Conversations With Candidates: Beto O'Rourke
This interview is part of Texas Tech Public Media's Conversations with Candidates series, focused on those running for office locally and across the state. Each interview will be released as they are scheduled.
He’s run for senate. He’s run in a presidential primary. Now, Beto O’Rourke is running for governor of Texas. The former El Paso congressman visited the Texas Tech Public Media studio to talk about issues that matter to Texans in the western part of the state.
This discussion is the first in our gubernatorial candidate series. We’re reaching out to other candidates to ask them these same questions. Each interview will be released as we are able to schedule time with candidates.
This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Sarah Self-Walbrick: There are practically countless hot button issues in the state right now. I want to start with divisive politics. If elected, how would you work to reunite Texans?
Beto O'Rourke: I want to make sure that we focus on the big things that bring us together.
Jobs and making sure that we have more high-paying, high skill, high-value jobs in the South Plains, in cities like Lubbock and Amarillo and Plainview but also the surrounding rural counties. Critically important if we're going to make sure that we get ahead.
Number two, focusing on public education. And by that I mean supporting the public educators who make it possible. Those are classroom teachers, but they're also the counselors, the nurses, the librarians who are under attack right now. And everyone else who dedicates their lives to those kids who are our future. Let's make sure that they are paid enough so that they don't have to take a second or third job. Let's listen to them when they tell us the resources that they need in the classroom, and how they can best deliver instruction for those kids so that we have the best outcomes. That can unite Republicans and Democrats.
And then one more issue, and this one seems to be a no-brainer across the political spectrum. And that is to expand Medicaid. In the last seven years since Greg Abbott has been governor, we the people of Texas, have been forced to leave $100 billion in Medicaid expansion money from the federal government on the table. That could come to Lubbock, it could come to Crosby and Hale and Lynn and Hockley and so many other communities and counties around the state to hire more providers to keep rural hospitals and clinics open, and to deliver care to people who need it, whether it's those who can't afford medication for diabetes, or curable cancer treatments, or the flu right now, but also those with bipolar, clinical depression, schizophrenia, who are unable to get mental health care access to the point that our county jails have become the largest provider of mental health care services in the state of Texas. That is immoral. It's unconscionable. And it's unacceptable to me. And I think it's unacceptable to us as Texans, whether we're Republicans or Democrats.
I want to talk about gun laws. How would you like to see those change?
Let's make sure that we're protecting the Second Amendment, but that we're doing a better job of protecting the lives of those around us. So ideas like universal background checks, broadly popular regardless of party, both with gun owners and non-gun owners alike. Extreme risk protection orders — when someone poses a danger to themselves or someone in their lives. Let's make sure that we're intervening in time.
What we don't need is what the governor has just done, which is to sign a permitless carry bill into law that allows any Texan without a background check or training to carry a loaded gun. Police chiefs, sheriffs, law enforcement begged the governor not to do this. He did so anyway, and it is going to make us less safe at a time of rising violent crime.
We can lead on this issue. We can protect the Second Amendment and do a better job of protecting the people in our lives.
Another continuous debate in the state right now is how to best fight COVID-19. What's your plan to handle the ongoing pandemic?
At a minimum, the governor should get out of the way. And you know, we used to pride ourselves in Texas on this idea of local control. That local county judges and mayors and school board trustees and the people in these communities know best how to take care of one another. This governor has literally prevented local communities from doing just that.
Let's allow local leaders to do their jobs. And I think if we do that, we start to see much better outcomes and the 74,000 who have died of COVID*, so far, we're going to make sure that we do not add to those numbers going forward.
*Clarification: As of Dec. 14, 73,477 people who tested positive for COVID-19 have died in Texas according to the Texas Tribune.
We can't talk about Coronavirus without talking about healthcare. In our part of the state that conversation includes the rural health care crisis. We've seen a string of rural hospital closures in recent years. What solutions do you have for that specific problem?
Our fellow Texans, in some cases, are driving hundreds of miles, many hours to be able to see a provider. It makes it much harder to keep young people or to attract families to these communities when they can't count on going to a hospital or even a clinic anymore.
Expanding Medicaid and bringing the tens of billions of dollars to our state into these rural communities at a time that the federal government is willing to pay 95 cents on the dollar for the cost of expansion makes a world of sense to all of us.
As I listen to our fellow Texans who live in rural communities, they're telling me they need this, it will be a lifeline to ensure that their communities are still viable, going forward. So if we want to attract the providers, keep the hospitals and clinics open and connect more people to the care that they need, we've got to expand Medicaid in Texas.
Other industries are, of course, struggling as well, as the economy recovers from the effects of the pandemic. How would you, if elected, help businesses and encourage development specifically in our part of the state?
Well, Lubbock just joined ERCOT. And as we know, this past February, ERCOT literally could not keep the power on despite the fact that we are here in the energy capital of North America. And so much of the energy upon which we depend originates in West Texas. In fact, I'm headed to Midland and Odessa after this interview, where we get so much of what we need to fuel this nation. So we've got to have a dependable grid.
To do that, we've got to weatherize every aspect of the grid, including, importantly, the gas supply, which is a major contributing factor to the power outages that we saw in February. You cannot attract and keep businesses in Texas if you cannot depend on the electricity working and the lights going on when you flick the switch.
