FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Reinventing Beto: How a GOP Accessory Became a Top Democratic Contender for President

To understand Beto O’Rourke as a candidate, it’s vital to go beneath the surface of his political backstory. News watchers are already well aware of the former Texas congressman’s good looks, charisma, youthful energy and fundraising prowess. But most remain unaware of an inconvenient truth that could undermine the O’Rourke campaign among the people who matter most — the ones who’ll be voting to choose the Democratic presidential nominee next year.

O’Rourke is hardly eager for those upcoming voters to realize that the growth of his political career is rooted in an alliance with powerful Republicans that began 15 years ago. Or that he supported raising the minimum age for Social Security in 2012. Or that — during six years in Congress, through the end of 2018 — he often aligned himself with Republican positions.

If facts matter, such weighty facts could sink the “Beto for America” presidential campaign. Since his announcement, information gaining traction nationwide runs directly counter to the Beto brand.

“Before becoming a rising star in the Democratic Party,” the Wall Street Journal reported a week ago, “Beto O’Rourke relied on a core group of business-minded Republicans in his Texas hometown to launch and sustain his political career. To win their backing, Mr. O’Rourke opposed Obamacare, voted against Nancy Pelosi as the House Democratic leader and called for a raise in the Social Security eligibility age.”

Meanwhile, a Washington Post news article — under the headline “Beto O’Rourke’s Political Career Drew on Donations From the Pro-Republican Business Establishment” — also foreshadowed a bumpy ride on the campaign trail. In the eyes of most people who don’t like the GOP, key points in the Post’s reporting are apt to be concerning. For instance:

+ “Several of El Paso’s richest business moguls donated to and raised money for O’Rourke’s city council campaigns, drawn to his support for a plan to redevelop El Paso’s poorer neighborhoods. Some later backed a super PAC that would play a key role in helping him defeat an incumbent Democratic congressman.”

+  “O’Rourke worked on issues that had the potential to make money for some of his benefactors. His support as a council member for the redevelopment plan, which sparked controversy at the time because it involved relocating low-income residents, many of them Hispanic, coincided with property investments by some of his benefactors.”

+  “As a congressman, he supported a $2 billion military funding increase that benefited a company controlled by another major donor. That donor, real estate developer Woody Hunt, was friends with O’Rourke’s late father. Hunt also co-founded and funds an El Paso nonprofit organization that has employed O’Rourke’s wife since 2016.”

Central features of Trumpism are budgets that add billions to already-bloated Pentagon spending while cutting essential programs. In Beto’s last year in Congress, when nearly one-third of House Democrats opposed the record-breaking 2019 National Defense Authorization Act of $717 billion, Beto voted with Trump. (Four senators who are running against O’Rourke voted no: Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.)

Overall, the Post reports, “in contrast to the aspirational image he has fostered in recent years,” O’Rourke’s political career has gone along a path of “winning support from a typically pro-GOP business establishment interested in swaying public policy. Born into one politically potent family and married into another, he benefited repeatedly from his relationships with El Paso’s most powerful residents, including several nationally known Republican moneymen.”

To put his more conservative actions in context, O’Rourke cannot plausibly claim that he was striving to be in sync with the voters who elected him. El Paso and the House district that O’Rourke represented are heavily Democratic. The Wall Street Journal summed up this way: “In a one-party town — the Democrats have held El Paso’s congressional seat for all but one term since 1902 — local Republicans viewed Mr. O’Rourke as one of their own.”

Naturally, O’Rourke would much rather talk in upbeat generalities than answer pointed questions about why anti-Republican voters should cast ballots for him — when he has a long record of going along with many GOP positions they find abhorrent. It may be better for him if unflattering coverage fixates instead on matters like youthful stints as a punk rocker and early computer hacker.

It was just seven years ago when — during his first run for Congress — O’Rourke did a campaign video to tell people in the blue West Texas district that “we’ll have to look at future generations . . . retiring at a later age, paying a greater percentage of their income into Social Security and making other necessary adjustments.” And, the Wall Street Journal reports, “in a candidate questionnaire published two days before the May 2012 primary, Mr. O’Rourke called for raising the Social Security eligibility age and means-testing federal entitlements.” According to exit polling, O’Rourke won that election with major help from Republicans who opted to vote in the Democratic primary and cast their ballots for him by a ratio of more than 7 to 1.

After becoming a congressman, O’Rourke backtracked and, as Politico reports, “co-sponsored legislation that would increase Social Security benefits — without raising the retirement age.” Yet his wobbly stance on Social Security in this decade is a warning flag.

