Reinventing Beto: How a GOP Accessory Became a Top Democratic Contender for President
By Norman Solomon
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.”
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.
Norman Solomon is cofounder and national coordinator of RootsAction.org. He was a Bernie Sanders delegate from California to the 2016 Democratic National Convention and is currently a coordinator of the relaunched Bernie Delegates Network. Solomon is the author of a dozen books include War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.