Democratic candidate Beto O'Rourke

Aug 30, 2019  | 27 min  | Ep 4702 | Podcast

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A presidential race nearing the end of summer 2019 with a large group of candidates still jockeying for position. We sit down with democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. 

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, August 30 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.

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Henderson: In November of 2018, Congressman Beto O'Rourke was finishing his third term in the U.S. House and finishing about two and a half points behind Ted Cruz in a race for the U.S. Senate seat in Texas. In March of this year, O'Rourke was in Keokuk, Iowa at a crowded coffee shop to announce his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. In early August he left the campaign trail after the horrific shooting in his hometown of El Paso. On August 20th he returned to the Iowa campaign trail and he has joined us here at the Iowa Press table today. Welcome, Congressman.

O'Rourke: Thank you for having me. It's an honor.

Henderson: Also here at the table, Katarina Sostaric of Iowa Public Radio and James Q. Lynch of the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Lynch: Congressman, welcome back to the Iowa campaign trail. You've spent some time in your hometown helping the community heal after this shooting there in El Paso. Is this a campaign reset? And how does that time off the trail sort of inform your campaign going forward?

O'Rourke: I was grateful that I had the chance to be back in El Paso after 22 people in my hometown were killed by someone who was fueled and motivated by a racism that has long existed in this country but has been given open license by this President, someone who purchased an AK-47 legally, drove 600 miles to open fire on people who were absolutely defenseless based on their perceived immigration status, based on their ethnicity, based on their race. Fortunate that I got to be with the survivors, with the families of those who lost their lives, going to funerals in El Paso and Juárez, but also to be here in Iowa and to tell the story of what happened in El Paso and why it happened in El Paso and to connect the dots for this country to ensure that we don't see these kinds of acts of terror fueled by white nationalism, given permission by this President. Don't want to see those in Iowa, don't want to see those in any part of the country. And before I was in Iowa, a couple of days ago we were in Mississippi, the site of the largest single state workplace raid by ICE in American history, visiting with families who had been terrorized and devastated by this administration and Donald Trump. I was in Arkansas, I was in Oklahoma, I was in Kansas and was in Missouri. And so while I'm back in Iowa and have since March had more public events I think than almost any other candidate, you all probably have the numbers and can check and verify that to be the case, I think it's really important also to show up for people in other parts of this country, make sure everyone really counts and not just to be there when people are having a hard time or overcoming a challenge like we did in El Paso, but to listen to them, to understand the solutions to their challenges and to our challenges on gun violence, on racism, on domestic terrorism, on making sure that we elevate those who have been subjugated or kept down or marginalized in this country. That is my opportunity as a candidate and I'm going to do everything I can to lift those up who have been pushed down by Donald Trump.

Lynch: So what is your path forward in Iowa? This is a big field. Do you have to get one of those three tickets out of Iowa?

O'Rourke: I think so. And the path to get there is to continue to show up to listen to people. We were just sharing before the show began, I just left a gun violence roundtable in the Capitol listening to people without regard to their political affiliation. No me importa. Do not care if you're a republican, democrat, independent, gun violence is a major public health epidemic in this country. I'm going to listen to people and reflect their urgency out on the campaign trail. But I'm also going to bring stories to Iowa from other parts of the country and in the town hall that we held in Des Moines two nights ago when I shared my reflections and observations from Canton and Forest, Mississippi, really felt like it resonated in the community. And I described Mississippi, I described Texas and I described Des Moines and Iowa and we certainly saw it yesterday in Marshalltown as communities and states of immigrants. And we can define ourselves in a very powerfully positive way and we can also be up against the racism or a match for the racism and the intolerance and the anti-immigrant rhetoric that we see. And I also think that the electoral prospects the fortune in the polling, our placement in the caucus will naturally follow Just do the right thing and I think everything else will fall into place. 

Sostaric: After the El Paso shooting your campaign has this bigger focus on curbing gun violence. But do you think that running for Senate and potentially flipping a seat there would actually make it more likely that some of your proposed gun control laws would pass?

O'Rourke: No. We need a President who reflects this urgency and not just my urgency or the urgency of the people of El Paso. March for our Lives, created after the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida. Those students and former students came out yesterday with one of the most ambitious proposals to curb and significantly reduce gun violence that I've seen in this country, not just universal background checks, red flag laws and into the sales of weapons of war, but buying those weapons of war, AR-15's and AK-47's, back off of the streets, out of our lives, so they cannot be used against us in a synagogue, in a church, in a Wal-Mart. That urgency has to be reflected in the White House and it will be in my administration. And in addition, in Texas there are seven terrific candidates running for Senate, any one of whom if they are the nominee will defeat John Cornyn and make us proud in the U.S. Senate. So I have no concerns or reservations about our state's ability to represent itself. The focus now is defeating Donald Trump and bringing this very divided country together over the greatest set of challenges we've ever faced.

