Not Giving Up, Not Giving In: A Conversation with Beto O’Rourke
Beto O’Rourke is an American politician who represented Texas’ 16th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives from 2013 to 2019. Having captured the nation’s attention in his underdog run for the United States Senate in 2018, O’Rourke went on to run for the Democratic nomination for President in 2020. O’Rourke is spending his days as of late in his hometown of El Paso enjoying the company of his wife, Amy, and his three children, while also leading Powered by People, a grassroots movement of volunteers aimed at supporting Texans and working to help flip the state blue in 2020.
The Politic: Across Texas, we’re seeing young progressives take on long-time incumbent Republicans for the US Congress—Mike Siegel against Michael McCaul, Julie Oliver against Roger Williams, Wendy Davis against Chip Roy, and you defeated an eight-term incumbent for your seat in 2013. What do you think is giving these candidates a political edge that they may not have had before?
O’Rourke: I think you’re looking at some really talented candidates, and I think even candidates like Mike Siegel have really talented competitors in their runoffs like Dr. Pritesh Gandhi; but alongside Oliver and Davis and these others, there is just an exceptional caliber of candidates who are competing for Congress in 2020. Especially after 2018, we’ve been freed from the illusion that in order to be successful in Texas that you have to be in the middle of the road on all the important issues—there’s a great quote from Jim Hightower that says, “there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” In other words, there’s nothing exciting about playing it safe or trimming your sails as a political candidate, or having anything less than the full courage and confidence of your convictions as a person. When you look at these candidates, you’re seeing that conviction.
Texas is also not the state that we’ve been portrayed as, and sometimes been led to believe we are—we aren’t just a reactionary deep-red Republican state. We’re a state of 29 million people from all over the planet, one of the most diverse states in the country, and in these people you find a true diversity of background, opinion, attitude and approach to life. Successful candidates recognize that and are honest about what they want to do for these people, and are in turn finding a lot of success with that message.
Despite defeat in 2018, you stunned the nation by receiving 4,045,632 votes in the 2018 Senate campaign in Texas—more than any other Democrat in the state’s electoral history—what do you believe it was, coming from an underdog position, that inspired this massive turnout? Will the same hold true in 2020?
We were very lucky to be part of a historic movement in Texas, the likes of which we’ve never seen. There were more than 20,000 people who volunteered in that campaign. They picked up clipboards, talked to their neighbors, hosted canvasses and phone banks, and these people came from all walks of life to do that for the campaign. We had of course a large number of Democrats, but we also had Independents and even some Republicans as well who were inspired to not only support but to pitch in as well. Some folks who had never been part of the political process at all managed to come in to help the campaign in 2018 and are now some of the most politically active people you’ve ever seen.
We also really made it a point to spend time on college, and even high school campuses to try and get a sense of the issues that mattered most to young people. On any given issue, these students are already leading—climate change and gun violence are two great examples—because these issues matter to the lives and futures of students. So when I was speaking with young people about these issues, I wasn’t just looking for votes, I was looking for leadership and input on the campaign as well. Many young people eventually came to be a part of the campaign as a result. Then, down the road, we also saw a 500 percent increase in early voting among young Texans. I think a campaign that put the power in the hands of the volunteers, made an effort to speak with everyone we could across the 254 counties in Texas, and didn’t take young people for granted was extremely successful for producing those results that we saw in 2018.
You made it a point to visit every one of Texas’ 254 counties—including my own of Collin County—what was that experience on the campaign trail like, and what differences/similarities did you find across the counties in the state that you think defines Texas’ political environment?
It was just a wonderful experience for me to go everywhere and make sure that we were not writing anybody off nor taking anybody for granted, and I think people across the state responded to that in a really appreciative way. The kindness displayed towards our campaign everywhere we visited was enormous, and it wasn’t just in big cities like Austin and Dallas, it was in smaller towns and red counties too. We visited places that were so reliably Democratic and often taken for granted by Democratic candidates—Houston, Austin, and every part of cities like San Antonio—not just the easy places for a politician to go to for an hour, smile and wave, and then move on to the next city.
