News Release

What Does Beto O’Rourke Actually Stand For?

ZAID JILANI, areo64 at gmail.com, @ZaidJilani
Jilani recently wrote the in-depth piece “What Does Beto O’Rourke Actually Stand For?”  for Current Affairs. He writes about political polarization for UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center and co-hosts “Extremely Offline,” a podcast “about better conversations between political tribes.” Jilani is blogging on the 2020 election at: 2020watch.org.

Jilani writes that O’Rourke “seems to have received nothing but praise from everyone from Wall Street donors like [Robert] Wolf to Obama alumni like [Dan] Pfeiffer to a large liberal following enamored by his skateboarding at Whataburger and his passionate defense of kneeling NFL players. He has become a uniting figure for Democrats, beloved by all and loathed by none. What kind of Democratic politician can be so adored?

“Maybe one who rarely, if ever, challenged the powerful.

“There is no doubt that O’Rourke is a talented politician. His $60 million haul, much of it from small donors, came from extremely aggressive campaigning all over the state of Texas, alongside a national donor base cultivated by signaling to culturally liberal activists. But a talented politician is not necessarily someone who has talent in governing. So what was Congressman O’Rourke like?

“In his six years in Congress, O’Rourke passed three bills. Two were related to veterans issues, the third renamed a federal building and courthouse. Of course, O’Rourke was in a GOP-dominated House, which would limit his effectiveness. But part of being effective as a Member of Congress is learning to deal with the environment you are in. Between 1995 and 2007, when the Republicans solidly held the House of Representatives, the lawmaker who passed the most amendments was not a far-right Republican but instead Vermont’s independent democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, dubbed an ‘amendment king.’ The firebrand Florida Democrat Alan Grayson was similarly effective at writing and passing legislation.

“But even if you’re not passing bills or amendments, you can chair investigations and help uncover important information that changes the debate in Washington. You can earn media appearances and become a leader on major issues. You can help move legislation that isn’t going to pass anytime soon, but set it up for the future.

“O’Rourke was missing in action on virtually all of these areas, and rarely challenged concentrated power in D.C. — except during his initial run for Congress, in which he unseated conservative Democrat Silvestre Reyes. Reyes was a proponent of America’s drug war while O’Rourke favored legalizing marijuana to cut into the cartels’ power. Reyes ran dirty campaign ads claiming O’Rourke was encouraging drug use among children. It didn’t work, and O’Rourke’s smart campaign was victorious.

“But it may have been the last time O’Rourke waged a sustained campaign against the Democratic establishment. While the Democratic base is coalescing around single-payer health care and free college, O’Rourke sponsored neither House bill. During his time in Congress, he never joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He has been, however, a member of the New Democratic Caucus, the group organized to carry on the ideas of Clintonite policies. During the 2016 presidential primary, he stayed on the sidelines.

“If you’re not familiar with O’Rourke’s district, you might chalk this all up to representing a conservative region. It’s Texas, right? Our system is a representative democracy with single member districts, and lawmakers must represent politically diverse constituencies. Otherwise, they risk being thrown out. But Texas’s 16th Congressional District is among the more liberal in the country. In 2016, O’Rourke netted 85 percent of the vote, while a Libertarian grabbed 10 percent and a Green received 4 percent. …

“You probably don’t know the name Sema Hernandez. (She may not even know how to skateboard.) But the 32-year-old Houston activist and self-described ‘Berniecrat’ netted 24 percent in Texas’s Democratic Senate primary, despite raising less than $10,000 to O’Rourke’s $9 million.

“Hernandez is the child of immigrants, a first-generation Mexican American who struggles to afford healthcare and ran her campaign on a shoestring budget. O’Rourke, on the other hand, was born into a wealthy Texas political family, attended Columbia University, and has a business background in Internet start-ups. … He is married to the daughter of billionaire real estate developer William D. Sanders (‘the richest man in El Paso’) — whose development plan in downtown El Paso O’Rourke vigorously championed, against the protests of many local residents. During his run for Senate, his disclosures showed that O’Rourke’s assets are somewhere in the range of $3.5 to $16 million, thanks to rental and commercial real estate as well as his wife’s trust fund.”