Sostaric: But if you were President and the Senate was still under republican control how would you get them to pass something like this March for Our Lives plan that you mentioned?

O'Rourke: When I was in Arkansas not only did I speak to the state democratic party at their Clinton dinner, I also went to a gun show in Conway and I didn't ask party affiliation, I might presume, we might guess that the majority there are republicans or lean conservative, all of them of course gun owners. And I came not just to observe but I also came to share my proposal to reduce gun violence including stopping the sales of some of those weapons that were there. And I was in some part surprised with the agreement that I found amongst some of those gun owners and even some of those gun sellers at the gun show. So you ask how we do this, we bring everyone in and we write no one off including those who own firearms, including those who own AR-15's, including those who have traditionally voted republican. It's going to take all of us going everywhere, pulling everybody in and that is the way that I'm campaigning, that's the way that I'll serve as President.

Henderson: But, Congressman, there are a lot of guns around the country. How will you get people to voluntarily turn them in?

O'Rourke: It will not be a voluntary program, to be clear. It will be a mandatory buyback program. And I know as I utter those words how politically challenging that is to say and I know how difficult that would be to implement. But the alternative is just to accept as our fortune and our fate and our future the deaths of 40,000 Americans every year. No other developed country comes anywhere close. And we've got to be intellectually honest with each other. Background checks will help, red flag laws will help, ending the sale of weapons of war will help, but there are millions of them on the streets. And so I think we have to take that intellectually honest, politically difficult step of buying those weapons back out of our lives and keep them on the battle field, not in our communities.

Henderson: As you know, the National Rifle Association is pushing back against background checks and against red flag laws arguing that those red flag laws don't have due process and that some people will be caught up in them who shouldn't be. Do you see a state law out there that adequately addresses due process?

O'Rourke: I think there are red flag laws out there that strike that balance between protecting someone's Second Amendment constitutional right to own a firearm, ensuring that they have due process if that firearm is ever taken from them on a temporary basis, but also ensuring that we can protect the lives of our fellow Americans and including those who pose a threat to themselves. We lose more than 22,000 Americans to gun suicide in this country every year and there are innumerable stories of parents who said, he was or she was displaying every single warning sign and there was just nothing that I could do. We need to provide an avenue through the law that preserves due process, that allows that parent to act on behalf of their child or to protect the children that we have or in our lives and red flag laws do that.

Lynch: You have been quick to blame President Trump's rhetoric for contributing to gun violence and the rise in white nationalism. Is there a danger in that, that it's an immediate turn off for the people who voted for him in 2016? You just lose them from the get go?

O'Rourke: It's the man and not the voters. It's Donald Trump and his maiden speech as a candidate for the highest office in the land describing Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals though they commit crimes at a far lower rate than those who are born in this country, repeatedly describing El Paso as one of the most dangerous cities in America though it is among the safest, some years was the safest city in America, his repeated warnings of invasions, of infestations, describing immigrants as animals, as killers, as predators. If I don't connect the dots then I am in part culpable for the next mass shooting animated by the President's racism. So we've got to call that out and we've got to make those connections clear to our fellow Americans who themselves may have not understood how the President's rhetoric, his language, his laughter when somebody at one of his rallies says, shoot them, when talking about how we stop the invasion he's been warning us of when it comes to immigrants in this country. They may not have known that had taken place. So I'm confident, I believe in our fellow Americans regardless of party affiliation, regardless if you voted for Donald Trump. Once you have the facts, know the truth, you will not make that mistake again because he is tearing apart an already divided country and putting a target on the back of Hispanic Americans across this country.

Lynch: But when you call him a racist by extension some people might say you're calling them a racist and then you've lost them.

O'Rourke: Well, they certainly should not feel that way. I think there were a lot of people who had been alienated from their own country, from the economy in America, who were working too many jobs just to make ends meet, who felt like their communities were never known or if they were, were quickly forgotten, who didn't feel like they counted and knew that this system, democrats and republicans alike, had failed them. And someone who comes along who promises to drain that swamp or up end that system or no longer play by the rules that have not worked for so many millions of Americans, I understand the attraction and the allure. But when we make clear that not only has he failed us when it comes to gun violence and racism and white supremacy, but the steel jobs that we're losing, the farmers who are taking it on the chin here in Iowa thanks to the trade war and the tariffs against China. This President has been a disaster for America and we can offer a much better alternative. We can also defy the system. I don't take any PAC money or corporate help. I don't play the traditional politics. But then actually deliver for people who are counting on us.