Going to more rural counties was a different but just as valuable experience—counties like King County that even though voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016, we still made an effort to visit. What this did was make people realize that we had a lot more in common than what we’d otherwise be led to believe. We all care about gun violence in schools, or that school teachers are paid a fraction of their value. On issues like mental health, we all care that the largest provider of mental health services in Texas is the state jail system, where you have people with Schizophrenia being locked up just so they can see someone who can reliably help them. The issues that challenge us and face us can actually be unifying, so if we put aside the presumptions and actually show up and listen to each other, we can share and use what we learn in how we pursue our campaign.
Do you think there’s been a lasting impact to reaching out to people in this way?
I certainly do. Right now I’m working with a large number of those same volunteers who came out for us in the Senate campaign to staff food banks in Texas during the coronavirus crisis. These volunteers have been extremely loyal, and ever since the campaign have been extremely motivated to do whatever they can to help their state and their communities. From North Texas to South Texas to where I live in El Paso, across the 254 counties we’re calling upon those people who had canvassed for me or made phone calls for me to now step up and support their communities in another way, and seeing their willingness to do that has been so amazing.
We make sure that they go to where they’re needed, and we provide them with masks and gloves and everything they need, and they respond by going to these food banks and working to help their fellow Texans. I definitely think there’s a legacy to that movement that we all got to be a part of in 2018, and it’s not just political. As we’re facing this coronavirus pandemic in a state facing record unemployment, a state that has the highest rate of uninsured persons in the United States, people have still been stepping up in a similar and just as remarkable way to do what they can to help those in need.
Many of these volunteers, as well as political organizers, activists and even some aspiring politicians have looked up to you as a role model. Who are your role models? Has that changed over time as you’ve held and pursued office?
I think that the person in public life who’s made the greatest impression on me—you know excluding someone like Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy, somebody I’ve actually met—would be Barack Obama. His 2008 campaign completely galvanized me as a young politician. He captured my imagination and changed me for the better. I thought the integrity with which he approached the office that he sought, the inclusiveness of the campaign he ran, and the openness he had towards others was incredibly inspiring. He was a constant display of humanity and decency, and while he had eight years in the White House and in that time undertook many things that you and I likely would disagree with, I believe that his conduct in leadership particularly stood out. There’s been no leader like that in my lifetime, so he’s someone that I’ve always tried to look up to and admire; I think he’s a great example to all of us. Regardless of your age—I’m bordering on 48 years old—but especially for young people and those wanting to pursue politics, it’s hard to find a better example than Obama.
Do you hope to inspire young politicians and activists in the same way?
I’d like to, but the truth is that I’ve probably been more inspired by the young people I’ve met who very often are way ahead of everyone else when it comes to the leadership they display. As long as we have a shot at addressing issues like climate change before it’s too late, it’s because of the fierce advocacy, thoughtfulness, and intelligence of young people who have built a movement and assembled a coalition to ensure that we take action before we’re consigned to a fate that is unthinkable for the generation that follows us.
The issue of gun violence is being fought the same way. We’ve been playing the same record for over 20 years, with the NRA setting the terms of the debate and making absolutely no progress, even regressing in some cases on gun laws. While there are a lot of heroes who have been at the front of the fight against gun violence, young people have been especially vocal and passionate about this issue and how it impacts their lives. Movements like March for Our Lives really shocked the country in that way as young people defied all expectations to rise up over issues that mattered to them, and the impact of that has been immeasurable. In the House, they’ve passed legislation supporting universal background checks when before, a policy like that was considered the third trail, and I lay the credit for that at the feet of young people who forced this country to act.
