Texas’ summer heat was beating down yesterday in Austin when former Congressman and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke took the stage in front of thousands of onlookers. The crowd, which rally organizers estimated ran between 3,000-5,000 attendees and included people who had driven from as far as Laredo, Houston, and El Paso, roared as he delivered what they’d come to see: A fiery, but hopeful, reminder of what’s at stake as Texas Democrats brace for all-out political war over voting rights in an upcoming special session.
“This is what democracy looks like. And this is what fighting for democracy feels like. It’s hot. It’s sweaty, it’s tough, it’s loud,” he said, standing atop a large black trunk and donned in his trademark blue button-down, the sweat pouring from his face. “And it’s no accident that we held this rally for American democracy right here in Texas on the longest day of the year. It’s going to take every waking moment from every single one of us to see this through. And I have faith and confidence in every single one of us. We are the people that this country has been waiting for, right here in the great state of Texas.”
It was the culmination of weeks of intrastate travel for O’Rourke, who had visited every corner of Texas for his Drive for Democracy tour. But unlike his previous gatherings and stops, this rally had a slightly different feel — one of particular timeliness and urgency. That’s because, after months of hand-wringing and delays from Senate Democrats (specifically, Sen. Joe Manchin), Congress’ upper chamber is set to hold its first procedural vote on the For the People Act tomorrow. The bill, which is still very much in peril as Manchin protects the filibuster and chases his bipartisan pipe dream, has the potential to reimagine voting rights in America at a time when Republican state lawmakers are carrying out a nationwide assault on our electoral system.
“We’re in the throes of a battle for democracy and, while it’s scary, it’s also empowering,” O’Rourke said. These remarks came after dozens of speakers had ignited the crowd in the 90 minutes prior — including Luci Baines Johnson (LBJ’s daughter), former HUD secretary and presidential candidate Julián Castro, and longtime Congressman Lloyd Doggett. A myriad of activists, religious figures, and state lawmakers like Reps. Jasmine Crockett and Trey Martinez Fischer, who discussed voting rights with Manchin in D.C. last week, also delivered rousing addresses.
“Fifty-six years ago, I stood by my father when he signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law, bringing about critical reforms to our democracy and social justice. And with your help, we’ll do it again,” Johnson said, adding that the Father’s Day rally was an especially fitting tribute to the 36th president’s legacy. “There are lots of us out there who appreciate those with eloquent voices who are speaking up when it matters most. But it’s your voices, every single person’s voice in this audience tonight, that we need most. We did it in Selma, and we can do it again.”
Before closing things out, O’Rourke acknowledged the two vastly different realities Texas voters could face in the coming years. In one, the sanctity of America’s democracy was affirmed by countless hours of organizing bringing about the biggest civil rights legislation in nearly six decades. In the other, Republicans’ efforts to codify voter suppression and disenfranchisement would strip away our electoral system beyond recognition. What happens next is up to us, he said.
“Make sure your lawmakers hear you. Even better, make sure they see you. Keep reaching until you reach the President of the United States, the most powerful person on the planet, Joe Biden. If he makes this his singular focus, I believe we will have the Voting Rights Act of 2021, just as President Johnson delivered the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” he said. “I know we can win this fight, though it will not be easy and it will not be over quickly. But I believe there is nothing more important for us to focus our time, our energy, our efforts on than this moment. So, please: Keep the faith, never give up the right, and let’s go out there and win this thing.”