Beto O'Rourke

The Interview: Beto O’Rourke on Trump, the Border and How to Revive the Democratic Party

The El Paso congressman is a new breed of Texas maverick.


A version of this story ran in the February 2017 issue.

Beto O'Rourke
Congressman Beto O’Rourke (Christ Chavez)

Beto O’Rourke should’ve been a long shot when he took on Silvestre Reyes in 2012. Reyes had been El Paso’s congressman for eight terms. During the Democratic primary campaign, O’Rourke drew criticism for his bold comments on drug policy. In 2009, as an El Paso City Council member, he had sponsored a resolution proposing “an honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics” as a way to reduce violence on the border. The resolution was promptly vetoed, but it brought national attention to El Paso and to O’Rourke, who co-authored a book on the subject.

A fourth-generation Irish American who speaks fluent Spanish, studied English at Columbia University and worked in tech before entering politics, O’Rourke is now in his third term. He spoke with the Observer about how the Democratic Party can save itself by giving up on Big Money, and the challenges of speaking up for immigrants.

Q: How does the Democratic Party move forward? You voted to replace Nancy Pelosi as head of the House Democratic leadership.

We’ve been unable to effectively listen to and talk with the people who have been the bedrock of Democratic support for the better part of 70 years. I think that should cause us to assess whatever we’ve been doing.

Nancy Pelosi has been able to leverage what is, relatively speaking, a weak negotiating position into significant concessions on funding bills. She’s also a terrific fundraiser. Congressional elections have become multimillion-dollar affairs, and she’s been able to pump a lot of money into the party.

But this is all a pretext for what I’m going to say next. We need to do a much better job of listening to the people we represent and understanding their anxieties, and then be able to craft a legislative agenda and talk about it in a way that connects with constituents. I don’t know that the same leadership team that’s been in there for more than a decade and through four congressional cycles of loss can effectively do what’s necessary for change.

You mentioned how incredibly expensive congressional elections have become. Do you see this as a real barrier to reform?

I remember my first official meeting at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — I’d just been sworn in. Steve Israel, who was the chair and a member of Congress from Long Island, laid out for [newly elected members] how we should do our job. When you broke down his daily agenda as to how we should be spending our time, more than half of it was fundraising. It showed me just how screwed up the place was. Because the opening conversation wasn’t, “Hey, I know you came here to improve [health care] access for veterans or pursue a smarter foreign policy or fix health care” — it was all about how to stay in office. It was absolutely disgusting to me. It’s probably disgusting to Steve Israel. I don’t think anybody likes it.

But it’s the system into which people were elected. I think that’s the way most people look at it: to be reelected and to have any weight with the caucus they need to do these things, even if they find them distasteful. I spent about a half-session trying to figure out how to play that game, and then I gave up and stopped taking PAC checks. I decided I was going to sacrifice my ability to be a player in that large-dollar world and just focus on the issues I was excited to be there for.

I think with America’s disgust with politicians in general and congressional members in particular, and part of that connected to the obsession with money and with being re-elected, I think there’s a golden opportunity for the Democratic Party to set itself apart and renounce Big Money. It’s counterintuitive. It means you leave some big bucks on the table, but I think it could be inspirational and could become the brand that will set us apart.

What do you expect will happen in the first congressional session under the new Trump administration?

I’m very concerned by some of his nominees. Jeff Sessions is a perfect example of someone who in every way is opposed to the promise that immigration and communities like El Paso and Texas hold for the rest of the country.

One thing I’ve learned is that very rarely does the moral argument, which is the compelling one for me, persuade anybody. So I try to make the strongest economic argument that immigration is in America’s self-interest. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals beneficiaries, for example, will earn $4 trillion in taxable income over their lifetimes, and I’ve looked at what it would cost to deport them and what it would do to our economy should we lose them.

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Those are things hopefully I can get Republicans to pay attention to. No state would be hurt more than Texas should we take a draconian turn on immigration enforcement, and it’s hard to imagine a more draconian turn than what we saw during the Obama administration, which deported more people than any previous administration.

Congressional leaders will often tour the border, have a positive experience, then go back to Washington and use a lot of negative political rhetoric. Why do so many politicians beat up on the border region?

It’s a question I’ve become obsessed with [laughs]. I was attending a U.S.-Mexico summit the summer before last when the Trump phenomenon was emerging, and one of the Mexican senators, Gaby Cuevas, said, “Look, what bothers us most in Mexico is that so many people in America believe the hateful and malicious things about Mexicans being said by Trump — it seems to resonate with what people by and large already feel.”

And this goes a long way back. When Susie Byrd and I were working on a book on the drug war from the El Paso perspective, we came upon this article from 1913 about a Mexican who had murdered someone in El Paso and it was blamed on his ethnicity and his use of marijuana, and this resonated with the fear in America at the time of immigrants who were not like the dominant culture. I found another news article from 1982 warning of a Libyan hit squad in Juarez that was coming to get Americans.

So Trump talking about Mexican rapists… it’s not new. It’s been in our vocabulary about minorities for a long time. The new obsession with ISIS training camps in Juarez is just like the fears of Libyan death squads in the ’80s in Juarez.

As a country, we project our anxieties, fears and sometimes disappointments at losing jobs or not being as competitive, and instead of looking inward and thinking about what we could do different, it is so much easier politically to blame the outsider.

And the outsider, for us, begins at the U.S.-border. Canadians for the most part look like us, but really Mexico is our connection to the rest of the world. For me that’s a very positive and beautiful thing, but that’s probably because I live here. And you’re right. Politicians can come and see all these positive things at the border, but their constituents don’t see it. And they want to get re-elected and it’s so easy to push those buttons and touch on those anxieties rather than have rational and logical conversations about the issues.

Will there ever be any traction on immigration reform in Congress?

I don’t know. On any rational immigration proposal that is in any way connected to the border, both Democrats and Republicans alike will say, “It makes a lot of sense. We would love to work with you on that, but first we need to secure the border.”

It’s a rhetorical fix that we’re in. Because the border will never be secure enough. You’ll never have zero immigrant apprehensions or zero drug smuggling. It’s fool’s gold. And if you were to try and get there by building more walls and further militarizing the border, you would deeply damage the United States, the economy and our way of life, and deeply decimate border communities like El Paso or Brownsville.

We’ve got to dispense with this insecurity myth about the border and take reasonable precautions, remain vigilant and know that if we’re spending $19.5 billion a year, which is a record amount, on the border — where the problem is not — then we’re not keeping an eye on international airports, the northern border and our own homegrown radicals.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

This article appears in the February 2017 issue of the Texas Observer. Read more from the issue or subscribe now.