O’Rourke affinity with Republican sensibilities related to corporate power has continued. So has largesse from interests that are the antithesis of progressive values. Notably, for his final term, Beto retired from the House as the member of Congress who was the second-highest recipient of campaign cash from the oil and gas industry.

In June 2015, O’Rourke was one of only 28 Democrats — out of 188 members of the party in the House — who voted to give President Obama the power to negotiate the corporate-oriented Trans-Pacific Partnership. The measure squeaked through the House, propelled by support from 190 Republicans.

A year later, the TPP was a highly visible and contentious issue at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, where hundreds of Bernie Sanders delegates held anti-TPP signs. (I was one of those delegates and still support Sanders.) These days, O’Rourke is typically aiming to have it both ways, as Vanity Fair reported in a campaign kickoff cover story last week: “O’Rourke now says he would have voted ‘no’ on the ultimate agreement. But in 2015, he traveled with Obama on a trip to Asia to help build support for the deal.”

At the end of last year, the Guardian published an exhaustively researched article under the headline “Beto O’Rourke Frequently Voted for Republican Legislation, Analysis Reveals.” The piece reported that “even as O’Rourke represented one of the most solidly Democratic congressional districts in the United States, he has frequently voted against the majority of House Democrats in support of Republican bills and Trump administration priorities.”

Written by investigative journalist David Sirota (who days ago joined the Sanders presidential campaign as a speechwriter), the Dec. 20 article reviewed “the 167 votes O’Rourke has cast in the House in opposition to the majority of his own party during his six-year tenure in Congress. Many of those votes were not progressive dissents alongside other left-leaning lawmakers, but instead votes to help pass Republican-sponsored legislation.”

A cautionary tale comes from David Romo, an activist and historian in El Paso who describes Beto O’Rourke as a “masterful politician. . . It’s all fluff, it’s all style, it’s all looks.” Romo clashed with City Councilman O’Rourke when he went all-out for redevelopment that would enrich some of his wealthy backers. Romo said recently: “O’Rourke, because of his charisma, can kind of pull off some of this behind-the-scenes power peddling. He was the pretty face in the really ugly gentrification plan that negatively affected the most vulnerable people in El Paso.”

To the casual listener, however, O’Rourke might sound lovely. Consider this verbiage from the presidential campaign trail: “We want to be for everybody, work with everybody. Could care less about your party affiliation or any other difference that might otherwise divide us at this moment of truth, where I really feel we will either make or break this great country and our democracy.”

From O’Rourke, that kind of talk has sometimes overlapped with disinterest in defeating Republicans. Last year, while running for the Senate, O’Rourke helped a friend in need — Texas GOP Congressman Will Hurd — by notably refusing to endorse his Democratic opponent.  Gina Ortiz Jones, a gay Filipina-American, had momentum in a district with a majority of Hispanics. But O’Rourke’s solidarity with his Republican colleague may well have saved Hurd’s seat.

Hurd won re-election by under one-half of a percentage point, while O’Rourke won in the district by a five-point margin. As the New York Times reported, O’Rourke “had elevated” his Republican colleague Hurd “with frequent praise and, most memorably, a live-streamed bipartisan road trip that helped jump-start their midterm campaigns.” During the campaign, O’Rourke tried to justify his refusal to endorse Hurd’s Democratic opponent by declaring: “This is a place where my politics and my job and my commitment to this country come into conflict. I’m going to put country over party.”

When Politico asked O’Rourke late last year whether he considered himself to be a progressive Democrat, O’Rourke replied: “I don’t know. I’m just, as you may have seen and heard over the course of the campaign, I’m not big on labels. I don’t get all fired up about party or classifying or defining people based on a label or a group. I’m for everyone.”

Everyone?

After O’Rourke campaigned in the Detroit area a few days ago, the Detroit Metro Times published information that would concern anyone with minimally progressive leanings: “He supported Republican efforts to limit the authority of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was established by Obama and Democrats to protect Americans from Wall Street following the recession. O’Rourke also broke with the party to support Trump and GOP attempts to loosen requirements in hiring border patrol agents; chip away at the Affordable Care Act; kill a ban on oil drilling in parts of the Gulf of Mexico; and lift the 40-year-old oil export ban. He also supported Republican legislation that protected utility companies that start wildfires.”

