Congressman Beto O'Rourke Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) is a rising star in the Democratic party hoping to unseat Republican Senator Ted Cruz, which would make him the first Democrat to win statewide office in Texas since 1994. And he's trying to do it without party consultants, pollsters, and PAC money. O'Rourke talks to Sam about Texas politics, immigration policy, campaigning, how he got into public service, the President's State of the Union address, and Kit-Kats. Email the show at samsanders@npr.org or tweet @NPRItsBeenAMin with your feedback.
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Congressman Beto O'Rourke

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Congressman Beto O'Rourke

Congressman Beto O'Rourke

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(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SAM SANDERS, HOST:

Hey, y'all. From NPR, I'm Sam Sanders. IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. Today on the show we have Beto O'Rourke. Beto is a U.S. congressman from the 16th District of Texas. He is a Democrat, and he is running this year against Ted Cruz, a Republican you may have heard of. Beto is trying to take Cruz's U.S. Senate seat in Texas. So Beto, of course, is not our first Texas congressman on the show. This past December I talked to Will Hurd. He is a GOP House member.

Will and Beto's districts are right next to each other, and last year they took this big, long bipartisan road trip from Texas to D.C. They live streamed it and did a bunch of press from, like, inside their rental vehicle. And so that trip proved how well - or how much they want to try, Beto and Will, to be bipartisan. But Beto told me during our chat that it is still very hard to be bipartisan in today's political climate. Will Hurd has thoughts on this, too, so once you're done with this episode, go back in your podcast feed and check out that chat from December.

All right, for those of you that have never heard of Beto O'Rourke, I will tell you a bit about where he is coming from. He's from El Paso, and his district covers El Paso and the surrounding area. The district is 80 percent Hispanic. It has pretty much always been very Democratic, but El Paso itself is literally at the edge of Texas, like, the westernmost pointy tip. Mexico's to the south. New Mexico is to the north. And El Paso is very, very far away from the real kind of power centers in Texas like Dallas, like Houston, like Austin. So on top of Beto trying to win statewide office as a Democrat, which is hard enough in Texas, he's also not coming from the same big stage that other Texas Dems might come from.

So in this conversation we talked about what it's like to campaign against those odds. We talk about how Beto went from playing in a punk rock band to serving in Congress. We talked about real Democratic momentum that could even help Beto win this fall, even in a state like Texas, a state that actually, for years now, has been slowly trending from red to purple. And we also talked about DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Beto and other lawmakers in the House and Senate, they are under a lot of pressure to come up with an immigration deal to fix DACA, which is set to end next month. Beto wants Democrats to take a pretty aggressive stance on this. You'll hear more about that in our chat.

The other thing you'll hear is some talk about President Trump's State of the Union address. Beto came to NPR for our interview the morning after that speech, and we started off by talking about how he was caught on camera during the speech taking a, shall we say, break with a certain kind of candy bar.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: I heard - and I'm not sure if it's true - you ate a Kit Kat last night.

BETO O'ROURKE: I did. It was good.

SANDERS: Kit Kats are like the white rice of chocolate candy bars. They're very basic.

O'ROURKE: They're so good.

SANDERS: Are they good?

O'ROURKE: Yeah. They just got it down.

SANDERS: OK.

O'ROURKE: It's hard to - it's hard to improve upon a Kit Kat.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

O'ROURKE: And it got me through. I was...

SANDERS: OK.

O'ROURKE: ...You know, my sugar levels were low.

SANDERS: It was an 80-minute address. Yeah, it was a long speech.

O'ROURKE: Yeah, it was a long speech. Yeah.

SANDERS: Do you enjoy those kind of things? The - like, the big to-dos like the State of the Union.

O'ROURKE: I'll tell you what. I - so I'm in my fifth year in Congress, and I absolutely am blown away when I'm in that chamber and with all these people - the president of the United States, the Supreme Court justices, members of the Senate, my colleagues in the House. And I'm like, what the hell am I doing here?

SANDERS: (Laughter).

O'ROURKE: This is amazing.

SANDERS: It still feels amazing five years in?

O'ROURKE: Oh, God, yeah. And I just feel so fortunate. And, you know, literally, you know, like, is this real? I remember turning to my colleague, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, sitting to my right yesterday, saying it's crazy that we are here. To my left was Salud Carbajal, my roommate with whom I shared the Kit Kat. And what an extraordinary honor to be able to serve there. And what an important responsibility for us to respond to make sure that we make the most of this opportunity. And that's what I'm - that's what I'm focused on.

SANDERS: Who was your guest? Because you can bring a guest, right?

O'ROURKE: Yeah. A woman named Daisy Arvizu, who is a DREAMer, 21 years old. I met her at DREAMer Town Hall that we held in November of 2016 just after the election after someone who promised to deport DREAMers during the campaign was about to assume the presidency. And we were getting these panicked phone calls from people like Daisy saying, what in the hell is going on? I'm trying to study for my final exam coming up. Should I be packing my bags to leave? And so we held this town hall, and Daisy was one of those who came up and shared her story - works 40 hours a week at Circle K, 16 hours a week in addition as an IT specialist...