I’m super inspired by them and what they’re doing right now, and the hope I have for them is not just in the sense that I hope they’ll become good politicians 10 or 20 years from now, but that right now, at this moment, it is young people who are going to make a difference and make this happen. This has been true with any serious change that this country has undertaken. In the era of Civil Rights, young people were fighting for justice and laying down their lives for it in many cases. We’re seeing that same passion in young activists today, and that gives me some hope for the future of this country.
Throughout your career you’ve been enamored with your home city of El Paso. You went to college at Columbia University, but then returned to begin your career with the El Paso city council, what is it that draws you to this city and your service to it?
It’s just an amazing place, and there’s no other place like this. Politically, culturally, even geographically it’s stunning. We’re the only all-weather pass through the Rocky Mountains, and people who aren’t from Texas or aren’t from West Texas don’t realize that El Paso is in the Mountain West—we’re in line with Denver, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Chihuahua below us. I’m talking to you from a base elevation of 4,000 feet right now; I’m in the mountains surrounded by the Chihuahuan desert which is just fucking beautiful. El Paso is connected to Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua, and together we’re a bi-national community of 2 and a half to 3 million people, one of the largest bi-national communities in the world and the largest in the Western hemisphere.
El Paso is one of safest cities in the United States, and I believe that it’s safe in a large part due to it being a city of immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. More than half of the people who live in this city were born in a country outside of the United States, and through the presence of these foreign-born people the city and the country are a much better place than it would otherwise have been. I have a deep, fierce pride in this community and what it represents, and what it gives to this country.
Speaking of representing El Paso, your U.S. Congressional seat in TX-16 was succeeded by Representative Veronica Escobar. Alongside Escobar, you led protests for the bi-national community in 2018 in Tornillo, Texas, against the Trump administration’s separation of children of immigrant families, and you heavily supported Escobar in her race. What is it like now that she’s in office and representing the community that you both care about, and how do you think her experience differs from your tenure as congressman?
She’s doing such a great job. We’re so incredibly lucky to have her representing us. She does it with such a deep passion for this community that she wants to share with the rest of the world. To understand her work in and for this community, you have to understand that El Paso, for a very long time, has unfairly beared the brunt of unjust and misguided policy cooked up in Washington, D.C. with no clue of who we are and what we’re about. To have someone in office who is so passionate about what makes us a great city is extremely valuable to our role in the country. For example, trying to make sure that we’re treating people who are coming to the United States—from all over the world, but in our case Central America—who are fleeing violence and poverty and drought and depression, that they are treated like human beings. We won’t stand for people being locked in cages or separated from their families, and while that’s been a tough fight, I without a doubt believe that Congresswoman Escobar and others like her are going to be successful in bringing this country to its senses. We couldn’t have a better representative, and we’re very grateful that she chose to step up and serve our community in that way.
When you mention that El Paso can serve as an example to the rest of the United States, a lot of writers about politics in Texas have claimed the same thing about the state. Lawrence Wright, in his book, God Save Texas, has defended the claim that the soul of Texas isn’t as abstract as mythmakers like to believe, and in a piece for the New Yorker in 2017 claimed that people across the country ought to look to Texas as America’s future. What role do you see for Texas in the coming future?
When it comes to Texas, we definitely are the future of this country. Looking at a place like Houston, it’s one of the most diverse cities in America today. There are something like 140 languages being spoken in public schools in Houston and across Texas. The state is home to the second largest Vietnamese population in the world outside of Vietnam. None of that fits with the stereotype of Texas that you see in the rest of the country. People believe that this is some cowboy fantasy, yet the truth is that this is one of the most widely diverse places on Earth. There are cowboys, sure, they’re still out there roaming around and making a living like their forefathers did, but there are so many other kinds of people who call Texas home. This is a young state, a growing state, and its diversity and genius is going to be a big factor in the direction of this country in the years to come.
