An exclusive one-on-one with Beto O’Rourke

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Beto O’Rourke’s no stranger to traversing Texas and turning out crowds around the state. But over the past month, the former Congressman, U.S. Senate candidate, and potential gubernatorial contender has done so for a different reason than in the past. Namely, to combat Republicans’ all-out attacks on voting rights via his Drive for Democracy tour. O’Rourke sat down with the Signal for an exclusive interview before yesterday’s For the People rally in Austin, which delivered thousands of Texans to the steps of the State Capitol building on Father’s Day. 

Republicans are targeting voting rights across America. How much has Texas upped the ante with SB 7? 

Texas is already the hardest state in which to vote and to register to vote — and that’s before you account for SB 7, one of the most restrictive voting laws in the country. That legislation wouldn’t just end Souls to the Polls and make it harder on those with disabilities to cast a ballot; it wouldn’t just allow partisan poll watchers free reign inside of polling places to intimidate voters. Above all else, SB 7 would give Texas’ state government the right to overturn future elections. And that is so dangerous of an idea, that it makes you wonder: Would we still have a democracy at the end of the day if that was passed into law? This fight, Texas’ fight, is at the front lines for voting rights across America. 

Where do rallies like yesterday’s come in?

This is an existential moment. And the way to meet it is not on Twitter and it’s not on TV. The way to meet it is in person. One of the things I’ve been telling people as we’ve met in 105-degree heat and ten thousand percent humidity is that the fight for democracy will not be air conditioned. You’ve got to be with people, you’ve got to see them, and you’ve got to listen to them. Because it’s going to involve rallying, marching, running for office, registering people to vote, doing everything we can to not just stop Republican attacks, but to pass the Voting Rights Act of our age — the For the People Act, which has its first procedural vote in the Senate on Tuesday. After all, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 didn’t come about purely from LBJ’s genius as a leader. It required John Lewis marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It required people gathering at their state capitals. It required mass mobilization to bring the pressure to bear.

Sen. Joe Manchin made headlines last week after showing support for a limited version of the For the People Act. Do you think it’s substantial enough?

It’s a great sign that Sen. Manchin is back at the table, because he had effectively walked away from it weeks ago… Even though he was a co-sponsor of it in 2019. So, it’s great that he’s highlighting the aspects of the bill that he agrees with, like making Election Day a national holiday and addressing the gerrymandering of congressional districts. What’s missing, of course, and what is so fundamental, is automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, reducing the power of corporate spending in our politics by elevating citizen funding of campaigns, and making sure that obstacles like those already in place in Texas are removed. That way, every eligible voter is able to cast a ballot. Still, when you consider that, a week ago, the story was, This is over, not happening, and now Manchin is partly on board? That’s exciting. But no matter how you slice it, there’s a lot more to do.

You’ve traveled all across Texas recently. Which interactions stick out to you most?

There was a woman I met in Carthage named Reena. She’s got a severely disabled daughter and is in a 20-year line for state supported services. She doesn’t know what to do. She’s an older Black woman and, in many ways, is the type of person that Texas leaders have always sought to target, disempower, and disenfranchise. But she didn’t come out that day because she was fired up about democracy. No, she said, “I know that you used to be in Congress and so you used to have some power. Can you help me with my daughter? I don’t know where else to go. I’ve gone to my state rep. They’re not helping me out.” I have a family member who is disabled and we’ve navigated the state supported disability system, so that hit me hard on a personal level. I told her, “I’m not in an office, but I’ve faced these hurdles before. So, let me see if we can work with a member of Congress to get you some help.” That conversation is going to stick with me because it highlights what we always have to keep in mind: Democracy, filibuster — those words are so removed from people’s lives when they can’t access the care they need or afford to make ends meet. It’s up to us, all of us, to guarantee that people like Reena are protected and ensured of their rights.

Does it get old being asked if you’re running for governor?

Recently, this woman in Wichita Falls took the question before I could even answer. “Look,” she said, “If we don’t have free and fair elections, if they are purging hundreds of thousands of voters off the rolls [a prospect looking ahead], if they’re going to rig the system before we begin the contest, does it matter who’s running?” And she’s right. If we’re going to prevail in this fight for voting rights, then it’s got to be 100 percent of our focus. I’ve got to see this through. Once we accomplish that, I’m very, very, very motivated to find the most effective way that I can serve this state. And it might be as a candidate. Or it also might be through Powered by People, which has registered more than 200,000 voters in the last year and a half, organized people around relief during the winter storm, around COVID vaccinations, and more. At the end of the day, you’ve got to fix the system first before you do anything else. 

Given the current challenges, what message do you have for concerned voters?

We were in a church in Henderson on Friday. About 100 people showed up. We asked, “Who’s willing to become a VRD [volunteer deputy registrar]?” Almost every hand shot up. “Who’s willing to call their state representative or state senator to tell them you don’t want them tampering with elections?” Almost every hand. The bottom line is this: Folks want to band together. Yes, there’s a temptation to despair and there are very real reasons for people to feel that way. Reena’s example is one of the best and a very understandable one. But having the opportunity to do something about it with other people is the antidote to that despair. That’s what gives people hope. And it’s a hope founded, I think, on a very real possibility that will prevail. All of us need that right now. Because taking action together is the best answer I’ve found.

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