SANDERS: Wow.

O'ROURKE: ...For one of the school districts. She's exactly the kind of person that should be absolutely killing it in our community, contributing to our success. And I thought, you know, if you're going paint a picture, as we assumed the president would do, of immigrants being inherently threatening to us, let's show the counterfactual, which is immigrants are the source of our security, our safety, our strength. Daisy, for me, exemplifies that. And I just - it was really cool to - she'd never been to D.C. before. We ate at Good Stuff. I don't know if you've ever had...

SANDERS: Good Stuff is great.

O'ROURKE: ...A burger there.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

O'ROURKE: And then walked over into the Capitol and...

SANDERS: It was cold last night.

O'ROURKE: It was really cold.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

O'ROURKE: And for an El Pasoan (ph) it was really, really, really cold.

SANDERS: Yeah.

O'ROURKE: But I was glad she was there.

SANDERS: So what was your reaction to the speech itself? (Laughter).

O'ROURKE: It was tough. And I...

SANDERS: How so?

O'ROURKE: ...Oh, I just - I found it to be so dark. And I'm trying to find...

SANDERS: But the rhetoric so far has said that it's - it was a more positive, bipartisan messages than we were - than we've been used to from Trump.

O'ROURKE: Yeah. The conflation of immigrants, and specifically children, with gangs and murderers is part of this really dark description of what the rest of the world means to this country. And so, you know, his first speech - Mexican immigrants, rapists, criminals. This speech - you think these kids coming into our country are innocent, but they come into our high schools and they murder our daughters. And let me introduce you to the parents who just lost two daughters. And of course everyone has to - me included - say that's - my heart's breaking. I'm - you know, I cannot imagine what that must feel like.

But then it's so tough to know that he's using those parents and those girls' murders to make his larger case about why we should fear immigrants and why we need to have a wall. So I found it to be particularly dark and almost masterful in the way that he was able to make that connection. So, yeah, I left totally bummed out because he's a genius at this stuff. He's so good at this.

SANDERS: There's certain lines that I heard last night that, like you said, were pretty genius. This line he used - he said, Americans are dreamers, too.

O'ROURKE: Yeah.

SANDERS: That is something that will resonate with moderates, with conservatives.

O'ROURKE: Right.

SANDERS: It is a line that sounds pretty innocuous, but it gets at his entire messaging on immigration. And it's been that way from the start. But, you know, I always wonder when I hear discussion of Trump and immigration on a lot of the nuts and bolts of what he proposes...

O'ROURKE: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...A lot of Americans agree with him.

O'ROURKE: Yeah.

SANDERS: What do you hear from Texans as you travel the state about immigration? Or is immigration even a top-of-mind issue for them?

O'ROURKE: It's very much top of mind, and certainly in El Paso or Laredo or Eagle Pass or Del Rio or McAllen or San Benito. But surprisingly, in other parts of the state - so traveling throughout the panhandle and being in places like Canyon or Amarillo or Pampa or Booker, which is as far north as you can be and still be...

SANDERS: What do you drive when you do all this movement across the state? Will Hurd drives a Jeep, he told me.

O'ROURKE: I drive a Toyota Tundra made in San Antonio.

SANDERS: Nice qualifier (laughter).

O'ROURKE: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah.

SANDERS: Anyways, you were saying - talking to folks about immigration.

O'ROURKE: Yeah. And so here you are, as far away from the U.S.-Mexico border as you can be and still be in the state of Texas, and the people in Booker have this on their mind. And they had just witnessed the deportation of an honor roll student at Booker High School back to his country of origin. And as conservative and Republican and disconnected from the border as Booker might be, the people in Booker absolutely got what's going on. And they knew that they had invested in this young man in the property taxes they paid to finance his education, the quality of life in the community, and just when he's about to produce a return in whatever he does - the business he starts, the people he hires, the family he raises, the quality he brings to that community - he's been deported back to his country of origin where he probably doesn't speak the language, may no longer have family. And if he's successful against what I think are incredibly long odds, he'll be successful there and not in Booker.

And so they want him in their community. They don't want a wall. They get that - especially if I share the facts that the U.S.-Mexico border has never been more secure. We've - have the lowest levels of northbound apprehensions. Very often they're kids, and if they're lucky they're kids with their parents fleeing El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala. And they're presenting themselves to Border Patrol agents and customs officers, not fleeing from them. A wall will do nothing.

SANDERS: A lot of Texans that are on the border, they do not want construction of a wall in their backyard.

O'ROURKE: Absolutely. So maybe other people who aren't from Texas won't get this, but if you're in Texas, you understand the wall will not be built on the literal U.S.-Mexico border, which is the center line of the Rio Grande River channel...

SANDERS: You can't build in a river.

