Politicians At Home: In Conversation with Beto O’Rouroke


Emma Nicholson, Writer

Beto O’Rourke is a congressman, politician, and 2020 presidential candidate from El Paso, Texas. (Dallas News)

You may know him from his race for Senator in Texas against opponent Ted Cruz. You may also know him from the three terms he served in Congress. You may even know him from the 2020 presidential debate stage. On April 29th, student journalists got the chance to connect with this Presidential candidate and Congressman Beto O’Rourke through Zoom, in an informative thirty-minute interview, in which he discussed everything from his presidential campaign, to his opinion on the current political climate, to the influence that rock music has had on his life.

Originally from El Paso, Texas, Beto O’Rourke served in congress for three terms representing Texas’s 16th district. In 2018 after giving up his seat in the house, O’Rourke faced incumbent Ted Cruz for a seat in the senate, and was defeated. Despite the loss, he was the closest a Democrat ever got to winning the senate seat in Texas, a seat that has historically been occupied by a Republican.

While attending Columbia University, Congressman O’Rourke was part of a rock band, called “Foss,” and spent his summers touring and performing around the US. Music has remained a part of his life, and comments that his interest in punk rock has a connection to his time spent working in politics. O’Rourke spoke specifically about musician Jonathan Richman, of the band, “The Modern Lovers.” “Many would argue that Jonathan Richman was one of the godfathers of punk rock, which was a movement that kind of formalized that stripped down, urgent, critical music that kind of responded to the politics of the moment.” Richman was an inspiration for Congressman O’Rourke from a young age, mentioning punk rock and the “low barrier for entry.” O’Rourke wrote songs, got a record label, and toured with his own band in college. “We had a ton of fun,” he says, in regards to the process. “There was this do-it-yourself, DIY ethos involved, you started your own label, you wrote your own songs, you booked your own tour, you led your own life.” According to O’Rourke, this mirrored his later involvement in politics. “I’ve tried to be involved politically in that same way.”

Congressman O’Rourke greatly values face -to-face conversations (Houston Chronicle)

One of the most important things to O’Rourke in his political duties, is his ability to speak directly to voters and just have face-to-face conversations with people. He says that it matters to him more than anything, is “What’s the person at the town hall saying? What is the lady in the bar talking to me about?” These are the experiences that matter most to him, saying, “I love conversations like this one.” These kinds of conversations are notably different from speaking on a debate stage. “To try to respond to a critical issue like climate change or gun violence, and in do so in 60 seconds, when you’re on the stage with 9 other candidates and in front of an audience, it’s just nuts. In my opinion, and I don’t get to pick the rules, it is not the best way to select the next leader of the world.” 

Another great and relevant topic of conversation, was the importance of voting, and how young people can participate in this upcoming election. “This is a big election, a reckoning for those in positions of public trust and power.” O’Rourke continued to say, Taking a break or sitting this one out is just not an option. You may love or you may hate Donald Trump, you may love or you may hate Joe Biden, but to not make a decision is still a choice in this.” As far as the current state of our nation and the leadership’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, O’Rourke says that it is important to think about the following question: “How will history judge us in the way that we met this moment?” 

Congressman O’Rourke faced incumbent Ted Cruz for the senate seat in Texas. (ABC)

When asked about the biggest challenges he faced during his Presidential election and how they were overcame, Congressman O’Rourke compared his campaign for senate to his campaign for presidency. During his race for senate against Ted Cruz, O’Rourke commented that regardless of how many people attended his events, “The goal was the same: to connect with people, listen to people, be with people, and not to have any interference. No TV ads, no pollsters, no consultants, just person to person.” However, his experience running for president was much different. “There were extraordinary expectations at the outset,” he says. “I was one of the most-well-known democrats in the country at that point, perhaps because of the way that we ran that senate campaign in Texas and how close we came to defeating Ted Cruz, in a state where no one ever thought that was possible.” These expectations became a challenge for Congressman O’Rourke during his campaign for presidency. “I think I unwittingly, played into much of that expectation. In some ways I lost sight of what was truly most exciting to me about politics in the first place, which is again being in those rooms or clubs or bars or cafes or parks or back alleys, wherever you find people, and connecting with them. That’s the root and the essence and bones of politics.”

Congressman Beto O’Rourke faced off against other front-runner presidential candidates on the debate stage last year. (Getty Images)

Media coverage was one of the most fascinating topics of the interview, appropriately, as O’Rourke addressed a group of aspiring future writers and journalists. As for President Donald Trump’s use of social media as his bully pulpit, O’Rourke says, “He’s really became a master of not just that one platform of social media, but how that one platform shapes and contorts and skew that narrative.” Congressman O’Rourke commented on how this has had an impact on our political sphere, and the way we perceive news. As for his own news interests, he says “‘I’m a big fan of the PBS newshour, in part because they give the topic and subjects and themes and people their interviewing their view.” This is one way that O’Rourke says he ensures his news is reliable. Politically, it is important to always check your sources before blindly believing what a candidate has said. “Some of it is on us. Check what you’ve just heard from candidates.” With so many means of communications these days, Congressman O’Rourke encourages everyone to avoid rumor and stick to fact. “In some ways it’s really exciting because it’s such a dynamic time,” he says. “But it also invites a lot of rumor, a lot of misinformation, and this can further divide or further polarize a country that is already suffering from division.” O’Rourke commented on the way that this is still an ongoing challenge for the US: “It’s something that were all figuring out in real time.”

Congressman O’Rourke encourages aspiring politicians to pursue their goals. (Nhpr)

To any students interested in pursuing a career in politics someday, Congressman O’Rourke’s message is to never put yourself down before you have tried. I wouldn’t ever get tripped up on the conventional definition of what a leader is or should be, and what would qualify you for elected office.” In regards to this, O’Rourke mentioned Lena Hidalgo, another politician from Texas. When she was 27, Hidalgo was leading the 4th largest city in Texas, as the county judge of Harris County Texas.  “By any conventional measure she had no business running for office,” says O’Rourke. “On that campaign trail, she connected with people, and listened to them. That resonated and it worked and she was elected.” Hidalgo is another politician like O’Rourke who understands the value of face-to-face conversation. “If you feel it, and you’re willing to go out there and meet the people you want to represent and serve, I would advise you do it in the most direct way you can.” 

Congressman O’Rourke closed the interview out with an inspiring message to everyone, young and old, feeling the weight of this pandemic: “Here we are in one of the greatest crises this country has ever faced and I think that it can lead us to despair or a feeling of impotence. I just want you to remember, in this great democracy and in this amazing country we are all so lucky to live in, there is no limit of things we can all do right now.”