Ending months of speculation, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke told a television station in his native El Paso that he is joining the race for president, and plans to make a formal announcement on Thursday morning, before launching his campaign with a three-day trip to Iowa.
“I’m really proud of what El Paso did and what El Paso represents,” O’Rourke said in a text to KTSM, an NBC affiliate. “It’s a big part of why I’m running. This city is the best example of this country at its best.”
— Emily Ramshaw (@eramshaw) March 13, 2019
O’Rourke led a protest against President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall in El Paso last month.
Rumors of an impending announcement were swirling around Washington throughout the day on Wednesday, with the biggest clue that Beto was preparing to announce coming when his camp emailed volunteers on the Senate campaign, telling them, “We need help sending some text messages tomorrow morning.” That’s a reference to what’s known as distributed organizing, which became a driving factor that powered the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016. In 2018, some of the key staffers behind it, including Becky Bond and and Zack Malitz, joined O’Rourke’s Texas Senate campaign and took distributed organizing to the next level. They and some other veterans of the Sanders campaign have stayed with O’Rourke, even as Sanders has re-launched his presidential bid.
The request for volunteers to send text messages may seem fairly standard, but there’s something revolutionary about it from an organizing perspective. It empowers volunteers from the very start to begin to take actually useful action on behalf of the campaign. And it requires an immense amount of trust in the campaign’s supporters, but it also requires a message and a messenger that people believe passionately in. O’Rourke very much was that in his 2018 Senate bid, partially because his unapologetically progressive affect stood in such stark contrast to the national understanding of Texas politics. O’Rourke also benefited greatly from running against a widely reviled Republican opponent, Sen. Ted Cruz. Whether the energy he harnessed in 2018 carries with him into a 2020 presidential run could be determined as early as the first few days of the run.
If those volunteers respond with a barrage of text messages that generate new volunteers and add up to big money, O’Rourke is in the hunt. O’Rourke, though, is viewed skeptically by a segment of the left, which worries that he is a new version of Barack Obama, a blank canvas on which the hopeful can paint their political dreams, only to be disappointed as he seeks deals with industry or the GOP. Democrats are confident that Trump can be defeated in 2020, but there are questions as to whether O’Rourke has the drive to defeat Trumpism. He has hinted in essays from the road about the threat of fascism in America, and said that he recognizes today’s GOP isn’t interested in compromise, yet his ever-hopeful spirit has some progressives worried he’d squander his presidency hoping Republicans change. And while he has praised the Green New Deal, his roots in Texas — and his public comments themselves, in which he has said fossil fuels can be a part of the solution to climate change — have further worried some Democrats that he may not fully grasp the existential nature of the threat.
The 46-year-old enters a crowded Democratic primary field just four months after his unsuccessful effort to unseat Cruz earned him national recognition and glowing reviews from campaign veterans excited by the former indie rocker’s potential to excite small-dollar donors and connect with younger voters through rampant oversharing on a host of social networks.
The former Texas Congressman shunned traditional polling in his race against Cruz, but did his own version of focus groups. By traveling to deeply conservative areas and taking questions until each audience was exhausted, he got a priceless feel for what was on the minds of voters. He didn’t skip polling for a lack of campaign funds. His small dollar operation pulled in so much money — $80 million by the end — that the term record simply doesn’t do it justice. He raised more, for instance, than Jeb Bush did for his entire 2016 presidential campaign.
Yet it all started with weed.
In the latter half of the 2000s, a bloody drug-cartel war was raging just across the border from El Paso in Juarez, Mexico. The intractable conflict was claiming tens of thousands of lives and producing a climate of fear in the region. Most politicians were calling for an ever-more militarized response, which only fed the conflict. O’Rourke, then on the city council, introduced a resolution that took a different approach. Given that the war was being driven by demand for an illegal product, perhaps the United States should consider legalizing and regulating that product, he suggested. His focus was on marijuana, but he also called for “an honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition of narcotics.”
O’Rourke’s resolution passed 8-0 and was headed to the mayor’s desk for his signature when the local congressman, Rep. Sylvestre Reyes, a conservative Democrat and former border patrol guard, sent a letter, along with other Texas congressmen, to the mayor, calling on him to veto it.
