The music that blasted through the second-floor ballroom at the Iowa Memorial Union on Sunday was the first indication Beto O’Rourke was incorporating local color into his first campaign stop in Iowa City since declaring his candidacy last month. Instead of his standard walk-up music, “Clampdown” by The Clash, the former Texas congressman bounded onto the stage in the middle of the ballroom to a Hawkeye favorite, “Back in Black.”
AC/DC wasn’t the only Iowa City-centric touch O’Rourke worked in.
He wore a Hawkeye cap during the prepared remarks of his hour-long event, but it came off when he started answering questions from the audience. (During this campaign swing, he’s also worn Iowa State and Iowa Cubs caps at events.) He said he’d eaten breakfast at Hamburg Inn No. 2 (“not the healthiest meal I’ve ever had in my life”), and told the crowd he planned to pick up a pie shake on his way out of town. O’Rourke started his speech by introducing some of the local politicians in attendance: Rep. Dave Loebsack, who, O’Rourke said, had the locker next to his in the House of Representatives’ gym (“I’ve literally watched him put his pants on one leg at a time”), and state Sen. Zach Wahls (“we expect nothing short of greatness [from Wahls]”).
Most of the people at the IMU were closer in age to O’Rourke, 46, and Loebsack, 66, than the 27-year-old Wahls.
The substance of O’Rourke’s remarks was the same as it was during his first Iowa campaign swing. He is running on four major issues, as he explained at length in Cedar Rapids during his March 15 appearance on the Political Party Live podcast: immigration reform, health care, climate change and fixing the political system.
Those issues are also priorities for almost all of the other 16 candidates running for the Democratic nomination for president, but O’Rourke is unique in the emphasis he places on the public’s accountability for the problems currently facing America.
“In a democracy, the people are the government and the government is the people,” O’Rourke said. It wasn’t an abstract statement about political science. O’Rourke said it while explaining his belief that every American bears responsibility for the country’s immigration policies, including ones that strike most people as inhumane.
“We the people of 2019 cannot lay this problem at the feet of one man or one party,” O’Rourke said about Trump administration policies such as the separation of families at the southern border. “Because if we are this democracy, which we purport to be, it’s on every single one of us. For as long as this persists, it’s our responsibility.”
“We must use this as an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans and Independents alike to come together and rewrite our immigration laws in our own image.”
But before this can happen, O’Rourke said people must address the fact that “our democratic institutions are corrupted and captured by corporations that pay for access and outcomes.”
To fix this, he proposed a new voting rights act, reforming how congressional districts are drawn and enacting universal voter registration for those 18 and older, in order to making participating in democracy easier.
“If we do this, and resist the temptation to be divided by our differences by a president who excels at doing just that, who seeks to make us angry, keep us apart and make us afraid of one another,” O’Rourke said, it would transform the nation, and instead of defining ourselves by our differences, we’d be “known by our ambitions, our aspirations, the resolve, the work, the courage, the service and sacrifice that we can bring to bear.”
The crowd reacted enthusiastically to O’Rourke’s speech. The loudest applause came when he said, “Universal health care means every woman makes her own decisions about her own body.” But in the three weeks he’s been an official candidate, O’Rourke has been routinely criticized by political commentators, and on social media, for being a good speaker who offers few specifics.
Speaking to reporters after the event, O’Rourke pushed back against this characterization when asked if he was offering fewer specifics than other candidates.
I just don’t know enough of what the other candidates are saying, but I’m happy to offer you as much specificity as you like on any proposal. Whether it’s Medicare for America that ensures we get to universal, high-quality health care by allowing anyone to enroll in Medicare, and businesses and families who want to can choose to stay under employer-sponsored insurance if they have a network they like that’s working for them and for their families.
On criminal justice, we talked ending the war on drugs, ending the prohibition on marijuana, expunging the arrest records for those caught in possession of something that’s legal or decriminalized in most states in the country. Ending for-profit prisons as well, and doing away with cash bail, so that you’re not too poor to be able to get out of jail.
On immigration, begin by freeing the Dreamers from the fear of deportation by making them U.S. citizens — don’t do it at the price of their parents, or the construction of a wall or militarizing the communities. Bring millions more out of the shadows on a pathway to citizenship and contributing to their full potential. Raise the visa caps that we have right now, that now extend 20 years — that the line we’re asking someone to wait in, to join their families or to work a job here in this community or this country that no one born in this community or this country is willing to do.
So, whether it’s health care, whether it’s immigration, whether it’s criminal justice, whether it’s climate, these are important issues. I’m learning from those I’m listening to, but I’m also showing up with specific policy proposals.
This was the final stop of O’Rourke’s second campaign tour through Iowa, and even though he’s received a great deal of media coverage both times, it doesn’t mean he’s the most immediately recognizable candidate in the race.
After introducing Loebsack and Wahls at the beginning of his speech, he singled out a college-age member of the crowd, “My friend, Matt, who I met in the men’s room as we were washing hands. He said, ‘Are you here to see Beto?’”
“Thank you for being here,” O’Rourke said, as the audience laughed.