Sostaric: So your more recent statements repeatedly calling President Trump a racist has been a significant rhetorical pivot and this is after something that, a tragedy that happened in your hometown, but the President's rhetoric has been pretty consistent over the past several years, even before he was President. And there were previous violent events that some say were linked to his rhetoric. Why did it take the El Paso shooting for you to come out and say these things?

O'Rourke: It didn't but it may have taken the El Paso shooting and my response for you to notice what I was saying. On the day of the Christ Church massacre in New Zealand, in fact you can check the tape and the Facebook livestream that has been archived, I talked about the President's Islamophobia. I talked about somebody running for the presidency who describes those who are Muslims as inherently defective or dangerous and proposes to ban them all from coming to this country and how that not only offends our sensibilities as Americans but it fundamentally changes us. The mosque in Victoria, Texas burned to the ground within 24 hours of President Trump signing his executive order attempting to ban Muslims travel in 2017. I've talked about the shooter who walked into the Tree of Life synagogue raving about caravans, the same caravans the President of the United States was raving about. And when Donald Trump was asked, are wealthy Jewish financiers funding these caravans, he entertained the question. He said, who knows, maybe that's the case. That was the motivation for that shooter. There could have been for the shooter in Poway just outside of San Diego. After each one of these I have made the connection to Donald Trump. But I'll tell you, you're right in so far as having this happen in your hometown cannot but help change you. In a city that loses 18 people in a year, we lost 22 people in one day, in less than an hour on one day, and very much fueled by what Donald Trump is doing. And so I have an obligation, a responsibility to share that with the rest of the country and to show that it is part of what we saw in Mississippi, part of what we saw announced yesterday by the administration, a rewriting of the Flores Agreement to indefinitely cage and detain children and families. The injustice, inhumanity and cruelty that has caused us to lose the lives of seven children in our custody and care, I've been talking about that from the very beginning, before the very beginning of this campaign. But if there is added urgency to that it is because of what we just witnessed in El Paso, Texas.

Henderson: You came out for impeachment of the President. American voters are going to be going to the polls and deciding whether Donald Trump gets a second term. Isn't that an adequate response? Does the House really need to go through the process of impeachment given the fact that the Senate will never take it up?

O'Rourke: The House does and this is something I've believed to be the case for more than a year. And I remember being in a very conservative part of Texas in Lubbock talking to a conservative radio show host who asked me the same question. And I said, he must be impeached or else you have impunity. And the rule of law is now violated by having some men or women because of the position of power they hold supreme over the will, the laws and the Constitution of this American democracy. He invited the participation of a foreign power, an invitation that they gladly accepted, intervened in our election in 2016, he sought to, and we all know this now beyond the shadow of a doubt, obstructed the investigation into that invasion, firing the principle investigator, seeking to fire Robert Mueller after he had fired James Comey, tweeting to his Attorney General in broad daylight that we should end this Russia investigation. And having Bob Mueller who is not the most loquacious person at a press conference say that when the subject of an investigation lies to investigators, seeks to obstruct justice, it strikes at the very heart of our ability to govern ourselves and to pursue justice. If we allow that to stand we have now set a new precedent in this country that some people really are above the law and we cannot allow that to stand. So as politically challenging as that might be for the House of Representatives, they must pursue impeachment, not for their own end, not even for this generation, but for every generation that follows us that is counting on us to act right now at this moment of truth.

Lynch: Congressman, Iowa corn growers and ethanol producers are always skeptical of big oil Texans. Would an O'Rourke administration continue to hand out waivers to these small refineries? And where does ethanol fit into your energy policy?

O'Rourke: I would not hand out these waivers. The waiver process has been absolutely abused by President Trump, both the letter and the spirit of that law and the intent to take more gasoline and carbon based fuel off of the market and out of our air and replace it with what we're growing right here in Iowa. This was an absolute revolution, not just for our environment, not just for fueling our vehicles, but for ensuring that we could keep family farms and pass them onto our daughters and sons and granddaughters and grandsons, adding value to something that was a commodity and at the whims of commodity markets half a world away. We should be rewarding this kind of leadership in Iowa, not punishing this kind of leadership. But I think we have to talk about that in context with what else is happening to these farmers which is a disastrous trade policy, markets that they have worked their entire lives to open up are now being closed to them and their kids, the next generation, by a President who has entered a trade war with no allies. And former Governor Vilsack asked this wonderful rhetorical question. When has the United States ever gone to war, whether a military or trade war, without allies and friends? Much harder for us to win that. Let's hold China accountable. Let's be successful in the effort. That means bringing friends and partners and allies and ensuring that it's not the Iowa farmer that bears the brunt of this failed policy.

Lynch: So do you support the Renewable Fuel Standard? Would you expand that?