O'ROURKE: You can't build in a river. And what you will see are walls built well into the interior of the United States. We were in Mission, Texas, at a place where they're actually about to construct part of a border wall on a levee that is a mile and a half into the United states, basically taking that property from a private property owner, which - most of the border land in Texas is owned by ranchers and farmers and homesteaders - taking their land through eminent domain for a wall that we don't need at a time of record security. And they are angry.

It's funny. We introduced a bill that would prevent the U.S. government from using its power of eminent domain to take private property from Texans, from Americans, to build a wall that we don't need. And the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, one of the more conservative editorial pages in Texas, says, who's the real Republican here? This guy O'Rourke is trying to protect us from government overreach, from big government doing something really stupid that we don't need. So Texans for the most part do not want a wall. And this is why Texas has got to lead on this issue.

SANDERS: So then follow up. If the Senate puts together a compromise bill to save DACA recipients, but if they give Trump a bit of what he wants, which includes wall funding, would you in the House vote for such a compromise?

O'ROURKE: No, I couldn't. It would compromise...

SANDERS: Even if it saves the DACA recipients, the DREAMers.

O'ROURKE: Absolutely. And I'll tell you what's been really powerful for me is taking the time to listen and meet with the DREAMers that I represent and DREAMers from other parts of the country, and certainly other communities in Texas. They tell me - and I think this is - this demonstrates their courage. They said, we want to be legal, fully legal, and have the opportunity to become citizens. We don't want it at the price of our parents. So we don't want the original DREAMers, those who made the decision to come here with us when we were kids, to be deported. We don't want our communities militarized. We don't want walls in El Paso and Laredo and McAllen.

So we want you, Beto, and the other people in these positions of public trust up here who have the responsibility of doing the right thing to hold out for the right thing. And I think that's in line with the courage that you've seen from civil rights champions in the past. It's never enlightened members of Congress or presidents who've gotten the thing done. It's the people who've applied the pressure that has formed the political will to force them to get the right thing done. And the DREAMers are forcing that right now.

SANDERS: But when you say hold out...

O'ROURKE: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Chuck Schumer comes to you guys with a bill and says, Democrats, we have to do this. It's about to be March 4. We've got a bill.

O'ROURKE: Yeah.

SANDERS: Just build a little wall.

O'ROURKE: Right.

SANDERS: Still no.

O'ROURKE: Right, yeah. No. Chuck Schumer's a really nice guy, knows zero about the border. He and other Democrats gave in in 2014 on an immigration bill that would double the size of the Border Patrol - 20,000 agents to 40,000 agents - and all this crazy border militarization stuff. I don't blame them. They don't live on the border. They don't understand it. They may even buy some of the rhetoric that Trump is repeating about this being a danger. I'll tell you, even President Obama and other Democrats voted for, while they were in the Senate, a border fence act that has resulted in 600 miles of...

SANDERS: I saw some it recently.

O'ROURKE: ... Fences and walls and physical barriers.

SANDERS: And it's weird because, like, you can tell which president built which part because they look different.

O'ROURKE: Yeah.

SANDERS: It's not pretty.

O'ROURKE: Yeah, no, and unnecessary. El Paso, Texas, the community I represent, has been ranked using FBI crime data, the safest - the second or third-safest city in the United States of America bar none for the last 20 years in a row. That is pre-wall. That is after some walls that have been built in the El Paso area. I get to share with folks our safety is predicated on treating people with respect and dignity. When folks in El Paso feel comfortable going to law enforcement - a cop, a sheriff's deputy - reporting a crime, serving as a witness, testifying in a trial, we are safer. When they fear law enforcement the opposite is true. So if we're really concerned about safety and security, let's look to El Paso and other communities in Texas that have gotten it right.

SANDERS: If you were a betting man - we know where you stand on this, but if you were a betting man, do you think that Congress gets to some kind of solution by March 5?

O'ROURKE: I really hope so. And I can't - I can't ...

SANDERS: OK. That's not a yes or no.

O'ROURKE: Yeah, I can't even lay down the odds.

SANDERS: OK.

O'ROURKE: I have to believe there's a way that we can do this. I'll tell you - you asked me about my impressions from the State of the Union last night. It just - it definitely makes our job a lot harder when you conflate violent crime in this country with immigrants and then propose a wall as a solution. That is something that hits at our emotional core. If we don't know better we say, hell, yes, I want my family to be protected. Build that wall.

We're going to have to share the truth, the facts and also our own compelling emotional stories about why the border the way it is today, the way that we're connected in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, is so critical to our success and our safety. So it's a challenge, no two ways about it. And I'm going to do everything I can to help this country do the right thing.

SANDERS: Time for a quick break. When we come back, I ask Beto to say at least one nice thing about his opponent, Republican Ted Cruz. And we'll also talk about Beto's odds as a Democrat trying to win statewide in Texas. All right, BRB.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: We talked to your colleague, Will Hurd, a few weeks ago.

