Beto O’Rourke didn’t look like a top contender for the Democratic nomination for president on Friday night, when he was standing in Eduskate Board Shop talking to owner Nate Sherwood. He looked a customer.
The two were happily discussing the classic skateboards Sherwood has on display in his NewBo shop, and looking over the planks he has for sale. Tucked under O’Rourke’s right arm was a bag of records he’d just bought at Analog Vault.
O’Rourke’s visits to these Cedar Rapids stores weren’t part of his campaign itinerary, he’d just noticed them while looking for a place to park. The candidate wasn’t putting on a show for the media either. Even though his every campaign stop in Iowa attracts massive attention from the national press corps, there was no media present at Eduskate, except for Little Village. (Photographer Zak Neumann spotted O’Rourke going in, and O’Rourke was already deep in conversation with Sherwood when we entered the store.)
“I love this area,” O’Rourke said before leaving Eduskate. “A record store, and right around the corner, a board shop.”
The former Texas congressman, who made a national name for himself when he almost defeated Sen. Ted Cruz in last year’s election, was in Cedar Rapids to appear on the Political Party Live (PPL) podcast recording at Raygun.
Few people in the capacity crowd on the second floor of Raygun would have been surprised by O’Rourke’s interest in Analog Vault and Eduskate. During his 2018 run for the U.S. Senate in Texas, a lot of the national media attention O’Rourke received mentioned he skateboarded and played in a punk band when he was younger.
But it was O’Rourke’s answer to a question about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem at a town hall meeting in August 2018 that first started Democrats talking about a political future for him at the national level. Part of his answer went viral: “I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, anytime, anywhere, anyplace.”
O’Rourke discussed that answer with PPL hosts Stacey Walker and Simeon Tally.
I was not expecting a question that was framed in the following way: “Given the service of combat veterans, and the sacrifice of those who put their lives on the line for this country, don’t you think it’s disrespectful for NFL players to take knee during the national anthem?” he said.
And I said ‘no,’ because I don’t think that it’s mutually exclusive to honor those who have served, and to include in those who have served not just those who’ve put their lives on the line for this country — for which we are eternally grateful, and those who paid the ultimate price — but also for those who gave their lives to this country in the civil rights struggles that have extended ever since, and actually before, the end of slavery. They, too, sacrificed for us, and we honor both forms — every form — of sacrifice.
O’Rourke concluded, “And so, in that answer, I tried to as respectful to this person who came to a different conclusion than I did. That’s the way I’d like to see our politics conducted.”
In his conversation with Walker and Tally, O’Rourke explained his approach to politics is grounded in his six years’ experience serving on the city council of his hometown, El Paso.
First elected to the nonpartisan city council in 2005, O’Rourke had a district of 80,000 residents, but only a staff of one. So when people called his office regarding matters great or small, they usually ended up speaking directly to him.
“It constantly reminded me of who it is that I served, to whom I was accountable,” O’Rourke said. “I took that same spirit of accountability into Congress, where for six years I represented more than 750,000 people in El Paso, Texas.”
O’Rourke said he held monthly town hall meetings to listen to constituents and explain his votes in Congress. According to O’Rourke, those meeting kept him focused on getting bills passed, because his constituents would accept no excuse for inaction.
“I’ll work with anyone, anytime, anywhere to advance the agenda of this country,” O’Rourke said. “And I will not distinguish based on party or geography or any other difference.”
That approach gave O’Rourke a fairly conservative voting record. According to an analysis of votes in the last session of Congress by DW-NOMINATE, although still well to the left of Republicans, O’Rourke was more conservative than 77 percent of his fellow Democrats in the House of Representatives.
But the priorities O’Rourke laid out on PPL sounded very much like his fellow candidates, some of who have very progressive voting records.
Asked to name his top three priorities, O’Rourke selected health care, immigration reform and combating climate change.
O’Rourke has in the past endorsed the Medicare-for-all single-payer approach to universal health care, but has more recently backed away from that plan.