It’s understandable that many progressives came out of 2018 with a favorable view of O’Rourke. He ran a strong campaign that got remarkably close to unseating the odious Sen. Ted Cruz. Along the way, O’Rourke showed himself to be eloquent and tireless. Some of his stances are both enlightened and longstanding, as with his advocacy for legalizing marijuana. And O’Rourke provided some stunning moments of oratory, as in a viral video that showed his response to a question about NFL players kneeling in protest during the national anthem; his support for dissent in the context of civil rights history was exemplary.

Yet, overall, there’s a good reason why O’Rourke declines to call himself “progressive.” He isn’t. His alliances and sensibilities, when you strip away some cultural affinities and limited social-justice positions, are bedrock corporate.

In his quest for a Democratic nomination that will require support from a primary electorate that leans progressive, Beto O’Rourke will be running to elude his actual record. If it catches up with him, he’s going to lose.

More articles by:

Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, where he coordinates ExposeFacts. Solomon is a co-founder of RootsAction.org.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

April 24, 2019
Susan Babbitt
Disdain and Dignity: An Old (Anti-Imperialist) Story
Adam Jonas Horowitz
Letter to the Emperor
Lawrence Davidson
A Decisive Struggle For Our Future
John Steppling
The Mandate for Israel: Keep the Arabs Down
Victor Grossman
Many Feet
Cira Pascual Marquina
The Commune is the Supreme Expression of Participatory Democracy: a Conversation with Anacaona Marin of El Panal Commune
Binoy Kampmark
Failed States and Militias: General Khalifa Haftar Moves on Tripoli
Dean Baker
Payments to Hospitals Aren’t Going to Hospital Buildings
Alvaro Huerta
Top Ten List in Defense of MEChA
Colin Todhunter
As the 2019 Indian General Election Takes Place, Are the Nation’s Farmers Being Dealt a Knock-Out Blow?
Charlie Gers
Trump’s Transgender Troops Ban is un-American and Inhumane
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Just Another Spring in Progress?
Thomas Knapp
On Obstruction, the Mueller Report is Clintonesque
Elliot Sperber
Every Truck’s a Garbage Truck
April 23, 2019
Peter Bolton
The Monroe Doctrine is Back, and as the Latest US Attack on Cuba Shows, Its Purpose is to Serve the Neoliberal Order
David Schultz
The Mueller Report: Trump Too Inept to Obstruct Justice
Geoff Beckman
Crazy Uncle Joe and the Can’t We All Just Get Along Democrats
Medea Benjamin
Activists Protect DC Venezuelan Embassy from US-supported Coup
Patrick Cockburn
What Revolutionaries in the Middle East Have Learned Since the Arab Spring
Jim Goodman
Don’t Fall for the Hype of Free Trade Agreements
Lance Olsen
Climate and Forests: Land Managers Must Adapt, and Conservationists, Too
William Minter
The Coming Ebola Epidemic
Tony McKenna
Stephen King’s IT: a 2019 Retrospective
David Swanson
Pentagon Claims 1,100 High Schools Bar Recruiters; Peace Activists Offer $1,000 Award If Any Such School Can Be Found
Gary Olson
A Few Comments on the recent PBS Series: Reconstruction: America After the Civil War
April 22, 2019
Melvin Goodman
The NYTs Tries to Rehabilitate Bloody Gina Haspel
Robert Fisk
After ISIS, a Divided Iraq, Wounded and Grief-Stricken
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange as Neuroses
John Laforge
Chernobyl’s Deadly Effects Estimates Vary
Kenneth Surin
Mueller Time? Not for Now
Cesar Chelala
Yemen: The Triumph of Barbarism
Kerron Ó Luain
What the “White Irish Slaves” Meme Tells Us About Identity Politics
Andy Piascik
Grocery Store Workers Take on Billion Dollar Multinational
Seiji Yamada – Gregory G. Maskarinec
Health as a Human Right: No Migrants Need Apply
Howard Lisnoff
Loose Bullets and Loose Cannons
Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada
Dreaming in Miami
Graham Peebles
Consuming Stuff: The Polluting World of Fashion
Robert Dodge
Earth Day: Our Planet in Peril
Weekend Edition
April 19, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What Will It Take For Trump to Get His Due?
Roy Eidelson
Is the American Psychological Association Addicted to Militarism and War?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Time is Blind, Man is Stupid
Joshua Frank
Top 20 Mueller Report “Findings”
Rob Urie
Why Russiagate Will Never Go Away
Paul Street
Stephen Moore Gets Something Right: It’s Capitalism vs. Democracy
Russell Mokhiber
Why Boeing and Its Executives Should be Prosecuted for Manslaughter
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail