Beto O'Rourke's Punk Rock Politics

Can the congressman from El Paso really take a Senate seat from Ted Cruz?

Beto O'Rourke (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

It's not every day you see an ex-punk rocker talk tax policy in a button-down, but those at UT on Sunday got just that through a campaign stop by U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso. On the trail to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, O'Rourke's 2018 bid has assured an intriguing underdog race for political observers. The 45-year-old third-term congressman and former El Paso council member couldn't be more ideologically distant from his opponent: He supports single-payer health care, marijuana legalization, immigration, and LGBTQ rights, to name a few. And he's taken a markedly DIY approach to campaigning – opting for individual contributions over PAC money and livestreamed tour diaries in lieu of expensive campaign ads. We caught up with the congressman before he took the stage.

“If there is going to be a wave election in the U.S., it’s going to happen in 2018.”

Austin Chronicle: How many campaign stops in Texas have you made already?

Beto O'Rourke: Officially we've been doing this for seven months. We've literally been all over the state. In August we had 35 official stops, and it was not just a stop-and-shake-hands event. It was a town hall where I take questions and have a no-holds-barred, all-are-welcome kinda rollicking town hall. And they really have been that way. No question is off the table. That doesn't mean I can always answer them, but [campaign logistics director Taylor Bollhagen] is helpful getting people's names and contact info to follow up. [Bollhagen says the campaign has made more than 75 stops in Texas.]

We announced on March 31, and the next day we had a big town hall in Austin at Scholz [Garten], and had about a thousand people come. We were at Scholz again in mid-August. We've also had smaller forums, like we met with [disability rights group] ADAPT of Austin two weeks ago, which was great. And lots of events in the area – like yesterday, Bastrop and Round Rock, and later today, New Braunfels.

AC: What are you hearing from Texans, especially Austin residents, in terms of their priorities and concerns – and with that, some of the failures of Ted Cruz?

BOR: You know, I think there's an excitement around moving forward on immigration; on ensuring that everyone who wants to go to college and is willing to work hard for it and put in the hours and sweat is able to do so; and making sure health care is something you can depend on – that it's not a function of luck. I say all that as preface to the concern that you're asking about: How the hell are we going to get this done when our democracy has been ground to a halt? It has been so captured by special interests; so corrupted by unchecked financial contributions; corroded by years of corporate power asserting itself in the halls of Congress. There's no better example of that than Texas, which is the most gerrymandered state in the union. It's had a very hard time leveling the playing field; so that challengers can compete with incumbents; so that people can really feel like they have a voice in their democracy. And the courts have found that they don't. They found that there is racial and ethnic gerrymandering in Texas.

So people are like "Shit, yeah, I want to move forward on immigration; I want to move forward on health care; I want to move forward on jobs." But we just can't do it until Congress is responsive to things we want to move forward on. And that's why we're running a campaign without PAC contributions. We reported zero in every quarter on PAC contributions. Instead, we are dependent on human beings – real people – most of them Texans who believe in this and are making it possible, and that's really exciting.

AC: A Texas Democrat has not won a U.S. Senate seat in 30 years. Why do you believe you can change that?

BOR: I don't know the last time the Astros won the American League pennant. [Ed. note: The Astros, a franchise since 1962, didn't join the American League until 2013.] Texas loves an underdog. They want to know someone is going to give it everything they can and fight for them, which is what we're doing. And the only way we can effectively do that is to be in their communities. I've been to Austin a few times but we're making sure I'm also in Round Rock, and Bastrop, and going to the places where Democrats sometimes fear to tread. Going to La Grange in Fayette County and listening to what's on people's minds, what's important to them, and just having the basic decency and respect of being there physically and listening has been so helpful to me as a candidate. I think that is part of the answer to your question; that is what is different about this campaign.

In addition, I don't think we've ever seen this set of conditions. Political wonks will say you are in the first mid-term of a president of the opposing party, and typically they sustain significant losses. If there is going to be wave election in the U.S., it's going to happen in 2018. But whether or not that holds, what you have in Texas are people that have never been so galvanized, so fed up, and so motivated to do whatever it takes to win this race. So here's the good news for anyone who questions, "How can Beto from El Paso or a Democrat do this?" It's really Texas. Texas has decided it's our time, and we're going to win this one. I get to be part of that, and that's thrilling to me.

AC: Your opponent has drawn criticism from both Dems and Republicans. What about his Senate record bothers you most?

BOR: Well, let me tell you what I hear from people across Texas: He used this position as U.S. senator, where he should have been serving the people of Texas, to pursue the presidency. Almost upon being sworn in, in 2013, he was campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina. He was not spending time in what he calls derisively, "the people's republic of Austin." He wasn't listening to what's on the mind of people here. He wasn't in Bastrop. He wasn't in Burnet. He was elsewhere. There's a real cost and consequence to the people of Texas, and that has produced an extraordinary opportunity for real service. That's what I'd like to provide and what I'm fighting to do every single day on this campaign trail.

AC: You were in a punk band in El Paso in your earlier years. Punk isn't just a music genre, but a culture of anti-establishment angst and rebellion. Have you applied any of those principles to your campaign?

BOR: There's very much a do-it-yourself [DIY] ethic in punk rock. You write your own songs. You record your own records. You start your own label to put the record out. You book your own tour. It is very honest; it is very direct; and it is very powerful. I think there's something like that happening in Texas right now. [Our campaign] doesn't have the consultants, the pollsters, the PACs, the special interests. It is an incredibly honest, direct connection with the people I want to serve and represent. Outside of family, it's the most amazing thing I've ever been lucky enough to be part of. I feel so grateful. I have to pinch myself every day to make sure we are really getting to do this.

Texas Lyceum did a poll in April that showed [Cruz and O'Rourke] tied. And whether you believe in polls or not anymore, you can look at our contribution record – in over six months, we've outraised the sitting U.S. senator by $200,000. And he takes PAC money and lots of it; we take no PAC money, absolutely zero of it. That is a reaffirmation of the power of people – and that is very punk rock.

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Beto O'Rourke, Ted Cruz

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