The mayor complied, and Reyes then lobbied each council member privately, making veiled threats that the city would lose federal money if the veto was overridden.
Four members of the council switched their votes and supported the veto; three of them publicly cited the funding threat as the reason for backing down.
After reading an acknowledgement from Reyes to The Huffington Post that he had used the threat of cuts to federal funding for El Paso to quash the legalization effort, O’Rourke was so livid he vowed to primary Reyes.
(A full recounting of the incident will appear in the forthcoming book We’ve Got People; portions of this chapter are drawn from it. Sign up here to get an email when it’s published next month. )
He launched that challenge in 2011 and his upset of Reyes was itself historic, as it marked the first time a member of Congress had lost his job for being too tough on the war on drugs. That insurgent victory reoriented political incentives in Washington, as all of a sudden Democrats had to think twice about their drug-war rhetoric.
As O’Rourke recalled during a 2018 conversation with The Intercept at SXSW, after his election, he had a hard time finding his footing. During freshman orientation, one presentation from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee felt particularly ominous.
It came on Nov. 16, 2012, barely a week after the election, and it was all about fundraising.
The amount of time that members of Congress in both parties spend fundraising is widely known to take up an obscene portion of a typical day — whether it’s “call time” spent on the phone with potential donors, or in person at fundraisers in Washington or back home. Seeing it spelled out in black and white, however, can be a jarring experience for a new member.
O’Rourke and the other freshmen were shown a PowerPoint presentation laying out the dreary existence awaiting these new back-benchers. The daily schedule prescribed by the Democratic leadership contemplated a nine or 10-hour day while in Washington. Of that, four hours were to be spent in “call time” and another hour was blocked off for “strategic outreach,” which includes fundraisers and press work.
An hour was walled off to “recharge,” and three to four hours were designated for the actual work of being a member of Congress — hearings, votes, and meetings with constituents. If the constituents were donors, all the better. The presentation assured members that their fundraising would be closely monitored; the Federal Election Commission requires members to file quarterly reports.
Even members in safe districts, they were told, were expected to keep up the torrid fundraising pace, so that they could contribute to the defense of vulnerable colleagues.
“I didn’t know really what call time was until I was elected and sworn in to become a member of Congress, and the real first orientation that I had up on the Hill by our leadership in the Democratic Party…they kind of broke out for the newly elected members of Congress, here’s what we want you to do during your day. So in the morning we want you to go to what is known as a PAC breakfast. You’re going to meet with lobbyists for the different industries and corporations and special interests who have business on the Hill. Get to know them, introduce yourself, tell them who you are, and then that’s going to lead to the next thing on your calendar, which is ‘call time.’ We’re going to put you in a boiler room where there’s a series of cubicles where these representatives of the people of the United States of America are furiously making cold calls or slightly warm calls to those PACs and lobbyists and representatives of the special interests to ask them for money to fund their campaign, to finance their reelection.”
“And then you may go into the office,” O’Rourke continued, “you may go to the floor and take some votes, and then we want you back to what they called the d triple c to do some more call time. And then that evening we want you to go to a fundraiser or a get-together to meet more prospects to feed the call time that you’re going to have the next day. And when I calculated it, 40 to 50 percent of every single day we were being asked to call people for money.”
It sounded miserable to O’Rourke, but he assumed that this was just how it would have to be done. “Like just about any other member of Congress, I hired a Washington-DC based fundraiser who puts me in those call time boiler rooms to call those special interests, those PACs, introduce myself and say, ‘Hey, could you write a 5,000 dollar check to the campaign? It’s really important that we show strength right out of the gate so that we do well and that we don’t have a challenger and I can focus on delivering to the people of El Paso,’” he said. “It didn’t feel right to me and I’m sure it doesn’t feel right to anybody doing that, but I just thought that’s what we do now that we’re in Congress.”
He was reassured, though, that some of the fundraising targets would be hit easily. After he’d won his primary, after all, checks began pouring in from corporate PACs around the country, eager to ingratiate themselves with the incoming member of Congress. He hadn’t solicited any of them, he reasoned, so what harm could there be in cashing the checks?
