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ASMA KHALID, HOST:
Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. All summer long, we have been taking you on the road to meet the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Love you, Beto.
KHALID: It's a collaboration with New Hampshire Public Radio and Iowa Public Radio, which is why I met up with IPR's lead political reporter Clay Masters. We went to see former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke as he made his first trip back to Iowa in a while.
CLAY MASTERS, HOST:
We are in Des Moines. We're on the east side of the city. We are at Grand View University. This is a small private college.
KHALID: So Clay, you heard Beto O'Rourke. You talked to him when he was here - first here in Iowa, when he first announced his bid for the presidency. What do you feel is different about this trip?
MASTERS: Well, what's different is so much time has passed. There isn't this kind of buzz about his campaign, as there was when he first announced in March. When he first came here in March, people were wanting to see this guy who almost beat Ted Cruz for the Senate race in Texas.
KHALID: But O'Rourke has struggled to translate that enthusiasm for his fight against Ted Cruz into a national campaign. A couple of weeks ago, in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, a gunman specifically targeting Mexicans killed 22 people in a Walmart. O'Rourke took a hiatus from his presidential campaign and went home to comfort his grieving city. Now he is back on the trail, and the mass shooting has inspired him to rebrand his campaign and focus it more squarely on the president, white nationalism and gun violence.
And he talks a lot about uniting the country and getting rid of some of the racial division that he's seen pop up since the presidency of Donald Trump.
MASTERS: Yeah, I think he's just really hoping that people are going to start reengaging with him here in a state like Iowa, where they first were very engaged when he first came here.
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BETO O'ROURKE: This president is helping to cause it. He is not the only sole cause of it. This is foundational to our country. But he's inviting it out into the open with tragic consequences for all of us. So as president, we've got to make sure that we make our No. 1 law enforcement priority combating white nationalism and white supremacy in this country.
KHALID: The next morning, after his rally in Des Moines, we caught up with O'Rourke at his hotel. He had a coffee in his hand, which made us wonder if we had cut into his morning routine.
O'ROURKE: So I have an ideal routine. If it's a perfect morning, I get up with time to run, read email, read the news, you know, write a note to my wife Amy and then begin the day. But rarely do we have an ideal morning. Usually, we're getting in so late, and we're starting so early that the run, the reading, the letter to Amy, all that kind of gets squeezed out.
KHALID: Did you run this morning?
O'ROURKE: No, I didn't. No, I prioritized sleep.
KHALID: I was going to be real impressed. I was like, I did not exercise this morning at all (laughter).
O'ROURKE: Yeah. So the last couple of nights, I just have gotten no sleep. And so I decided last night, when I set the alarm for this morning, I was going to prioritize getting the hours in. And I did, and so we're good.
MASTERS: You have said that you want to take on President Trump more directly, and that means you're traveling to places where his policies have had an impact - the town in Mississippi where there was the big immigration raid. But by fixating on President Trump, are you not letting President Trump define your campaign?
O'ROURKE: No, I think that if we don't call this country's attention to the true cost and consequence of Donald Trump, then the blame will be on us, every one of us who was complicit in our silence or who failed to focus on the fact that his racism, his invitation to hatred, his invitation to violence was taking the lives of our fellow Americans.
And the terrifying and terrorizing raids, like the one that he authorized in Mississippi - the largest single-state workplace raid in the history of the United States, affecting nearly 700 families in that state - is part of a larger trend of action and attacks against immigrants, against people who do not look like or pray like or love like the majority in this country. And if that continues, I'm confident that we'll lose this country. We really will.
And I liken it to being a country that is asleep and a country that will die in its sleep unless it wakes up to the threat that it faces, and that threat very clearly is Donald Trump.
KHALID: You recently released a plan that is both an effort to tackle gun violence as well as white nationalism. And from that plan, it seems very clear that you see those ideas as intimately connected. I am curious - why focus on white nationalism when we can point to so many shootings that were not tied to that ideology? I'm thinking of, you know, Parkland, San Bernardino or even the Pulse nightclub.
O'ROURKE: You're correct that with 49,000 gun violence deaths in this country, not all of them are connected to white nationalism, white supremacy or white terrorism. But that uniquely has caused fear in the Hispanic community. It has uniquely caused fear in the Jewish community.
You have somebody walk into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, again, echoing President Trump's words about a caravan coming to this country. When someone speculated in front of President Trump that it was financed by wealthy Jews, the president entertained the notion, and that's what drove that killer in that attack. The mosque in Victoria, Texas, burned to the ground within a day of the president issuing his executive order attempting to ban Muslim travel.
