like to work hard every day.”
Bennet, the son of a life-long Democratic operative, has spent much of his career in politics. For a time, however, he served as managing director at Anschutz Investment Company.
“I know how it is to negotiate with customers, both Democrats and Republicans, to have a great outcome for projects that we’ve been in charge of,” O’Dea said. “That skill set makes me uniquely qualified to do the job of a U.S. senator.”
Ramiro Vargas contributed to the accompanying video.