Beto O’Rourke’s ‘Powered by People’ is an organizing powerhouse

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I. Turning Texas blue: “This is a campaign of people. All people, all the time. Everywhere. Every single day.”

Beto O’Rourke, through a much-vaunted U.S. Senate race in 2018, became one of Texas’ greatest hopes to finally propel the state from red to blue. He raised a record-shattering $80.1 million, and mobilized a stunning 20,000 volunteers, who knocked on almost 3 million doors, made almost 20 million calls, and sent more than 10 million texts — the largest political organizing operation in state history. While his campaign ultimately fell short to incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz by 2.5 points, his staff and volunteers — many inspired to enter the political arena for the first time because of O’Rourke — went on to continue volunteering, organize their community, lead campaigns, and run for office themselves.

O’Rourke’s newest organization, “Powered by People,” is seeking to once again harness the collective energy of these volunteers — old and new — to finally usher in a new Democratic era in Texas. From helping fill more than 14,000 volunteer shift hours at food banks to its latest two and a half-hour phone bank bringing together more than 800 volunteers to ask likely Texas Democrats to register to vote, Powered by People has solidified itself as an organizing powerhouse.

Launched in December 2019, Powered by People was originally conceived as a way to galvanize a door-knocking army of volunteers to assist Democratic candidates in flipping the Texas House. To win back a majority in this year’s elections, Texas Democrats hope to sweep just 9 of 22 targeted state house seats where O’Rourke won or lost within single digits in 2018.

One month after its founding, Powered by People stormed into the political arena, rallying 1,100 volunteers to knock on 41,000 doors in the weeks leading up to Democratic candidate Eliz Markowitz’s effort to flip one of the 22 targeted state house districts. While Markowitz was unsuccessful, it heralded the political energy that Powered by People would invest in Texas.

“The real power of this organization is not any one person, but the people who comprise it,” O’Rourke said of Powered by People. “Can I be helpful to some of these state house races personally? Yeah, I can raise them some money, I can maybe bring them some attention. But, what is far more powerful, far more effective, and far more valuable is helping to bring thousands of volunteers into these races.”

O’Rourke stressed that Powered by People is not really about him at all, rather the momentum and organizing capacity that its volunteers can lend to candidates and causes by knocking doors, making phone calls, registering voters, and in the weeks preceding an election, turning out voters. 

“Only the candidate and their campaign can win [their] election, but we can provide a lot of help,” he noted of the organization’s potential to lift up Democratic candidates. “We knew that’s where the power was. It’s not the money, it’s not any single person, or any single campaign. It’s the people who are the real power in Texas.” 

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, unemployment suddenly spiked in Texas, leaving many families with severed incomes and food insecurity. In turn, food banks saw an explosion in overwhelming demand from hourslong lines of new families seeking assistance and a lifeline, leading Powered by People to step in. Through 15,000 phone calls to recruit volunteers, Powered by People temporarily pivoted from politics to fill more than 14,000 hours of critical volunteer shifts and raise more than $200,000 for Texas’ 21 food banks.

“People just put on their mask, when it was the most uncertain of times, and they just went [to volunteer],” said Brenda Jurgens, who served as a Powered by People food bank captain in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and a top volunteer for O’Rourke’s previous campaigns. Volunteering around 60 hours each week, Jurgens coordinated with multiple food banks and more than 300 Powered by People volunteers to fill thousands of food distribution shifts over the course of weeks. She also worked closely with both Democratic and Republican elected officials and candidates to help plug their respective volunteers into food bank shifts. Jurgens noted that her full-time volunteer involvement would have been inconceivable just two years prior.

“Before Beto, I had never donated a dime to a campaign; I had never volunteered; I had never gone to a campaign event. Nothing,” said Jurgens, who first learned about O’Rourke years ago after he swiftly assisted her father, a decorated war veteran who needed VA and private care, despite not representing him in Congress. Later, when O’Rourke was visiting all of Texas’ 254 counties as a candidate for U.S. Senate, Jurgens drove more than two hours from Aledo to hear O’Rourke speak at a taco stand with 13 other attendees, mostly Republicans. 

O’Rourke ended his exchange by asking, “What are you going to do for Texas?” 

Answering his call to action, Jurgens switched her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. “I signed up to volunteer and I never looked back,” she said. Jurgens’ story is emblematic of the legion of volunteers who have sustained their political involvement because of O’Rourke’s Senate run.

“We’re all going through hard times, it’s okay,” added Tiam Leyva, another top Powered by People volunteer who has been active with O’Rourke since 2018. “It’s really comforting to know that we were helping people out.”

Powered by People volunteer, Tiam Leyva, distributing food to families for a food bank in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. | Photo courtesy of Tiam Leyva

II. The political moment: “I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights any time, anywhere, any place.”

In contrast to O’Rourke’s presidential run, which largely gutted the emphasis on volunteer-powered organizing, Powered by People’s stated goal of “organizing grassroots volunteers to do the tough, necessary work that wins elections,” hearkens back to the massive voter outreach program that defined O’Rourke’s Senate race. This strategy, known as “distributed organizing” and pioneered at scale by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, focuses on training as many volunteers as possible to take on leadership roles typically reserved for staff, such as leading door-knocking events and phone banks, managing texts, and responding to campaign emails. Jurgens’ lead role in organizing hundreds of volunteers for food banks, as well as connecting with elected officials and candidates, is demonstrative of the level of responsibility and trust that Powered by People is lending to its volunteers.