O'ROURKE: Yeah.

SANDERS: The two of you make it a point to talk about being bipartisan. You are a Democrat that has partnered with members of the opposite party. You try to reach across the aisle. Is that harder than ever right now?

O'ROURKE: On the big things, yes, unfortunately. And I shouldn't say the big things - maybe the higher-profile things. Will probably gave you some examples of things that he's been able to do working with Democrats. We just passed a bill working with Republicans that expands mental health care access for veterans at a time that we have a suicide crisis. Twenty veterans today will take their own lives. It will happen every single day until we expand access to mental health care.

I was able to find a Republican to work with on this. I had to compromise my ideal of what that bill would look like, as did he, in order to get it through the House Veterans Affairs Committee, get it passed on the floor of the House 435-0. Took us nine excruciating, grinding months to get that done for something that is so urgent, but we were able to move it forward. And yet we don't see it when we're talking about our budget. We're in our fifth continuing resolution vote just since October 1 of 2017. It took us four months to figure out the Children's Health Insurance Program on which 400,000 Texas kiddos' lives depend.

And you started with this issue around DREAMers - kind of a self-imposed crisis - the president ending DACA and ensuring that if we don't get something done by March 5, we could see people like Daisy deported back to their countries of origin. And so, yeah, you're right. There's a record level of dysfunction - helps to explain the 9 percent approval rating that Congress has - I joke, you know, it's right between Communism at 10 percent and gonorrhea...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

O'ROURKE: ...At 8 percent - the sweet spot. And so we - I think there have to be some systematic, fundamental changes. I think you got to get big money out of Congress. I don't take PAC money in my campaign, rely only on human beings, people, not corporations, not special interests. I'm the only Democrat that I know of in Congress who subscribes to term limits and has imposed them on himself, has introduced term limit legislation...

SANDERS: Wait. How would you limit your time in Congress?

O'ROURKE: So...

SANDERS: How many terms?

O'ROURKE: ...I promised my constituents, when I first ran for the House, I'd serve no more than four terms...

SANDERS: Huh.

O'ROURKE: ...I'm about to complete my third term. And I'm running for the U.S. Senate in Texas right now. I've promised I will serve no more than two terms because I believe there is certainly someone in Texas who will do just as good, more likely a better job than I will have been able to do and will bring their own perspective, their background or life experience to bear. That institution will never look like America unless we who are in those positions of power get out of the way, and I think there has to be some artificial horizon set to force that.

And the last thing is - and especially in Texas - you have to end the practice of members of Congress choosing their voters. We don't just have one of the most gerrymandered states in the union in Texas. We have gerrymandering that the courts four times last year found is based on the race and ethnicity of voters, drawing people out of congressional districts solely based on the color of their skin, which has given people the reason to not vote. They know their voice and their vote has been diminished, does not count for as much - helps to explain why Texas today is - it's not a red state. It's a non-voting state. And so I think if we can reform the institution in those ways we could solve this. And I'm trying to walk the talk by not taking the PAC money and setting term limits on myself.

SANDERS: You know, speaking of bipartisanship, is there any bipartisan agreement between you and your opponent for the Senate, Ted Cruz? Do you guys agree on anything? And can you say a nice thing about him?

O'ROURKE: Oh yeah, sure. Listen; I think he is - he's a nice person.

SANDERS: Well, that's not too specific.

O'ROURKE: Yeah. Give me a second here.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

O'ROURKE: I...

SANDERS: His kids are cute.

O'ROURKE: His kids are nice. I've met with him, and we spent the entire meeting, almost, talking about our kids.

SANDERS: OK.

O'ROURKE: And found him to be...

SANDERS: OK.

O'ROURKE: ...Genuinely moved by, you know, talking about his daughters and raising them, asking me about my kids.

SANDERS: What else?

O'ROURKE: He's a nice guy. So here's something that I've liked. Post-Harvey, the most devastating storm to visit Texas - the country by some measures - the largest one-day rainfall total of 58 inches...

SANDERS: Yeah.

O'ROURKE: ...In southeast Texas.

SANDERS: Yeah.

O'ROURKE: Ted Cruz, Beto O'Rourke, Republicans and Democrats from both chambers all got in a room and decided we were going to work together to try to get the federal aid and response to Houston and Rockport and Nome and Orange and Beaumont, Port Arthur that we desperately need in those communities.

SANDERS: Yeah. Which is interesting because before, years ago, Ted Cruz had said no federal funding for Sandy victims.

O'ROURKE: That's right. Yeah. And, you know, he stepped up...

SANDERS: OK.

O'ROURKE: ...And did the right thing in this case. And I'm grateful for that. And I really - I've been in those meetings with him. He's working it.

SANDERS: All right.

O'ROURKE: And so, you know, let's acknowledge that when it does work. Even if we are opposed in this election, even if I want to defeat him in November, I want to acknowledge when he's doing a good job. And that's certainly an instance of that.

