Beto O’Rourke built his name on high-intensity campaigns, including running as a Democrat in the 2020 presidential election. But after he suspended his campaign in November of 2019, he shifted focus to activism in one of the US’ newest battleground states. O’Rourke started a new organization, Powered by People, to leverage volunteer power to down-ballot Democrats in Texas. As a Dallas native who saw the effects of O’Rourke’s previous campaigns firsthand, I had the pleasure of speaking to him via phone earlier this spring to get his take on grassroots politics, youth activism, and the ongoing growth of the Democratic Party in Texas.
Running With Beto
As things began to heat up in the arena for the 2018 midterm elections, El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke started down a path that would shake up the status quo in Texas politics. Seeking to unseat Ted Cruz as the junior United States Senator from Texas, O’Rourke pledged not to take donations from political action committees, or PACs, and visited every single one of Texas’ 254 counties, where he spoke with community members, hosted rallies, and went block-walking. Ultimately, election night brought the O’Rourke campaign 48.3% of the vote, the best performance by Democrats in Texas since Ann Richards was elected governor in 1990. One of O’Rourke’s invisible victories from that November night was something now coined “The Beto Effect”: his popularity drove more Texans to the Democratic party, in turn helping other Democrats unseat incumbent Republicans. For example, Dallas County’s 32nd District seat in the Texas House went to Colin Allred, an African-American Democrat, over Pete Sessions, a Republican who held the seat since 2003. “It brought literally tens of thousands of people off the sidelines and into the arena of picking up a clipboard, knocking on doors, making phone calls, organizing other volunteers, and that in and of itself was a positive. It changed people’s lives for the better,” said O’Rourke. Not even a year after his explosive Senate run against Cruz, O’Rourke took on an ambitious new goal: candidacy for president. The former Senate hopeful had several notorious moments on the campaign trail. In October, he hosted the “Rally Against Fear” in Grand Prairie, TX, at the exact same time President Donald Trump was holding a rally in Downtown Dallas. And while O’Rourke’s campaign may have ended a few weeks after that rally, he would eventually endorse Joe Biden, taking the former VP out for dinner at one of Texas’ famed Whataburger restaurants (which became a staple on trips to various counties,) and promising to support Biden in his future efforts.
So What Comes Next?
Even after two high-intensity runs for public office, the El Paso politician is showing no signs of slowing down. O’Rourke is leveraging his resources to a new organization, Powered by People, that seeks to harness the power of grassroots activism and volunteering to manifest a Democratic resurgence in Texas. “Powered by People… seeks to help Democratic candidates in Texas win elections by bringing the power of grassroots organizing to there, in the kinds of races that typically don’t get the attention or the resources they need,” he said in an interview with RevNow earlier this month. One of these races was a special election for the 28th District in the Texas House of Representatives, where O’Rourke lent his support to Dr. Elizabeth Markowitz by block-walking for her campaign and streaming it live from his Facebook page. Though the race was ultimately won by Republican Gary Gates, Dr. Markowitz improved her margin of votes by three points.
“You gotta keep fighting, and over time you’ll find that you’re making progress towards the ultimate goal of having a government that looks like and is reflective of us and our interests.” For his own political future, however, O’Rourke plans to remain an activist. Despite high speculation in the days after he endorsed Biden on whether or not he would accept a place on the ballot as vice president, he says he doesn't “think it’s in the cards that I’d be asked to run as or serve as a VP,” but did voice his support for Biden’s pledge to pick a woman. “I do think it’s a really important moment in US history that you have a major party candidate pledge to select a woman as his running mate. I think it’d be better if we had a woman serving as president, but I think this is an important step…. And it shows you that when people stand up and push for an idea that they believe in, and enough people do that, it creates the pressure that causes that kind of change. So I was really glad to hear Vice President Biden make that commitment.”
Youth Take Charge
In our interview, O’Rourke was adamant about his support for youth activists taking democracy into their own hands. “I would say, in some ways the world is counting on young people. And not just for idealism or ideas or energy, but for leadership. Literally, tell the world what it is we are supposed to do and enforce the world to do it,” he said. Having been surrounded by politics his entire life, with his father having served on the El Paso Board of County Commissioners and as the El Paso County judge, O’Rourke is no stranger to being a youth involved in politics.
When asked what he would say to his legislative colleagues who are quick to discount the voices of the younger generations, he responded: “I would point them to the history of this country. It is hard to find a critical moment in this country’s history where young people were not leading the way… you look at the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and so often it was young people, like John Lewis who was in his 20s, but it was even younger people… standing up for themselves and their rights, and for the best ideals of this country.”