So you do have to connect the hatred, the racism, the president's words and actions with the accessibility of those weapons that affords someone the means to conduct this kind of terror in this country. If I don't connect these dots, then I am complicit in the next mass murder or the next act of domestic terror. So this is a very real threat.
And it's not Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat, saying this; it's Christopher Wray, President Trump's FBI director, who is saying that. It is across the intelligence and law enforcement community and any American who's willing to open their eyes and connect the dots that this is a very real threat.
MASTERS: A lot of your campaign has focused a lot on the tone of the presidency, and sometimes that will overshadow specific policy. If you were elected president, what is that bill - that one bill that you would prioritize if elected president? Like, what is that policy?
O'ROURKE: There is no one bill, of course. There is the greatest set of challenges that this country has ever faced, and we've got to be up to all of them. And so as you heard at the town hall last night in Des Moines, a gentleman stood up and he said, look - climate is connected to every single one of these challenges. Why do we have so many refugees and asylum-seekers from Guatemala? It's experiencing one of the worst droughts that country's ever seen. And it's not an act of God or Mother Nature; it is an act of humankind.
And so ensuring that we're up to the challenge of a warming planet, confronting that successfully within the 10 years we have left before it's too late, that's a priority. But so is ensuring that we no longer detain kids at the U.S.-Mexico border, we no longer terrorize families in these workplace raids, we don't lose the life of another child in our custody and care, by rewriting our immigration laws in our own image - that's an extraordinary opportunity for us. Health care - universal, guaranteed, high-quality care that preserves choice while ensuring that every single American can see a provider or a therapist or afford their medication. That's a priority as well.
And then perhaps wrapping all this up in together and the contrast with the president - if we define people as somehow dangerous or disqualified based on their differences along religious or ethnic or racial lines, or how many generations you can count yourself an American, we'll never overcome the challenges that I just enumerated.
KHALID: Congressman, if you had to choose amongst those, some of the priorities you listed - because it's very plausible, if elected, you may have a Republican Congress that you'll have to try to get your agenda through - how would you choose to focus on one particular piece of legislation?
O'ROURKE: Well, when you have people being gunned down in a Walmart in El Paso, when you have 6- and 7-year-olds being gunned down in their elementary school, when you have high school students hunted in the halls of their institution, that is an incredibly urgent challenge for this country. And both through executive order and by working with Congress and by elevating the voices of Moms Demand and the students marching for our lives and all those extraordinary advocates, I know that we can end the epidemic of gun violence in this country.
I know that we can prioritize white nationalist domestic terrorism as a law enforcement priority for DOJ and Department of Homeland Security and make sure that we literally do not tear this country apart through political violence. Those are two things that are very much on my mind. But I really want to reject the false choice that, as president, you get to pick an issue to work on.
KHALID: I want to talk a bit about immigration. You are from a border town - El Paso. What is your vision for a secure border?
O'ROURKE: There is a great leader in my community - doesn't hold elected office, but leads an organization called the Border Network for Human Rights - Fernando Garcia. And I'll never forget - this was 10 years ago. We were at a conference on just this issue in El Paso. And he said, (Speaking Spanish). If you want to secure your communities, if we want to secure the border, treat people with respect and dignity.
El Paso, Texas, is one of if not the safest cities in the United States. It's safe not despite but because we're a city of immigrants, because we're a minority majority community, because we're connected to Mexico, and we see all of those as fundamental to our strength and our success and our security. So let's build on that as we rewrite this country's immigration laws - no walls, no cages for kids, no militarization of the border. More than a million DREAMers - make them U.S. citizens in this - their true home country and homeland.
MASTERS: We're very far from the U.S.-Mexico border right now. We're in Iowa. How do you see immigration laws helping states like Iowa that are far removed from the border, or is it far removed?
O'ROURKE: It's interesting. So last night I was talking about El Paso as a city of immigrants, and I said, well, hell, Des Moines is a city of immigrants. And this young woman came up to me afterwards and said, thank you for saying that. We get so often stereotyped as a community that is monochromatic and is only defined by one experience or set of experiences in America. She says, this is incredibly diverse. There are people from all over the world who have found a home here in Des Moines, which is of course the American story.
So this country of immigrants and asylum-seekers, this country of people who were brought here against their will, this country of people from the planet over who, by their very presence, have made us better. We lose sight of that at our own peril. We build walls. We militarize the border. We reject those at their most desperate and vulnerable moments. And then we reject the very notion and idea of America, our exceptionalism, our success and our ability to fulfill our promise. That resonated so strongly last night in Des Moines, and I heard that back from everyone who came up to shake my hand afterwards.