SANDERS: OK. Can you beat him?

O'ROURKE: Yeah.

SANDERS: All right. You know, it's - Texas is so interesting.

O'ROURKE: Yeah.

SANDERS: The margin by which Donald Trump won Texas is the same by which he won, like, Ohio.

O'ROURKE: Ohio, yeah.

SANDERS: And Ohio is getting older and whiter.

O'ROURKE: Yeah.

SANDERS: Texas is getting younger and browner.

O'ROURKE: Right.

SANDERS: In many ways, the numbers seem to indicate someone like you might win. But we know that turnout last cycle in Texas - what was it? - what? - 51 percent. Pretty low.

O'ROURKE: Right.

SANDERS: You need this perfect confluence of not just demographic shifts, but also an energy and turnout that Texas has not been known for.

O'ROURKE: Right.

SANDERS: How do you do that?

O'ROURKE: So let me give you a few things by the numbers. As you mentioned, Texas is turning Democratic faster than any other state of the union with the exception of California. And it's, like, a percentage point behind California.

SANDERS: There are whole swaths of the state near Houston and other places that have just turned blue.

O'ROURKE: Absolutely. The 12 largest counties in Texas in 2012 voted for Mitt Romney with a net 40,000 votes. The 12 largest counties in 2016 voted for Hillary Clinton - net 500,000 votes and almost 550,000 votes swing in those 12 largest counties with Hillary Clinton investing a total of $0 in the state of Texas as in contrast to Ohio. I'm running, as I mentioned earlier, without taking any contributions from political action committees. Ted Cruz, of course, does. I just outraised Ted Cruz in the last quarter by half a million dollars. Fifty-five thousand individual contributions, most of them from Texas - Texans believing this is possible. That's all encouraging. And then they just did a poll last week, for whatever polls count for today, that shows us eight points behind Ted Cruz - single digits.

SANDERS: Yeah, that's eight points, though.

O'ROURKE: It's eight points. But when respondents know just one additional fact, which is that I don't take PAC money, we're ahead in that poll by two points. But those are things you might be able to measure. Here's something that you can't but is far more powerful for me. Friday night we were in Garland, Texas, for a town hall meeting. Dallas Morning News estimated 2,000 people came out for that town hall nine and a half months away from the November election. Two days ago, at 2 a.m. in Austin, Texas, we were at Kerbey Lane diner. Three hundred people show up for a town hall at 2 a.m....

SANDERS: Why were you there at 2 a.m.?

O'ROURKE: ...And a Monday morning - we were doing a 24-hour live stream extravaganza.

SANDERS: Walk me through your stops for the 24 hours, if you can.

O'ROURKE: So we started at 6 a.m. in Memorial Park in Houston with a hundred people who joined us for a running town hall. We went to a...

SANDERS: What do you mean a running town hall? You ran? You were jogging?

O'ROURKE: ...I was running four miles. Stopped at the halfway point, took questions...

SANDERS: Yeah.

O'ROURKE: ...People's ideas, their best suggestions for how we're going to be able to move...

SANDERS: Yeah.

O'ROURKE: ...This country forward.

SANDERS: So that's 6 a.m. You start there.

O'ROURKE: That's 6 a.m. Go back, shower at the hotel, go to a doughnut shop, meet a young entrepreneur...

SANDERS: Which donut shop?

O'ROURKE: ...In Houston. It was called Glazed...

SANDERS: OK.

O'ROURKE: ...The Doughnut Cafe. And met with the owner, learned how to make a doughnut. And we sat down and heard from him what it was like to start his business. And from there we went to Beacon, which is a service center for homeless Houstonians, and got to serve lunch to those who are a little bit down on their luck, got to hear some of their stories, meet these extraordinary volunteers. Went to a town hall off the Katy Freeway to talk to those who'd lost their worldly possessions in Harvey and how we're going to work together to rebuild Houston and Southeast Texas. Went to a rock 'n' roll extravaganza at Mucky Duck in Houston where we heard all these great bands, brought rock 'n' roll and democracy together.

SANDERS: Well, like you. We'll get to that later.

O'ROURKE: Yeah.

SANDERS: You have a history of music.

O'ROURKE: Absolutely. And so it was cool. It felt right.

SANDERS: Yeah.

O'ROURKE: This is the way it should be. From there drove to Austin, had a midnight rally at our Austin campaign headquarters, and then started about 2 a.m. at Kerbey Lane in Austin - had a town hall that wrapped up around 3:30 a.m. Went out and found a street cleaning crew on the streets of Austin. I wanted to meet the folks on the night shift...

SANDERS: Yeah.

O'ROURKE: ...Hear their story. Spent about an hour with them just listening to what they do, the people that they encounter walking home from the bars at 3:30 a.m., the kind of stuff they're cleaning up off the streets, what it's like to get home when your kids are just leaving for school and maybe to work an additional job on top of the street cleaning gig. And then Bergstrom Airport at 5:30 a.m. to sign off.