“Almost overnight. Political Action Committee checks just flood in, rain down on us, from everywhere, unsolicited — didn’t even know that some of these PACs or industries or interests existed. And we thought it was great. No more awkward phone calls to Amy’s gynecologist,” he said, recalling that one of his first fundraising calls had been to his wife’s OBGYN. “These folks are gonna fund the campaign going forward and I can focus on the work that I want to do.”
That money, though, comes with obvious, but translucent strings attached. “It’s not going to change who you are in any fundamental way,” said O’Rourke, explaining why corporate fundraising can be so pernicious. “Perhaps you’re not on the defense committee, and you could care less what’s in the defense bill, but you know that there’s a $10,000 check coming from Boeing. Why pissed those guys off? Why not just vote their way, if it’s no skin off your back and you don’t understand the issue very well to begin with?” he said, laying out the mindset that makes voting with Boeing more likely than not.
It’s a matter of priorities, he said. Most members of Congress have a handful of issues they care deeply about — what he called “issues one through ten” — and on the rest, they’re ambivalent. It’s on the rest where the calculus is easily made that the smarter move is just to vote with the money.
“No amount of money is going to buy you, but we will vote on 1,200 different items every session of Congress, so items 11 through 1,200, why not make these guys or these gals happy by voting their way, keeping the money coming in and allow you to focus on one through 10?”
At SXSW last year, O’Rourke recounted the moment he decided to swear off fundraising in the typical fashion. When he voted against a farm bill on the advice of his legislative aide, even though it would have granted a favor to a farmers’ PAC that gave him a big donation, his DC fundraiser berated him. “What in the hell are you doing?” she asked. “That’s the last time you’ll ever get a check from them.”
“I said, ‘That’s it. You know, loved working with you, but we’re done, I’m not doing this anymore because this is fucked up that that thought is even going across our minds right now, that we would vote a certain way based on money coming in or potentially coming in.’”
“And it explains so much of the dysfunction in that place,” O’Rourke added of Washington, “because, the news to me when I got there was not only how screwed up fundraising is, and how fundamental it is to everything else that occurs there, but most of the people that I work with are decent human beings, they’re good people who came there for the right reasons they want to do good by and for the people who sent them up to Congress, but they’ve been compromised by this system.”
El Paso is home to Fort Bliss and its more than 30,000 enlisted members of the U.S. Army, so O’Rourke fought to get on the Armed Services Committee shortly before the election. But he was already developing a reputation as somebody who wasn’t enthusiastic about fundraising, so the party leadership kept him off.
He said he was told by another member of Congress who was in the meeting where the decision was made that his unenthusiastic approach to fundraising kept him off the committee. “They didn’t appoint you to that committee your first session in Congress because they just didn’t think you were going to make the money off of it,” he said he was told. “You weren’t going to ask those defense contractors for the checks and it is a squandered opportunity for our party to have you in that seat. That’s like a wasted seat for us.”
O’Rourke has long been intrigued by the hopeful prospect of bipartisanship. His first Facebook Live video to go viral, in fact, was his long car ride from Texas to Washington with GOP Rep. Will Hurd, who represented the district next to O’Rourke’s, stretching 800 miles from El Paso to San Antonio.
“The number one imperative that we had, we were told as members of Congress, is to get re-elected and to get your fellow Democrats re-elected, and to defeat those Republicans with whom you serve, so that we can be in the majority and do great stuff,” he said. “But in order to do that, we’re going to compromise ourselves, and I don’t want you to spend any time getting to know your Republican colleagues. I don’t want you to spend any time becoming the subject matter expert on the shit that you’re going to be working on the next day.”
A bipartisan caucus dedicated to solving problems sounded good to O’Rourke, which is why he entertained the idea of joining the Problem Solvers Caucus, which was sponsored by No Labels. His legislative director warned him it would be useless or worse, but he went to one of the first meetings. To his credit, he came back from it shaking his head and never did join.
To his discredit, he joined the New Democrat Coalition, the Wall Street-friendly wing of the party. On a personal and stylistic level, the move makes sense, as it fits O’Rourke’s desire for common ground — the Obama refrain of no blue states or red states, only the United States. And O’Rourke grew up deeply privileged, with a powerful father and education at an elite boarding school in Virginia. (He was born Robert O’Rourke to his Irish-American family, but was nicknamed Beto at birth — Beto being a common shortening of Robert in El Paso.)