O'Rourke: I do support it and I would be very open to expanding it. I've been listening to farmers here in Iowa, I've been listening to people who understand these policies because they have lived them and helped to create them. And anything that allows us to get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions in this country as soon as possible, no later than 2050, getting halfway there by the year 2030, including improving the biofuel standards in America as well as embracing wind, which you're a leader on here, embracing solar back home in El Paso, Texas, and the very high skill, high wage, high value jobs that come with that, then I'm all for it because that is the true existential threat that we face not as a party, not as a country, but as human civilization. And we've got but 10 years to get this right. And s we're going to count on everyone and that includes not just those who are involved in ethanol but what I've learned from listening to farmers here is those who want to be paid for planting cover crops, keeping more of their fields in conservation easements and not under cultivation and as Bob Leonards put it, pennies per meal to pay farmers for the environmental services many are already providing and many more would provide if they could make a profit doing so.

Sostaric: You're calling your approach to health care reform Medicare for America. Why do you think it's more politically realistic than Medicare for all that some others are proposing?

O'Rourke: I don't even know if it's more politically realistic, I just know it's the best way to get to universal guaranteed, high quality care. So for every American today who is uninsured, unable to see a provider or take their child to a therapist or afford their medications, they enroll in Medicare. Those who are insufficiently insured, who have insurance but aren't guaranteed care because they may not be able to afford the copay or the premium, they can move to Medicare as well. But those who have an employer sponsored insurance plan that they like because it works for them and their families, members of unions who fought for those plans sometimes in lieu of wage increases and want to keep them, they're able to do so under our plan. So we get to universal, we ensure that it's guaranteed, but we also preserve choice. And that's what I'm hearing people want as I travel the country. So we've got to trust the people of America in one of the most important decisions in their lives and getting to universal while preserving their choice allows us to do that.

Sostaric: In that scenario how much longer do you think employers would actually continue to offer private insurance options therefore allowing people to stay on the plans they have?

O'Rourke: It would obviously be up to each individual employer. Some may elect to move into Medicare, many for reasons of competition and attracting or retaining the employees they have or under contract from the unions with whom they have bargained will keep those plans. But again, I think part of the beauty of this proposal is it restores choice or keeps choice with the employee, with the employer and doesn't mandate those health care decisions from the federal government exclusively.

Lynch: Whether you call it Medicare for America or Medicare for all, former Senate democratic leader Harry Reid said it's a losing issue to run on in 2020. Do you share his concern?

O'Rourke: I don't know if he said that about our plan which is Medicare for America. He may have said that about other plans. This is a winner and in fact it was in his home state of Nevada that we were inspired to ensure that choice was retained. We were listening to one of the largest unions in Nevada and they said, look, we fought for these health care plans, we do not want to be forced to move to Medicare. Whatever proposal you make, Beto, I want to make sure that our ability to retain what we bargained for is reflected in that. So if I had the chance to talk to the former majority leader again I might share that with him, he may already know that. But this is something that as I've listened to my fellow Americans they want to see us do and I also believe, and you asked the question about the politics of this, I do think it means that it is perhaps more attractive for moderate republicans, others who understand that our current health care system is not serving our country. And in Iowa some unique perspective in a state that privatized Medicaid, that is seeing rural health care severely, negatively impacted, hospitals that are closing, on the edge of closing right now. We've got to act and we have to do it with the urgency that the current situation demands.

Sostaric: There's divergence in your party on handling college debt. On the progressive side you have Senators Warren and Sanders saying we should forgive all college loans. You have a different approach. Why is that?

O'Rourke: I believe that everyone who wants to attend college should be able to do so and cost should not be an object. So our proposal says the first two years of college are free, you are able to earn an associate's degree or you're two years closer to your bachelors. We say that for middle income and lower income Americans four years is debt free. And that is not just for tuition, which many of the plans that you alluded to focus on, it's also room, board and books, the full freight of being able to pursue higher education. And then we also say that if you are one of those who has outstanding student loan debt which now amounts to more than $1.5 trillion nationally, if you will commit to public service, teaching at Moulton Elementary where we just visited, extraordinary teachers who are changing the lives of their kids, I want you to focus on those in your classroom and not worry about debt, we're going to wipe it clean. If you're willing to work in one of our VA's and deliver for those veterans who put their lives on the line, we will wipe clean your debt. And then at a minimum, if you don't avail yourselves of a radically improved public service debt forgiveness program we'll refinance existing debt at the lowest possible interest rates.

Henderson: Congressman, I'm committed to watching the clock and we are out of time here at the table. Thanks for joining us today.

O'Rourke: Thank you very much, enjoyed the conversation.

Henderson: Please join us next week at our regular times, Friday at 7:30 and Sunday at Noon on Iowa Public Television. For all of us here at the Iowa Public Television studios, thanks for watching today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. 

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