SANDERS: You should've gone to the Waffle House on the way to the airport.

O'ROURKE: Yeah.

SANDERS: I always do whenever I fly to Austin.

O'ROURKE: Yeah. No, but it was cool. And it shows you there is so much energy that 2,000 people turn out in Garland, but that 400 people turn out in Cleburne. Or - I was telling you I was in Sealy and Columbus on the road from Houston to San Antonio - hundreds at both of those in the rain outdoors on a Sunday. They're not coming out to see me. They're coming out to save this country. And they are blown away...

SANDERS: Well, they're also coming to see you. They like you.

O'ROURKE: ...They're blown away not that I'm there. They're blown away that their neighbors are there. They're like, what is this guy doing here? I thought he was a Republican, or I thought you didn't vote. What are these high school kids doing coming out to a town hall? Why are people coming out at 2 a.m. on a Monday? They want to save the country. We get to - I get to be part of this, and it's the coolest thing outside of kids and our family that I've ever had a chance to be a part of. So I'm just going to make the absolute most of it with the time that we have remaining in this campaign.

SANDERS: Yeah, I mean, but since I was a kid in Texas, folks have been saying Texas will be blue any day now.

O'ROURKE: Right.

SANDERS: What do you do if the change doesn't happen? Like, what's your next move should this thing not work out?

O'ROURKE: I can't think of another one. You know, we absolutely have to win this. And that urgency is shared by everyone at every one of these meetings. I just met a guy - introduced himself to me yesterday. He was in the halls of Congress. He said, I came out and saw you at The Gorgeous Gael, this bar in Houston, when you spoke in the summer. I'm from Laredo originally. I went to Laredo to watch you speak there. I've started my own block walking crew. We've knocked on a thousand doors...

SANDERS: For you.

O'ROURKE: ...Over the last month. I didn't organize it. I didn't ask them to do it. He did this of his own volition - not for me, again. He knows we have to win this election. He said, by the way, the kicker is I'm a Republican. But what's happening right now in this country - the path that we're on, the walls, the Muslim ban, the press as the enemy of the people - there's one logical conclusion to this path, and it is really dark. And I'm not going to let that happen. And so that is what animates this campaign and the opportunity. And this is the test - and you're right. There's no guarantee. I mean, we could lose this.

SANDERS: And if that happens, you aren't in the House anymore, either.

O'ROURKE: I'm not in the House anymore. But, you know, I've got to, as I think everyone feels right now, do everything I can for our country for all the reasons that we've talked about, and most importantly for me and my kiddos. I've got an 11-year-old, Ulysses, who is...

SANDERS: That's an awesome name.

O'ROURKE: ...I guarantee you, going to ask me sooner than later, when all this stuff was going on, what did you do? And I want to tell him we got together and we won this election and we got this country back on the right course.

SANDERS: I, like, try to place you with other candidates of note recently, and I see, like, some Bernie Sanders energy. Like, I followed him around the campaign trail for a while in 2016. But like, in some other ways, having a lean staff, moving nimbly, eschewing some of the big machine politics that go into campaigns - that is in many ways how Trump won. Like, is there a model or an inspiration or some kind of influence in how you're trying to do this?

O'ROURKE: There's this incredible freedom in running with nothing to lose. And as you said, Texas has been red for most of our lives. It was 30 years ago that Lloyd Bentsen became the last Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from the state of Texas. An El Pasoan has never won statewide office. So we have our work cut out for us. And that freed us to run the kind of campaign that we want to run. Free from - you know, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (ph) could give a damn about our campaign at least at the outset because there's no way you're going to win, Beto.

SANDERS: And you're also from - like, in this weird way, you're from El Paso, which is not a power center in Texas.

O'ROURKE: That's right. So we were written off from the outset, which was the best place for us to be...

SANDERS: OK.

O'ROURKE: ...Because this campaign of going county to county, visiting all 254, is the plan. And I've been to 205 so far. Gave me the opportunity to be in Lubbock or Amarillo or Canyon or Wichita Falls or Huston or Lufkin and just be there and listen and hold these town halls, get to know people. I'll tell you this quick story.

SANDERS: Yeah.

O'ROURKE: So I'm in Texarkana, which, as you know, is as geographically distant from El Paso...

SANDERS: Yes.

O'ROURKE: ...As you can be and still be in the state of Texas. And I'm in front of this group. And I'm introducing myself. And I say, hey, I come from the opposite corner of the state, a part of Texas that statewide candidates never go to. We never got the investment, the resources, the attention. And before I can finish my comment a woman stands up, she says, you're talking about us. That's how we feel here in Texarkana. That's how they feel in Sherman, Texas. That's how they feel in Pampa. That's how they feel in Pecos.

So going to these communities makes people know that they will not be written off or forgotten or taken for granted. And that's how I always wanted to feel in El Paso. And I felt like I got written off and taken for granted by Democrats and Republicans alike. So this campaign transcends that partisanship, geography, those things that people would seek to divide us on, and shows that we really have so much more in common.