KHALID: There has been a lot of pressure on you to end your bid for the presidency and instead run for the Senate. And you have made it very clear that you, under no scenario, want to run for the United States Senate. But there are currently over 20 Democrats seeking the nomination for the president, and some of them do have a lot more experience than you in government. Some of them are articulating really clear policy positions on things. Some of them are polling higher than you. So talk to us about what makes you think that you are the answer.
O'ROURKE: I want to serve this country as president, and I think I have a perspective that is important for this country at this moment. As Donald Trump vilifies and demonizes the border, communities of immigrants - seeks to make us afraid, warns of invasions and infestations and calls those who come to this country killers and predators and animals. It is in a community of immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border that I was raised and that Amy and I are raising Ulysses and Molly and Henry. I think I can tell a very powerful, a very positive story of the contribution that immigrants make to the success of this country. (Speaking Spanish). In Texas, going to every one of those 254 counties on a very progressive agenda, we helped to take a state that had ranked 50th in voter turnout, written off as too red and Republican to count to one that gave us more votes than any Democrat had ever received, won independents for the first time in decades, brought nearly half a million Republicans along with us, helped to flip two congressional seats and elect 17 African American women to judicial positions in Harris County, literally changing the face of criminal justice in this country's most diverse city.
It's - that kind of perspective, that kind of campaigning, that way of bringing people in at a very divided time - that's the way that you beat Donald Trump. I think that's also the way that you reunite this polarized country in the face of these challenges so that we can overcome them.
KHALID: All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we ask O'Rourke about following his father's footsteps into politics, how he talks to his kids about President Trump and what he can't let go of.
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KHALID: And we're back.
MASTERS: I think this is where we're transitioning now. Right? We're going to transition to the personal side of this conversation.
MASTERS: What is a time from your childhood that affects the way that you see government?
O'ROURKE: Oh. You know, it's hard to pick a moment. I'll try. So my dad, who served in local government - was a county commissioner and a county judge - and who just had a hell of a lot of fun in doing it and, you know, took me and my sisters to the backyard fundraisers or the election night parties or, you know, licking envelopes or carrying signs around on two-by-fours outside of the polling place - you know, he taught me the joy and the power of being with people and serving people and connecting with people.
But he was also somebody who loved being outdoors and loved taking us out into the mountains on backpack trips. And I remember this one moment really sticks with me, and it really informs how I think about climate and the environment and our responsibility to one another and the next generation. We were in Three Rivers, up above Alamogordo in New Mexico in the Lincoln National Forest, and we were crossing one of these rivers. And I remember stopping midway through the river - I was 6 or 7 years old - taking our tin cups off of our backpacks and dipping them into the river and drinking the water.
And I don't know why, but that image came to mind when you asked the question. It's just, for me, so resonant - that speaks to both what we have right now that is so remarkable and beautiful - our ability to go do that - and what we could possibly lose if we do not confront the challenges before us environmentally or through climate change or just our ability to, you know, have those special shared moments with one another.
KHALID: You mentioned your dad. And your dad, you know, you've described as this kind of like larger-than-life, really gregarious figure but also someone who you said could be really critical.
O'ROURKE: Oh, yeah.
KHALID: I am curious - because he was such a fixture in local El Paso politics - that, after he died, when you ran for the city council there, what it felt like to follow in his footsteps.
O'ROURKE: Yeah. So I was a painfully shy kid and then a painfully shy young man. But as I got more engaged in the community - starting a business, starting a local online newspaper with good friends and then running for city council a few years after my dad died - I discovered and connected with that joy that I'd seen him feel and bring to others in our community through his involvement in politics. I really got what it was all about going door to door.
You know, it was at that moment, running for city council, that I really felt like I was also connecting with my dad, who at this point had been - who had been dead for a few years, and what had made politics so special for him and maybe unanswered questions I had about why he pursued that and why he spent so much time, so many nights, so many weekends out there campaigning and connecting with people. It was the right thing to do. He was called to it. But there's also a joy in that connection that you make with people. And I certainly felt that in that first city council race.
MASTERS: As a father yourself of three kids, how do you talk to your kids about President Donald Trump and the fact that he was elected in this country?
