Rep. Beto O’Rourke believes he’s found the way to get corporate money out of U.S. politics: Stop taking it.
O’Rourke, who is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Ted Cruz in Texas’s U.S. Senate race next year, refused donations from political action committees (PACs) in his 2016 House race, and the ban is in place for his ongoing Senate race. In March, he and Rep. Ro Khanna (D‑Calif.) introduced a bill that would ban congressional members or candidates from accepting PAC contributions, except for donations from their own PAC.
Toppling Cruz, a favorite son of far-right Republicans, would be a major victory for Democrats. The party hasn’t won a Senate race in the state since 1988, and the electoral map is bleak for them in 2018: Democrats are defending 25 seats, while Republicans are defending only eight. O’Rourke, who has served in the House since 2013, represents Texas’s 16th Congressional district, which encompasses El Paso.
O’Rourke recently spoke with In These Times from Amarillo, Texas, a stop on his summer cross-Texas campaign tour. The Texas Democratic primary will be March 6, 2018. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Theo Anderson: You’ve implemented a ban on PAC money in your campaign. Why did you make that a priority?
Beto O’Rourke: Being in Congress really shows you how money, and interests behind that money, determine so much of the outcome. And it can almost seem innocuous. You’re voting on something that you don’t understand very well, and it’s not important to your constituents. But it’s important to a political action committee that has given you thousands of dollars over the course of your time there. Members of Congress can make the calculus that this isn’t really going to affect my constituents, and it helps me get reelected, so I’ll go ahead and vote for their issue. And the aggregate of all those decisions, from all those members of Congress, ends up producing the otherwise inexplicable policies that are so disappointing to so much of this country. You wonder about the federal government, with all its purchasing power and leverage when it comes to pharmaceuticals — for veterans at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Medicare and Medicaid, federal employees who have health insurance. Why don’t we use that muscle to lower drug prices and get a better bargain for the tax dollars? I think you can connect the dots.
As soon I first got elected in 2012, the PAC money just flowed in unsolicited. And I thought, “Well, great, this is free campaign money. It makes it easier for me to get reelected.” But just seeing the effect this has on the institutions, and the way it skews Congress’ focus to those corporations and corporate interests that can buy access through the PACs, I decided we’ve got to walk the walk. It turns out that, not only is it the right thing to do, and not only do I feel better about myself and the way we’re running this campaign, it’s part of what is bringing so many people to this effort. Just as of the last quarter, we’ve had roughly 46,000 contributions, and an average contribution of $44. And we’ve raised $2.1 million — half a million more than Ted Cruz, who takes a lot of PAC money. That, to me, shows the power of doing this the right way.
Theo: The issue of climate change always seems to get slighted, at least at the national level, in political campaigns. Texas is interesting because it’s home to oil interests, famously, but it’s also a leader in renewable energy. Will it be an issue in your campaign, and will it resonate in Texas? Are we at that point yet?
Beto: I’m talking to you from Amarillo, Texas, in the panhandle. And as we’ve driven through the panhandle the last three days, we’ve seen wind farm after wind farm. Turbines across the horizon. And during my last trip to the panhandle, we spent some time with engineers at West Texas A&M University and in Canyon, Texas, with engineers who are doing a lot of testing of wind turbines. They’re creating a lot of high-skill, high-value, high-wage jobs in research, as well as expertise that can really establish Texas as a leader. That is connected to the fact that Texas is the country’s largest wind energy producer.
So, that shows how Texas can maintain its prominence in being an energy-producing state and making the country energy independent. El Paso is starting to do utility scale solar. And you have other communities that are making significant investments. I’m actually really encouraged. In so many ways, I’m seeing Texas defy the stereotypes and expectations that people have of us. The kicker is, here I am in Amarillo, which is split between Randall and Potter counties, and both of those counties went for Cruz by large margins. This is not a blue, progressive part of the world. But these are hard-working people who understand the value of wind energy. They’re ranchers and farmers who have gone through significant droughts and wildfires and anxiety about availability of water. So, they get the environmental science, but they also see that the issue of jobs is important. Texas is, I think, a great window into the future of the country and of us getting it right.