SANDERS: Campaigning across the state of Texas, a state as big as Texas, requires a lot of driving. How do you get through the drive? What are you listening to? What kind of snacks do you have in the car?

O'ROURKE: Yeah.

SANDERS: Kit Kats.

O'ROURKE: There's some Kit Kats. There are some of these RXBARs, you know, where they list the ingredients - three egg whites, six dates....

SANDERS: Ugh, no, those are awful.

O'ROURKE: ...Ten peanuts. They're disgusting. But it is - it's such a quick, easy way for me to get the calories that I need.

SANDERS: OK, OK.

O'ROURKE: We are making an embarrassingly large number of stops at Whataburger. I say that...

SANDERS: There is nothing embarrassing about Whataburger.

O'ROURKE: You know, there's nothing embarrassing about Whataburger. There's something embarrassing about how much Whataburger I've consumed...

SANDERS: What do you get from Whataburger?

O'ROURKE: ...Over the last 14 months. A number two with cheese, fries and a Coke, which feels so good.

SANDERS: It is so good, in part because the ketchup is so good.

O'ROURKE: Yeah. Any doctor listening to this will tell you that it's considerably shortening my lifespan to be eating so many meals there...

SANDERS: So be it. It's good.

O'ROURKE: So be it. Listening to - you know, I love flipping through the radio, so trying to find...

SANDERS: Your public radio station.

O'ROURKE: Yeah, absolutely.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

O'ROURKE: And then also, just I listen to the stuff that I grew up on. So...

SANDERS: Which is?

O'ROURKE: You know, a lot of punk rock, a lot of rock 'n' roll. And then the stuff that in college and post-college that people turned me on to, the classic rock that I kind of just wrote off as, you know...

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

O'ROURKE: ...As a teenager saying, oh, that's old fogey music. But, you know, Bob Dylan and the Stones and Neil Young and all that stuff. Some of the Texas music that's coming out now, you have folks like Spoon or the Heartless Bastards out of Austin. And then invariably, at these town halls people will give me their CDs.

SANDERS: Are you serious?

O'ROURKE: And I love it. And it's like, hey...

SANDERS: Do you love it?

O'ROURKE: I really do.

SANDERS: OK.

O'ROURKE: Hey, this is my band, and we'd love to open up for you if...

SANDERS: Really?

O'ROURKE: ...You're coming back through Laredo.

SANDERS: Have you ever had one open up for you?

O'ROURKE: We have. I had this Stones cover band in Carrollton, Texas...

SANDERS: Stop.

O'ROURKE: ...At the Plaza Theatre called The Stoners. And it was a three-piece. And that's - so you asked me my plan if we don't win. I want to be in that band. It was so fun. And it - again, it's this mix of rock 'n' roll and politics and democracy. And it should be fun. And it should bring people in. And it reminds me, you know, I was in a punk rock band that put out its own record, started our own label, booked our own tours, traveled the country. And there's something about what we're doing now that reminds me of the same ethic of punk rock where you weren't interested in the corporate garbage coming through the radio. You didn't want anybody producing your stuff, telling you what was going to be a hit. No focus groups, just - what's your song? What's your story? That's the way we're trying to do politics right now. Forget the corporations, the DNC, the playbook. Let's just be people together and tell each other our stories. And so, yes, in that way this feels punk rock.

SANDERS: OK, we can't talk about punk rock and not play some of the music of your band Foss. We have some cued up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOSS SONG)

SANDERS: This is - you were on, like, a Christian talk show in the 90's called "Let's Get Real" (ph). And I think - if I recall correctly to get on the show you had to convince them that you guys are actually Christian rock. You remember that day?

O'ROURKE: I do. I do. Yeah, we were...

SANDERS: That's quite a sound. That was...

O'ROURKE: Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, we're 19 years old, 18 years old at the time. And we would watch this cable access evangelical talk show. It was just really interesting. And on a lark we called in and said, hey, we've got an evangelical rock band - which we, of course, were not - and we'd love to get on the show. And they booked us. We got on and wrote a song that day.

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.

O'ROURKE: Yeah, it was a little bit of a mess for sure.

SANDERS: The video's amazing.

O'ROURKE: But the video's funny and brings back some great memories. And it's crazy to me that that was 26 years ago.

SANDERS: And one of your bandmates, he ended up in The Mars Volta, which is this...

O'ROURKE: Absolutely.

SANDERS: ...Iconic band.

O'ROURKE: So we started this label called Western Breed Records to put out our first 7-inch with a band that was called Foss. And Cedric Bixler-Zavala, after Foss, with Jim Ward and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and a bunch of other guys start At The Drive-In, which was so important in the development of rock 'n' roll.

SANDERS: Yeah.

O'ROURKE: I was going to say in America, but just for the world.

SANDERS: Yeah.