O'ROURKE: It's a tough one. And I remember the night that he was elected, as perhaps many other people in this country were doing, Amy and I were watching the returns in disbelief and wondering how we're going to explain this to our kids, especially living in El Paso, a city that they know to be so special. You have this guy elected who hates immigrants, calls them rapists and criminals, promises to build a wall, is speaking in the most hateful terms about a community that we love so much. But we then asked ourselves another question - what are we going to tell our kids we did in the face of this? And the answer to that had to be stepping up in the biggest way that we could, which meant running for Senate at the time, in 2016 and 2017, and in the 2018 election. And that question is still on the table and still resonant and has Amy and me doing everything we can for our country right now.
And I take great comfort in knowing that so many millions of Americans have answered the question the same way for themselves. They're either running for office, supporting someone who's running for office, marching in the streets against gun violence - for science, against climate change, for health care for every American. They're going to make this a better country. And perhaps the best that we could say about Donald Trump is he's forced all of us to decide what we want this country to be and what our role will be in achieving that.
MASTERS: And do the kids have follow-up questions then?
O'ROURKE: Well, yeah...
MASTERS: Well, if you unroll all that, I mean, like, (laughter) how do they respond?
O'ROURKE: Yeah, I mean, so we're not even three weeks past one of the most horrific shootings in American history, certainly in the history of El Paso. They have a lot of questions. They just started school last week. And our youngest is, you know, asking questions about the active shooter drill that he did last year and whether that is what he has to do should somebody come into his school in the same way that someone came into a Walmart and why does this happen in our country right now. You know, we talk about this stuff.
And those kids, like kids everywhere, they're smart. They have the most finely tuned BS meter. They're not going to be satisfied with any - you know, you're going to be OK; don't worry about it; that is a really rare instance; it's just because somebody has mental health issues; it's just, you know, evil's out in the world. They don't buy that stuff. They know that there are things that we can do, and they fully expect us to do them to make them safe.
KHALID: Can you talk to us about a time in your life when you feel that you failed? And we're talking, ideally, about an apolitical moment and what you learned from that particular moment of failure.
O'ROURKE: This is like the job interview question where they ask you, you know, tell us something terrible about yourself...
O'ROURKE: ...Or a problem that you have and - you know, I work too hard; I just don't quit.
I think about a young man that I had met in El Paso shortly after I was sworn into Congress named Nick D'Amico who was a veteran, served our country, was, like so many veterans across America and in El Paso, trying to get into the VA and was unable to do so for his post-traumatic stress disorder - met me, shook my hand, listened to other veterans who were telling me stories about trying to get into the VA and were unable to do so. And in all of our failure to connect those veterans to the care that they needed, in his frustration, Nick ended up taking his own life.
And I, shortly thereafter, had a chance to meet his mother, Bonnie D'Amico, who wanted to make sure that I understood Nick's story and connected the dots for me - our failure in ensuring that he could get the care that he had earned and deserved and how that cost him his life and how we now know that costs the lives of more than 20 veterans a day in this country.
So we all failed Nick, myself included - and learning from that, made sure that in El Paso, which had the worst wait times to see a mental health care provider, we brought the community together to fill the gaps. We hired more psychologists and psychiatrists and therapists and social workers. And we prioritize this publicly, privately, in every instance and occasion that we could, and we helped to turn that around.
MASTERS: So the way that we end the NPR POLITICS PODCAST is we want to focus on something you can't let go of this week, politics or otherwise - preferably not politics, since we just spent a lot of time...
MASTERS: ...Going over that. But Congressman, what can you not let go of this week?
O'ROURKE: We were driving from Jackson, Miss., to Little Rock, Ark., and a text comes in from my wife. And she was trying to get into the funeral of a woman who was killed in the Walmart attack who, with her husband, had just moved to El Paso - didn't have friends, didn't have family in the community, didn't have a network. They didn't expect anybody to come out to the funeral, so the El Paso Times had published a notice saying the community was welcome to attend.
And the picture she texts me is of her place in line, where she's been waiting four hours to get into the church because this man who just lost his wife, who had no friends, who didn't think anybody was going to show up was met by first hundreds and then thousands of people in the community who wanted to be with him at his moment of grief - at perhaps his lowest point.
And that gave me some hope and some encouragement and speaks to - in the face of the absolutely worst thing that I can imagine happening to any one of us and to some of the worst that's happening to us in this country, there are really good people of good conscience in America who are willing to come together when it really counts. And so that image of Amy's place in line trying to get into that funeral is something that I will never forget.
MASTERS: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.
O'ROURKE: Thank you.
KHALID: Thank you so much.
O'ROURKE: Really appreciate it.
KHALID: This is the latest interview in our series where we are taking you on the road to meet the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. You can find other interviews with candidates like Andrew Yang, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in our podcast feed. We'll be back as soon as there is more political news that you need to know about. I'm Asma Khalid. And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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