Theo: There is a lot of ferment within the Democratic Party at the moment, and a lot of focus on the fact that the party needs to actually stand for something, rather than just rage against Trump and the Republicans. What’s your case for why progressives should get behind you and work to help you get elected to the Senate, beyond just loathing Ted Cruz?
Beto: Somebody asked me about PAC money last night, and I likened it to growing up in the 1980s. The stuff that was coming through the radio was so glossy and produced — it was corporate rock ’n’ roll. And then I discovered punk rock, and I just loved the honesty and the immediacy of it. It was just real people like me sharing their stories through songs. And I use that as a metaphor for what’s going on with politics in this country, in both parties. With Democrats, there’s too much corporate rock ’n’ roll at the top. And people spending fortunes on pollsters and consultants and packaging and producing — and spending a lot of time with the donors and PACs and special interests. Democrats, with one hand, take money from them and, with the other hand. pound their fist on the table and rail against them.
Yesterday, in Amarillo, which is a very conservative community, I talked about Texas having the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world, and how we need to stand up for Planned Parenthood, and the ability for women to go to health clinics. And I talked about the failed war on drugs and how we can replace it with a more rational set of policies. And I talked about health care. And folks out here are way ahead of everybody, Democrat or Republican. They get that the only way we can truly lower medical spending, and ensure that everybody gets healthy and can see a doctor, is to have a single-payer system and have universal healthcare. Wherever I am in the state, the same issues are on people’s minds.
Theo: There has been talk for several years about Texas “going blue.” How do you get the vote out? Is it just a matter of getting out and making yourself known to voters in different parts of the state, or more effective organization? Or some combination of several things?
Beto: A lot of it is showing up. I can’t tell you how many communities I’ve been to where they said, “You’re the first Democrat to come here in years.” Or, “You’re the first Democrat to come here, not a month before the election, but 16 months before the election.” We were in Hondo, Texas, which went 70 percent for the Republican side of the ticket in 2016, and 75 people showed up at a restaurant. The person who set up the meeting said, “I’ve never seen so many people come out for a Democratic candidate, ever, in this county.” So, we’re signing those folks up.
Here’s the other thing: You don’t trim your sails, you don’t tack to the mythical middle that doesn’t exist. You are who you are, and you have the courage of your convictions. Say what’s on your mind and listen to what’s on the mind of those you want to represent. I’ve seen Democrats try to triangulate and poll test and have a consultant-driven strategy that’s somehow supposed to capture that purple middle path. It just doesn’t exist. You just have to be open and honest with people.
On the Republican and Democratic question — increasingly, more people are telling me, I’m not into that shit. Donald Trump is an embarrassment. Nancy Pelosi doesn’t speak for me. I’m just done with that stuff. I’m just listening to what the candidates have to say. I think the way to do it is by busting through the cynicism, especially that Democrats have. They hear this bullshit, “we’ve got to get money out politics,” and then they see them taking all this corporate cash and PAC money. So, doing this right way is absolutely connected to winning.
Theo: Going back to campaign finance reform: How does the prospect for reform look to you? It can seem hopeless, because things seem to be going in the wrong direction on this issue. Do you see any hope of actually reforming the system, whether in the near term or the long term, and limiting the influence of corporations in our politics?
Beto: After I won my first election to the House and was sworn in, I was at a meeting with my fellow newly elected Democrats in Congress. We met at the DNC headquarters, and I thought it would be about how great ideas become law, about the things we needed to know to legislate. And instead it was an indoctrination into how to raise money. Literally, they took us hour by hour through what they expected our schedule to be each day. And more than half of our waking hours were expected to be spent raising money.
So, that made me feel a little hopeless about our ability to reform things. But here we are, running this campaign. If we win, I’ll be the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Texas in 30 years. We’re doing it without PAC money, and I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s the best way to change the system. No one’s going to legislate themselves out of power, or out of the ability to have an edge on a competitor. But if they see this guy, this unlikely guy, do it in a Senate race, do it without PAC money, they’re going to follow suit. I’ve actually seen some of my colleagues in the last year stop taking PAC money. Are they doing it because we did it? I don’t know. But if we win, you’ll see it a lot more. So I think the best way to reform is to win. It’s either that or there will have to be a scandal so horrific the American public will browbeat Congress into passing that legislation. You’d rather it happen the first way — that there’s a positive model. Or it’ll take some godawful scandal.