Number two, we've got to get away from these extremist fringe policies. This abortion ban or reproductive health care ban or this vigilante law that allows any American to try to cash in on a $10,000 bounty on any Texas woman who chooses to make her own decisions about her own life*, her own health care and her own future is literally driving businesses away from this state. We've already seen examples of employers decide that they're going to construct new facilities not in Texas, as they had originally planned, but in other states. So if we want to attract capital and employers and job creators, and the talent that we need to drive this state's economy, we've got to get away from the fringe extremist politics that we've seen in the session.
The last thing. Look, I love some of the economic success that we're seeing in some of our big cities like Austin, and the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex and Houston. But I also want to make sure that the governor's focus is on the Panhandle and West Texas and our rural communities. They literally provide the fuel, the fiber, the food that we depend on. So many of their citizens are the first to enlist in our armed services. They really help to make our state and our country so successful. Let's make sure that when we're thinking about economic development, where we're going to locate large employers where we're going to offer incentives to make sure that we have the development that we want, that we're looking at communities just like these.
*Clarification: Under the newly adopted statewide abortion restrictions, a person who gets an abortion cannot be sued for doing so, however, abortion providers and anyone who assists a person in getting an abortion can be sued.
A lot of the issues with rural economic development go back to broadband access. What is your plan to expand that, in this part of the state?
Half of rural Texas cannot reliably get online. And I don't have to tell you, very hard to finish your education, especially at the tail end of this pandemic, very hard to find a job, very hard to start a business to get what you grow, if you're one of our cotton growers to market. Very hard to find a date if you're single if you cannot get online, if you cannot access the internet. It's just a fundamental utility that so many of us depend on and take for granted. And yet so many rural Texans literally cannot avail themselves of.
As you and I know, this state through Congress and Lyndon Baines Johnson 1936 partnered with the federal government led by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with the Rural Electrification Administration. REA would work with rural communities just like those around Lubbock, who would form their own electrical co-ops, meet them halfway and make sure those communities were wired for electricity. So that first-grader in Plainview can read by electric light, just like the first-grader in Dallas or any other kid trying to do their homework at night. We need to look at the internet in that same way.
So as governor, I'm going to make sure that I partner with rural communities to make sure that those kids and those adults, for that matter, can get online.
But I'm also going to go further than that. We see a real problem with the Universal Service Fund right now, which subsidizes rural telephone access. We might very well see rural telephone and internet bills go up 25, maybe even 100 bucks a month, unless we make rural telephone access a priority. Again, as governor, I'm going to do that. I think we have left rural Texas to its own devices. We've taken it for granted. Many have written it off. The reason I'm here right now, the reason I'm going to so many rural communities as I run for governor, is to make sure I'm listening to their stories and partnering with them once I'm in office.
I have a two-part question to end our conversation. What do you see as your biggest challenge and your biggest opportunity as this political race continues?
The challenge and the opportunity might very well be one and the same. This is a huge state — 254 counties, 30 million people, two different time zones. Even just on this trip, you know, a few days ago I was in Paris, Texas, before that I was in Texarkana. I was behind the pine curtain in deep East Texas. And now here I am in the plains, where I was earlier today in Amarillo, coming back down to the southern plains here. I'll be in Midland, Odessa and West Texas in a couple of hours. Just reaching every part of this state is such a challenge, logistically, in terms of time and effort.
But it's also the greatest opportunity because there are so many Texans who feel like they have been counted out or left behind, or no longer included in the conversation, because people literally do not show up for them. You know, it's not as easy to get to Lubbock as it is to Houston and Dallas. And that's why you find so many statewide candidates spending so much time in Dallas and Houston and not coming to Lubbock or to other communities that are a little bit further away from our major transportation hubs.
But when you show up, people turn out. You and I just saw each other Mae Simmons Park at noon on a Tuesday afternoon, here in Lubbock. And we had hundreds of people come out. We filled the place. It was wonderful to see. And it shows you that when you show up, people will turn out and they'll get engaged.
There were 7 million eligible voters who didn't cast a ballot in last year's election*, most important presidential contest since at least 1864. Number one reason given by those who did not vote is no one asked them to vote. So I'm going to make sure that we don't make that mistake, that we go everywhere. Leave no one behind, right nobody off, take no one for granted. And literally ask everyone to vote. I think that's our path to victory. And it's certainly the best way as governor to know the people that I want to deliver and perform to and make sure that we serve literally everyone everywhere in the state of Texas.
*Clarification: According to the Secretary of State website, 5,640,463 registered voters in Texas didn’t cast a ballot.
Editor's Note: In the audio version of this story, O'Rourke stated, "Lubbock ISD is now suing the governor, because he has prevented the Headstart program from protecting the lives of those three and four and five year old kids who are in their care."
Lubbock Independent School District has joined the state attorney general’s lawsuit against the Biden administration over mask and vaccine mandates for certain workers.
Also, he said, "since Greg Abbott has been governor, we've seen 24 rural hospitals close their doors.”
According to American Public Media Research Lab, since 2005 24 rural hospitals have closed in Texas. Governor Greg Abbott his been in the position since 2015.
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Have a news tip? Email Sarah Self-Walbrick at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her reporting on Twitter @SarahFromTTUPM.