El Paso native Robert “Beto” O’Rourke is travelling the state of Texas to make history by running for a senate seat as Democrat to replace Ted Cruz.
A United States Representative for the 16th Congressional District of Texas, O’Rourke made a stop in Lubbock at the Mae Simmons Community Center on Nov. 16, the same day he was serving as representative in Washington, D.C, to listen to constituents and answer questions.
A large part of O’Rourke’s campaign involves knocking on the doors of constituents to better understand the perspectives of voters in order to perform legislative duties that would benefit the needs of society.
As part of his Town Hall appearance, O’Rourke allowed for citizens to ask questions in the style of a forum after providing an update on his work in Washington.
“I want to listen to you,” O’Rourke addressed the audience. “I want to serve you and I want to represent you. How can I do that if I hadn’t had a chance to listen to you, and listen to what’s on your mind?”
O’Rourke says that his campaign has had a very successful run, despite it being founded on grassroots participation. According to Stewart Williams, the Lubbock County chair of the Democratic Party, O’Rourke’s campaign has been funded without the help of Political Action Committees, corporations or any other special interest groups.
“It’s just people,” O’Rourke said. “It’s just human beings that are driving this campaign. It is the concerns of the people of Texas that I am going to fight for when I’m in the Senate.”
O’Rourke says that when he first ran for Congress in 2012, he ran a very similar campaign founded on grassroots participation.
“I knocked on the doors of everyone I sought to represent,” he recalled. “What I learned that surprised me, to my shame, was that veterans in El Paso were having a hard time getting into the VA [Veteran Administration Center].”
O’Rourke recalls knocking on the door of a veteran and pitching his campaign. After asking what concerned the man, O’Rourke says he found out that the veteran was trying to schedule an appointment with a mental help specialist through the VA. The veteran found that the VA was completely booked and he would not be able to get an appointment for a year.
“I later learned that out of 141 mental health care clinics in the VA across the country, El Paso was ranked 141,” O’Rourke said. “Dead last. Those that serve this country and put their lives on the line come back to El Paso with post traumatic stress disorder or military sexual trauma or any other signature condition of service and combat.”
According to O’Rourke, it is estimated that, on average, 20 veterans will commit suicide as a result of not finding the proper care in time for a worsening mental disorder.
After being sworn into office to represent District 16, O’Rourke made the VA in El Paso his number one priority.
“The wait time has gone from being the worst in the country to being right at the national average,” O’Rourke said. “Our goal is to be the best in the nation. We focused on the number of mental health care providers in the VA. We started with 68 full time in January of 2013. Just last month, we had 113. We’re opening up more appointment slots, and seeing more veterans.”
The changes O’Rourke has been a part of in the House of Representatives have inspired him to combat issues that veterans face in the Senate.
The issue that O’Rourke discovered while working on the Veteran Affairs Committee and plans to change involves the other than honorable discharge of service members. Those who have been other than honorably discharged, according to O’Rourke, are precluded by law from accessing a VA. This is part of the punishment of not having an honorable discharge.
“Part of their punishment is that they can’t get into a VA,” O’Rourke said. “Despite tens of thousands of them suffereing from PTSD and other signature conditions of service. Amidst the suicide crisis that veterans face today, they are taking their own lives at twice the rate of veterans who have an honorable discharge. This is something we clearly need to prioritize.”
According to O’Rourke, writing a bill as a Democrat in a Republican majority “is like a tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it.”
After partnering with Republican Congressman Mike Coffman, the two presented ideas to each other about how they would deal with the issue facing other than honorably discharged veterans.
After forming a consensus on the bill, it was presented to the Veteran Affairs Committee. Because the process of passing a bill is tedious, many drafts die at any point in the process. A week before Veterans Day, the bill made it to the floor, where it passed with a unanimous vote, to O’Rourke’s surprise.
“It’s such an honor to be a part of Congress when it actually works,” He said. “Republicans care as much for our Vets as much as Democrats do.”
One of the questions O’Rourke answered was in regards to higher education. The question was asked by the father of a graduate student who had concerns about a bill that recently passed in the House of Representatives. According to O’Rourke, the bill has the ability to bankrupt every graduate student in the nation by taxing them with a liability.
“There are headlines that say, ‘Graduate students to pay tax increase to fund tax break for the super rich in the country.’” O’Rourke began to answer. “Fifty percent of the entire 1.5 trillion taxpayer dollars shouldn’t go to the top of the top.”
According to O’Rourke, under the bill, teachers would no longer be able to deduct taxes from the money that they spend on school supplies.
“That’s just being mean,” he added. “Every teacher I’ve met does this at their own expense – buying things for the classroom to ensure that those kids will become successful, while churches and megachurches don’t pay any taxes.”
Another key issue O’Rourke is “fired up for” is the push for a wall that would span the border between the United States and Mexico. According to O’Rourke, the wall would cost approximately $25 billion to build.
“Twenty-Five billion,” O’Rourke said. “To cut off our relationship with Mexico, despite the one million jobs that are connected to the 32 million lawful crossings that take place between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. The very lifeblood of this hemisphere’s binational community. The essence of what makes Texas strong and successful.”
On Aug. 8, 2015, O’Rourke, along with more than 900 other runners, took part in a 10k marathon from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez to symbolize unity between the United States and Mexico.
“The border has never been more secure and safe,” O’Rourke told the Plainsman Press in an interview. “[Trump’s proposed border wall] makes no sense whatsoever. Part of the reason we did that run is because facts alone don’t get it done. You have to persuade people with emotional arguments to help them see things in a different way.”