“I want to make sure that we get to guaranteed, high-quality universal health care as quickly as we possibly can,” he said on Friday, without going into specifics.
He also said he wants to build on what he sees as growing consensus around a need for a humane immigration policy that recognizes the importance of immigrants to the United States. O’Rourke said he would end the legal limbo DACA recipients are currently in.
“They should be made U.S. citizens immediately,” he said.
Immediate action is also needed on climate change, according to O’Rourke. “Very little time remains to us, and we cannot be found wanting,” he said.
“If we do not act with everything that we’ve got in the next 10 years, then by the time Ulysses, my 12-year-old, is my age, it will be far too late,” he said. “And challenges of economic opportunity, of health, of the very viability of the human race on this planet, will no longer be in the control of the generation that follow us.”
Underpinning all these problems is the state of our democracy, “which is broken as it has ever been right now,” according to O’Rourke.
“Fix this democracy and we fix our country, and we can help in fixing the world,” he said.
To fix democracy, O’Rourke said, it’s necessary to get big money out of politics (he’s not accepting PAC donations), pass a new voting rights act to end gerrymandering based on race and rollback voter ID laws.
Throughout the 70-minute podcast recording session, O’Rourke returned repeatedly to the importance of accountability — not just as something he learned as city council member, but as something he is still working on.
Earlier on Friday, Reuters broke the news that, as a teenager, O’Rourke had been a member of a group of hackers, the Cult of the Dead Cow. The report referenced a short piece of fiction O’Rourke wrote as a 15-year-old, in which the narrator fantasizes about killing children.
O’Rourke brought up his teenage writings on PPL without being asked. He called them “really hateful, really bad stuff.”
I’m mortified to read it now, incredibly embarrassed. But I have to take ownership of my words and understand the way that they make people feel when they read them now. Whatever my intention was as a teenager, it doesn’t matter.
And so, I think — I’ll just speak for myself — I have to look long and hard at my actions, at the language that I’ve used and I have to constantly try to do better. I want to make sure that I do that before I ask others to do the same.
Later, in response to a question from Walker, O’Rourke addressed criticism he’s received from an interview in Vanity Fair, in which he seemed flippant when discussing his wife’s role as primary caregiver for their three children.
“It’s valid criticism, it’s constructive criticism. It’s already made me a better candidate,” he said.
But I’ll be make more thoughtful going forward, in the way I talk about our marriage and also in the way that the truth of the criticism that I have enjoyed white privilege. Absolutely, undeniable. As I’ve shared with others, it certainly became a topic of conversation.
I have been arrested twice in my life. One [time] for attempted criminal trespass, and another [another time for the] more graver offense of driving while intoxicated. Those mistakes didn’t end up defining me or narrowing my options in life. And it’s not because I’m a great person or a genius or I’ve figured anything out. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I’m a white man. That I had parents who had the cash to post bail at the time. A lot of people don’t have that. And I don’t think I really recognized or understood that until I met those people, talked to their families, understood better from the experience of others how this criminal justice system works and how it doesn’t work in this country.
In the most recent Iowa Poll, conducted before O’Rourke announced his presidential run, the 46-year-old Texan place fifth out of the 20 declared and potential candidates Iowans likely to attend the Democratic caucuses were asked to choose from.
Of course, polls this early in the election season tend to only reflect name recognition, but in discussing his Senate run in Texas, O’Rourke said he started with virtually no statewide name recognition. During the campaign, O’Rourke broke the previous fundraising record for a Senate candidate (he raised approximately $80 million) and ended up losing to the incumbent Cruz by 2.5 percent of the vote.
O’Rourke said he would use the lessons he learned in his Senate run — especially the importance of reaching out to all voters, regardless of how likely they were to support him — to guide his presidential campaign.
“I want to bring my capacity to lead, to bring people together, to ensure this very divided, highly polarized, extremely partisan country is able to unify around the challenges and opportunities before us,” he said.
Editor’s note: Little Village was a media partner for the March 15, 2019 ‘Political Party Live’ podcast.