Ahead of Texas’ June 15 deadline to register to vote for runoff elections, Powered by People launched an aggressive voter registration effort to reach likely Democrats. Its last four voter registration phone banks over Zoom have seen steady growth in participation each week, expanding from more than 250 people, to more than 350, to more than 500, to 820 people in its most recent event. During each two and a half-hour phone bank, O’Rourke and special guests kick things off before a quick training on the calling script and dialer technology use. The hundreds of people on the call, including O’Rourke, then mute themselves on Zoom and start calling likely Democrats en masse — racking up hundreds of thousands of outbound calls each week for a total of more than 650,000 phone calls made and more than 500,000 text messages.

“The work that these volunteers are doing, and the numbers in which they are doing it — these 820 people who all showed up last [week] for the phone bank —  is significant,” said O’Rourke of Powered by People’s volunteer efforts. “When it’s paired with [Texas Organizing Project], MOVE Texas, [the Texas Democratic Party], [the House Democratic Campaign Committee], and all these other groups, I am optimistic and encouraged.”

The number of volunteers, and the sprawling network of volunteers spread across the state is nothing short of staggering. O’Rourke acknowledged, in that vein, the need for Powered by People to work closely with frontline groups, like MOVE Texas and Texas Organizing Project, that focus on turning out students and young people, and Black and Brown voters — communities often subjected to voter suppression at the ballot box, and oft-neglected by political candidates in voter outreach as they are written off as too unlikely to vote. O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign, its many successes notwithstanding, committed this misstep by launching a student organizing program just a month before the voter registration deadline, and a major canvassing operation in communities of color only a month and a half before election day.

Despite the late investment, O’Rourke can still point to significant increases in turnout from 2014 to 2018: a 234 percent increase in youth turnout; a 76 percent increase in Latinx turnout; a 55 percent increase in Black turnout; and a 174 percent increase in Asian turnout. This late investment, however effective, was not enough to put him over the top in the election.

This year, however, more than five months from the election in November, O’Rourke said Powered by People is already starting to think through ideas of how to better reach communities of color, and meet the current political climate steeped in sweeping protests for racial justice and demands to transform the police.

“Young voters have been the leaders in so many of these amazing protests across Texas right now — far more than those in positions in power,” said O’Rourke, who in part rose to national stardom with a viral speech defending the right to peacefully protest against racial injustice and law enforcement who were — and still are — killing Black people at a frighteningly disproportionate level. “There is such power in Black Lives Matter and in these young people, and it’s already changing policies in this country. What can Powered by People do to make sure that that’s carried through in November?”

“All of us should be very frustrated, and very angry right now, and very saddened, but we should also be open to the hope offered by protesters, leaders on the streets of our city, and our volunteers — not just through Powered by People, but across the spectrum of Democratic political organizing,” O’Rourke said of the political moment. 

He noted that Powered by People, which has demonstrated its organizational latitude from its work with food banks, would be further exploring possibly deploying local volunteers to apply pressure for select City Councils in demanding greater transparency and accountability from police, and joining community efforts of Black-led organizations and activists already on the ground.

Beto O’Rourke marching in a Juneteenth parade in Houston on June 19, 2018. | Photo courtesy of Beto O’Rourke

III. The next phase: “What are you going to do for Texas?”

With the passage of the deadline to register to vote for runoff elections on July 14, Powered by People has shifted to identifying likely Democratic voters across the state. The identification phase is common in political campaigns, and generally followed by turning out all of the positively identified voters to cast their ballot in the weeks preceding the election. 

To do this, Powered by People, in light of COVID-19, will once again focus on massive phone banks and relational friend-to-friend organizing — where volunteers leverage personal connections with friends and family to get out the vote — in order to help flip targeted state house districts. While that remains Powered by People’s primary crusade, the organization remains unconstrained by a traditional singular focus.

“Beto didn’t just train people to get house district [candidates] elected, or congressional, or senate, or presidential candidates — he trained us to become active in our community with a playbook that works,” said Jurgens, the top volunteer from Aledo. She cited using O’Rourke’s organizing playbook to help pass the first school bond in 10 years in her community, as well as the success in organizing for multiple food banks.

In a time when many political campaigns and organizations are struggling to switch to digital and virtual organizing, Powered by People is notable in its ability to seamlessly marshall volunteers at scale and its fluidity in the tasks that volunteers are able to take on — in large part because of the vast organizing infrastructure and the sheer number of active and trained volunteers from O’Rourke’s Senate run.

“In Texas — in 2018 and 2017 — 20,000 volunteers picked up a clipboard and knocked on millions of doors over the course of those two years. They made many million more phone calls, and they produced the largest grassroots voter contact and voter outreach effort in Texas history,” said O’Rourke about the evolution of Powered by People from his Senate race. “That’s so powerful and amazing, and frankly so much more powerful and amazing than the candidate, than I as a person could be.”

Powered by People, as it enters its next phase of helping flip Texas, has evolved to be less defined by Beto O’Rourke, who is no longer on the ballot, but instead by the thousands of people who are answering his call of, “What are you going to do for Texas?”

Photo: Chris Chu de León

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