Beto O’Rourke Swings and Misses with Working-Class Michigan Voters

O’Rourke’s tabletop tour can’t hide his problematic record on workers’ rights.

Valerie Vande Panne March 25, 2019

Some Michigan voters were unimpressed with O'Rourke's tabletop stunts. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Beto O’Rourke vis­it­ed Michi­gan last week. Shirt­sleeves care­ful­ly rolled up, he stood on table­tops across metro Detroit and deliv­ered his stump speech.

He’s real­ly good at his stump speech,” says local union activist Diana Hus­sein, who seemed unim­pressed. If Trump is the Twit­ter pres­i­dent, Beto is the Pin­ter­est candidate.”

Indeed, many of the rum­blings from O’Rourke’s Michi­gan vis­it show vot­ers skep­ti­cal of a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date who is on the cov­er of Van­i­ty Fair, yet couldn’t beat Ted Cruz in his home state. These vot­ers, large­ly work­ing-class, aren’t the type to pick up Van­i­ty Fair at their local Mei­jer store, and appear more inter­est­ed in find­ing out whether a can­di­date will be a strong cham­pi­on for poli­cies that actu­al­ly ben­e­fit work­ing people.

When O’Rourke showed up at the Detroit Car­pen­ters Appren­tice­ship School (a trade school in near­by Fer­n­dale), many union work­ers didn’t know who he was, despite being told about his vis­it in advance. When he walked in, entourage in tow, the gen­er­al response was, Who’s that?”

They didn’t rec­og­nize him,” says Steve McCool, a floor lay­er instruc­tor at the trade school and mem­ber of the Michi­gan Region­al Coun­cil of Car­pen­ters and Mill­wrights Local 1045

McCool, how­ev­er, did say that union mem­bers want to see a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date who will sup­port them, and who will boost trade schools. I was told to go to col­lege or go to the mil­i­tary,” says McCool. And I’m not that per­son. It just wasn’t for me. I’m glad there’s anoth­er option. I found this at 24. I wish I would’ve found it earlier.”

Lisa Cana­da, Polit­i­cal and Leg­isla­tive Direc­tor at Michi­gan Region­al Coun­cil of Car­pen­ters and Mill­wrights, agrees that stand­ing unequiv­o­cal­ly on the side of work­ers’ rights is a crit­i­cal task of secur­ing union mem­bers’ sup­port. We sup­port can­di­dates who sup­port our val­ues and our issues, includ­ing strong appren­tice­ship pro­grams, safe job sites, pre­vail­ing wage, and repeal­ing so-called Right-to-Work laws,” Cana­da says in a state­ment to In These Times. Work­ing fam­i­lies deserve an econ­o­my and a gov­ern­ment that sup­port their abil­i­ty to earn a good wage for a hard days’ work, return home safe­ly to their fam­i­lies and retire with dig­ni­ty. We wel­come any can­di­date to our train­ing cen­ters who wants to learn about what is impor­tant to our mem­bers and their families.”

For her part, Hus­sein ques­tions whether O’Rourke has shown the sub­stance of some­one who will be that work­ing-class cham­pi­on. Union mem­bers, like most Amer­i­cans, want a can­di­date that is gen­uine, some­one who is seri­ous about com­mit­ting to advanc­ing the inter­ests of all work­ing peo­ple,” Hus­sein says. How has [O’Rourke] proven to be a reli­able ally we can trust to car­ry the torch of the labor move­ment? What’s his plan to strength­en col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights?”

While O’Rourke has not released a com­pre­hen­sive plan around labor issues, his record shows some red flags. In 2015, he co-spon­sored a bill that would have lim­it­ed the author­i­ty of the Con­sumer Finan­cial Pro­tec­tion Bureau (CFPB). Put in place in the after­math of the 2008 crash, the CFPB is meant to pro­tect con­sumers and work­ers from preda­to­ry finan­cial insti­tu­tions. O’Rourke also vot­ed for bills that would have lift­ed reg­u­la­tions on Wall Street and under­cut the Afford­able Care Act. In the past he also backed rolling back enti­tle­ments such as Social Secu­ri­ty. And as many out­lets, both Detroit-based and nation­al, have report­ed, O’Rourke’s vot­ing record on the whole is far more con­ser­v­a­tive than the aver­age Demo­c­rat, includ­ing on issues impact­ing work­ers’ rights.

These aren’t the only caus­es for con­cern about O’Rourke’s record. As a city coun­cil mem­ber in El Paso, he called for bet­ter checks on col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing in the pub­lic sec­tor.” And in 2018, while the Texas AFL-CIO ulti­mate­ly endorsed O’Rourke in his Sen­ate race against Cruz, they ini­tial­ly refused, claim­ing mem­bers had sig­nif­i­cant con­cerns about the con­gress­man­’s com­mit­ment to fight­ing for work­ing peo­ple, and unfor­tu­nate­ly, he was­n’t at the con­ven­tion to address any of those con­cerns.” Dur­ing his time in the House, O’Rourke did not intro­duce or co-spon­sor any sweep­ing labor legislation.

Per­haps the most telling aspect of O’Rourke’s table­top tour in Michi­gan is the media cov­er­age he gar­nered. The con­ser­v­a­tive Detroit News gave O’Rourke glow­ing cov­er­age, claim­ing he wooed” work­ers. Mean­while, the local alt-week­ly Metro Times pub­lished a brief sum­ma­ry of O’Rourke’s prob­lem­at­ic vot­ing record, ques­tion­ing his com­mit­ment to pro­gres­sive caus­es. Metro Times edi­tor in chief Lee Devi­to tells In These Times, sim­ply, O’Rourke looks like a jack­ass stand­ing on those tables.”

I under­stand the fever and enthu­si­asm around the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry, and that every can­di­date has to make a way to stand out,” says Aaron Foley, chief sto­ry­teller for the city of Detroit and ardent union sup­port­er. But time and time again, can­di­dates have shown that they don’t under­stand Detroit is dif­fer­ent. You have to under­stand us before you try to cam­paign to us.”

Like Devi­to, Foley was also trou­bled by O’Rourke’s table­top act. I actu­al­ly thought it was dis­re­spect­ful… Detroit isn’t a place where you stand on tables to make a point, because our busi­ness­es are like our homes and our com­mu­ni­ty spaces — espe­cial­ly in the case of Nar­row Way [a Detroit café O’Rourke stopped at], which is fam­i­ly-owned and has its roots in the church. You would­n’t come in my house or my church and stand on the tables there. Busi­ness­es here in Detroit are no dif­fer­ent. We might be the Mid­west in terms of geog­ra­phy, but we’re not that easy­go­ing and com­fort­able with some­one’s feet all on the fur­ni­ture like some oth­er places. Don’t dis­re­spect the busi­ness­es like this.”

As any work­ing-class per­son — or par­ent — will real­ize, Some­one has to clean up after those foot­prints now,” Foley adds. 

Table­top speech­es notwith­stand­ing, it appears clear that O’Rourke has a long way to go to win over the work­ing-class vot­ers who will be key if the Democ­rats want to win Michi­gan in 2020.

Valerie Vande Panne is an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH