SXSW Panel: A Conversation With Beto O’Rourke

Texas Democratic Senate hopeful pulls no punches

Beto O'Rourke (photo by John Anderson)

When El Paso Democratic Congressman Rep. Beto O’Rourke won his primary in 2012, the political action committee checks came raining down. O’Rourke, now known – and widely respected – for eschewing those big dollars, took them at the time, albeit with some hesitation. “It didn’t feel right to me, and I’m sure it didn't feel right to anyone."

But, hey, it beat hitting up his former high school teachers and his wife’s gynecologist for campaign cash (which he desperately did early on). And when he officially joined Congress as part of the Democratic establishment, he was pushed into partaking in “call time” – the political game that includes schmoozing lobbyists and PACs and making phone calls to squeeze hundreds or thousands of dollars from them for re-election in a "you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours" play.

But, as he told the Intercept’s D.C.-based bureau chief Ryan Grim during a Saturday SXSW interview, it didn’t take long for O’Rourke to realize the “transactional relationships” didn’t align with his values – or the bedrock of a democracy. After meeting with farmers and hearing their concerns in his first term, O’Rourke went against the advice of his D.C. fundraiser and voted no on the 2014 Farm Bill. He caught heavy flak from the establishment, including being asked to apologize to PAC donors.

“I thought, it’s fucked up that what’s going through their mind right now is voting based on what money is coming in,” said O’Rourke, coming fresh off his March primary win for the U.S. Senate race. “We are compromised by the system, that’s why this place fundamentally does not work. I saw how wrong it is and I stopped participating in it.”

Sticking to his progressive guns, O’Rourke shunned PAC money, a trend that continued in his bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz to impressive results. O’Rourke tripled Cruz in fundraising this year: While Cruz leads with cash on hand, O’Rourke raised $2.3 million through Feb. 14 versus his GOP challenger’s $800,000. Most notably, O’Rourke’s campaign cash flowed from some 43,000 small-dollar donors, a refreshing feat amid PAC-hungry candidates including Cruz. Getting those $5, $10, $15 donations feels “really good” O’Rourke told the South By crowd.

He prides himself in not paying any Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee dues and not taking a dime from the NRA. On his support for gun reform policy in the wake of a string of horrific mass shootings, O’Rourke says, “I couldn’t give a shit what the NRA thinks.”

His campaign against Cruz is arguably the most exciting and compelling race to watch in Texas right now. To replicate that fervor, O’Rourke advises candidates to be honest, get out in front of people directly and answer questions, and – taking a page from his DIY attitude – don’t depend on glossy campaign strategies like mailers, TV ads, or jingles – a subtle jab at Cruz’s recent radio plug against him. “It’s about showing up and listening and learning,” he said.

But do you need villainous character like Cruz – a politician barely liked (or tolerated) by his own Republican counterparts – on the other side to generate that level of excitement?, asked Grim.

O’Rourke replied, “Well, that doesn’t hurt.”

Can Small-Donor Progressives Win Local Elections? A Conversation With Beto O’Rourke

Saturday, March 10, Hilton Austin

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