Texas has 38 votes in the Electoral College, and most likely after the 2020 census we stand to pick up 3 or 4 new members of Congress and therefore a few more electoral votes. When I lost to Ted Cruz in 2018, that was only by a margin of about 2 percent, and that was in a midterm year where there’s typically lower than average Democratic turnout. I think that shows how, as our state becomes more Democratic, that Texas is not just a battleground, but a bellwether for the rest of the country. It will force presidential candidates from both parties to spend time and campaign here, and as a result take us into consideration for what issues and policies they push for. I also think that Texas will play a large role in deciding who those presidents will be in the next several election cycles, and by extension the course and direction that our country will take.
You’ve run for Senate, sought the nomination for President, and now you seem to be focusing on your family and kids and community while also working to support the 2020 cause through Powered by People. What, if anything at all, is next for you?
I’m focusing right now on Powered by People, and we’re going to be doing everything we can to help win a majority for Democrats in the Texas legislature. If we’re successful, this will be the first time in over 20 years that this will happen. It means that we’ll be ending the gerrymandering in Texas that we’re expecting to see in 2021 if things don’t change, it means we’re going to likely make progress on curtailing gun violence, it means that we’re going to make progress on healthcare, on a woman’s right to choose about her own body, and on climate change; but in order to do that we’re going to need these elections. Powered by People brings together this incredible network of volunteers in all of the 254 counties to do the important person-to-person campaigning for these candidates. After this pandemic passes, this may mean knocking on doors, but at the very least we’re going to be making calls, sending texts, and connecting people through social media to do what we can. Right now, we’re sharing that people power to help staff food banks and support fellow Texans through this current Coronavirus crisis.
We read frequently about how you’re a huge music fan—you worked with news and radio in El Paso, you play bass guitar, and recently you had Jim Ward on your Instagram livestream—if you were to form a band, who would you want on stage with you on guitar, drums, and vocals?
That’s a tough one. The most fun I’ve ever had playing music was with my best friends, these two guys named Arlo Klahr and Mike Stevens, and we’ve played in different bands in different formations where I would be on guitar, Mike on drums and Alro on bass. We just have an amazing ability to communicate with each other and connect with each other while playing that is transcendent, and it’s a good time for me to get my head away from work and politics and everything and just enjoy the company of my friends and music. Just in that sense, that would be my group. In terms of all-time greats, however, I’d have to go with someone like Keith Moon on drums—there’s never been anybody better than Moon on the drums, in my opinion. I’d have to go with Keith Richards on rhythm guitar, and John Entwistle on bass, another musician from The Who. That might be a good start.
I play guitar too—and the first guitar I ever got was a telecaster in the same butterscotch blonde color that Keith Richards is always pictured playing. Is he an inspiration for your love of music?
Kieth Richards is just unspeakably amazing. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the series of books called Thirty-Three and a Third, but each book in the series is about a different album. I just got the Thirty-Three and a Third book on Richards’ album, Exile on Main St., and to read that book and to listen to that record again has been really awesome. That guy’s just a genius. I’m definitely inspired by a lot of musicians and the passion with which they pursue what they love to do.
Is there anything else you’d like to add for someone reading this?
Well, I think it’s very important to recognize that we’re in a very dark time, as a country. We’re facing one of the worst pandemics in over a century, we have the most dangerous president in office ever, the constitution has been undermined, the planet is cooking beyond its capacity to support life as we know it, and we’re in war in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Somalia among other places. There are a lot of reasons, because of everything that is happening, that you’d be inclined to give up, or to give in to despair and resign our ability to see our way through. However, despite this, largely in part to the challenges that these issues present, my faith and my optimism in this country and especially in young people has never been greater. They give me reason for hope.
They’re not giving up, they’re not giving in, and they’re going after it with everything they’ve got. Their ambition is going to set the political, cultural, and social agenda for this country. They’re going to force us to achieve it and they’re going to inspire us to achieve it. So, to everyone who’s out there doing that and fighting for that, I just want to take a moment to say thank you. I’m grateful to you and looking forward to following your lead.