On the question of the substance, though, his attraction to bipartisanship clashes with some of O’Rourke’s progressive political instincts, the type that led to a call for the legalization of all narcotics in 2009, for instance. At the height of the 2014 migration crisis at the border, when asked about the U.S. role in destabilizing Central America, he dove into the history of the Dulles brothers, the CIA’s overthrow of Arbenz, and its history of support for dirty wars.
And then there was his early refusal to take PAC money. But, again, complicating the picture is his refusal to take any PAC money, even from liberal groups, unions, or anybody else. Not all corporations are the same, but a blanket refusal of all corporate PAC money makes sense. And some labor money comes with strings attached that could arguably be detrimental to the public. But it’s a policy reminiscent, again, of Obama, who for most of his first term would only criticize “Washington” rather than “Republicans.”
And then there’s Israel, a foreign policy subject that has split the Democratic party in recent months, where O’Rourke’s record suggests he might hew closer to young progressives.
In July 2014, while O’Rourke was still a freshman, Israel launched a bombing campaign and then ground invasion of Gaza, after Hamas militants kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers. A United Nations report would later find evidence of Israeli war crimes against civilians in the barrage that followed, which killed more than a thousand people, many of them children. O’Rourke said at the time he thought of his three small children as he saw images of young ones pulled from the rubble of Israeli shellings of densely populated areas.
His emotional reaction at the time seemed to be a genuine one, and he was determined not to let the slaughter happen in his name. Before adjourning for the summer recess, the House rushed through an aide package to support the Israeli Iron Dome missile interceptor system. The timing of the vote was purely symbolic — the money wasn’t needed at the moment, but Congress wanted to rush it to show full-throated support of Israel at the height of the war, even as nations around the world were condemning its assault.
O’Rourke cast one of just eight votes against the money, and the response from the pro-Israel lobby was swift, furious and well-coordinated, hitting him everywhere from the New Yorker to his local paper. “I could not in good conscience vote for borrowing $225 million more to send to Israel, without debate and without discussion, in the midst of a war that has cost more than a thousand civilian lives already, too many of them children,” O’Rourke posted on Facebook.
Responding to the uproar, he held a series of meetings with pro-Israel groups and local Jewish leaders, agreeing to visit Israel on AIPAC’s dime the next year, and the lobby expressed hope that O’Rourke would come around and oppose the Iran nuclear deal Obama had been negotiating.
The threat from the Israel lobby to unseat O’Rourke never materialized. The next March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington and addressed Congress at the invitation of the House Speaker John Boehner — not the president, as is the custom — and O’Rourke was one of 58 Democrats to boycott the speech.
That spring, he took the trip to Israel he had promised. When he returned, he was asked a town hall if he’d have voted differently knowing then what he knew now. No, he said, “I think our unequivocal support at times has been damaging to Israel.”
That summer, the Iran deal was finalized and O’Rourke declared it “an impressive diplomatic achievement that has the potential to peacefully resolve one of the most intractable problems facing our country and the world today,” pledging his support. Like the rest of Congress, he continued broadly supporting foreign aid for Israel, but the unrelenting pressure campaign from the lobby had failed.
Asked in 2018 if he still supported the Iran deal, which Israel backers like Sheldon Adelson urged Trump to withdraw from, O’Rourke described the agreement as imperfect, but vital, and “almost a miracle of modern diplomacy.”
Although the Iran Deal is not perfection, it is a critical international effort to ensure Iran doesn’t acquire nuclear weapons. The United States of America should not be giving up on diplomacy. pic.twitter.com/9JvUFocPBm
— Beto O’Rourke (@BetoORourke) May 8, 2018
O’Rourke’s membership of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, and a series of votes he cast against the progressive agenda on a variety of issues, has already been identified by Republicans as a potential weakness in a Democratic primary field with progressive champions like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Last week, the Club for Growth released an attack ad it plans to run in Iowa comparing O’Rourke’s record on progressive issues unfavorably to that of former President Barack Obama.
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