O'ROURKE: They are a Western Breed release No. 2. And then out of At The Drive-In comes Mars Volta and Sparta and some other great bands and solo projects. Yeah, incredibly talented...

SANDERS: So...

O'ROURKE: ...People. That's part of the El Paso story.

SANDERS: So then, biggest question - they kept rocking.

O'ROURKE: Right.

SANDERS: You're now running for the U.S. Senate. How'd you get from there to here?

O'ROURKE: Right.

SANDERS: Because you - I mean, like, after you did that, you ended up in Brooklyn. You were trying to write for a while.

O'ROURKE: Yeah.

SANDERS: Like, at what point did you say, you know what...

O'ROURKE: Right.

SANDERS: ...I'm going to run for office? What caused that change, that shift?

O'ROURKE: Yeah. So graduated from Columbia in '95, moved to Williamsburg that same year, playing in bands in Brooklyn and...

SANDERS: What did you - so bass, lead, what?

O'ROURKE: Played guitar, sometimes I would sit in on drums.

SANDERS: OK.

O'ROURKE: I'm basically mediocre at any instrument. And I could sit in and just kind of make my way through.

SANDERS: And did you ever sing?

O'ROURKE: Yeah.

SANDERS: OK.

O'ROURKE: Absolutely, yeah. And really, really fun, but I realized I just do not have the talent or the drive to be successful in music. These other guys do, and let me support the hell out of them and get out of the way - and then around that same time said, you know what? I miss Texas. I miss home. I miss family. I want to be back - and started a small business in El Paso in the late '90s with...

SANDERS: What kind of business?

O'ROURKE: ...Some really good friends. It was a website development - software, programming, application development, social media marketing, and then through that, also started an online newspaper covering City Hall and culture and arts and the border - the things that were exciting to me - started an alternative weekly called Stanton Street in print. And as I got more engaged in the community, I got more engaged in civic life. I ran for city council, served there for six years, took on the sitting U.S. congressman in 2012, who'd been there for seven or eight terms, in a big upset victory after being outspent 5 to 1.

SANDERS: And this was running on a platform to legalize marijuana.

O'ROURKE: In part, yeah, absolutely. We'd witnessed Ciudad Juarez, our sister city, become the deadliest city on the planet because kids were literally willing to kill one another or die for the privilege of bringing marijuana into a country where, in many states, it was already legal. And so, yeah, absolutely called that out and said, this war on drugs has become a war on people, and we've got to end it. We've got to end the federal prohibition on marijuana. So this wasn't the path I planned. It wasn't one I ever could have foreseen, but one that I am so fortunate to be on.

SANDERS: You're going to get the band back together for a campaign rally soon?

O'ROURKE: Yeah. I would love to do that, and Cedric's offered to have me join them at one of these At The Drive-In reunion shows.

SANDERS: Oh, wow.

O'ROURKE: Jim Ward has offered. In fact, Jim Ward has played a show for us in El Paso - the guitarist for At The Drive-In. David Garza has done for - done stuff for us. Jimmie Dale Gilmore just played for us in Houston. So these really terrific musicians across Texas are part of this, and they're bringing people together and getting people out. So, you know, I'm very lucky - very lucky on that count.

SANDERS: I've got to ask you the same last question I asked Will Hurd.

O'ROURKE: Yeah.

SANDERS: Best barbecue in Texas - go.

O'ROURKE: So I was leaving a town hall in Tyler, Texas, and we were racing to get to Texarkana - try to get their on time. And this guy recognized me at a stoplight, and so he rolls down his window. I roll down my window, and he says, if you know what's good for you, you're going to go to Stanley's barbecue...

SANDERS: OK.

O'ROURKE: ...And figure this place out. And we go...

SANDERS: Where is Stanley's?

O'ROURKE: And Stanley's is in Tyler, and it is the best barbecue that I've had so far in Texas. And I think the place opened up at 11 a.m. We were - we got there at 11:02, and there was a line.

SANDERS: Huh.

O'ROURKE: ...Around the block at Stanley's. And it was worth it. We waited in line, ate on the way to Texarkana and loved it. So that gets my vote.

SANDERS: Stanley's. OK.

O'ROURKE: Yeah.

SANDERS: All righty. More Stanley's, less Kit Kats.

O'ROURKE: That's right, yeah.

SANDERS: Thank you so much.

O'ROURKE: Thanks for having me on.

SANDERS: I really appreciate this. It was super fun.

O'ROURKE: Yeah. I enjoyed it. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: That was Beto O'Rourke. He is a Democrat from Texas. He represents the 16th Congressional District there, and he is running this year to unseat Ted Cruz in the U.S. Senate. Thanks to Beto for talking with me here at NPR. As always, for our upcoming Friday wrap, be sure to share the best thing that happened to you all week. Do it at any time, at any point throughout the week, any week. Just record yourself, send the file to me at samsanders@npr.org. All right, till Friday. Thanks for listening. I'm Sam Sanders. Talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

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