Although SXSW started as a music festival, the “government” track is rapidly expanding. But one 2018 participant would likely be just as comfortable at the all-music, all-the-time version: Beto O’Rourke, the El Paso congressman and the Democratic party’s nominee for senate in the state of Texas, who seemingly can’t escape a single profile without the words “punk rock Democrat” appearing in the headline.
O’Rourke made it about fifty minutes into his hour-long session before the subject of his days playing in the El Paso punk band Foss came up. That may be because the session—in which O’Rourke was interviewed by The Intercept‘s Ryan Grim—was laser-focused on its stated theme: “Can Small-Donor Progressives Win Local Elections?”
It’s a topical question. On Friday, Bernie Sanders, who famously showed the power of small donors in a national campaign, addressed the conference to talk about everything from his 2020 ambitions to the proxy war in Yemen, and SXSW came just days after a Texas primary that saw O’Rourke secure the party’s nomination—albeit with just 60 percent of the vote, despite running a significantly better-funded and more media-savvy campaign than any of his challengers. O’Rourke is still one of the Democratic party’s rising stars, an exciting presence on the national stage who sees the words “Kennedy-esque” next to his name almost as often as “punk rock.” But there’s a lot riding on his current strategy of rejecting PAC money, refusing to participate in the traditional fundraising process, and running a retail, Iowa-style campaign in a state with 29 million people and 20 media markets. Based on his conversation with Grim, O’Rourke doesn’t feel the need to change anything as the campaign enters its next phase.
For the first half of the session, Grim and the congressman discussed campaign finance. O’Rourke railed against the practice of “call time,” which he says takes 40 to 50 percent of every congressperson’s time, and which involves making fundraising calls to special interest donors in New York and D.C. “That system undermines everything in Congress,” O’Rourke said, describing an “unconscious, perverse corruption” that happens when voting as donors want you to means there’s a $10,000 check coming your way. And while he was adamant that this is an issue among both parties in Congress, he reserved most of his frustration with the practice for members of his own party. “I think that the Republicans have some intellectual consistency on this,” he told the room. “They support Citizens United, believe political contributions are speech, and believe corporations are people. Democrats decry this stuff, but we won’t unilaterally disarm. So as a Democrat, I feel like we have an opportunity, obligation, and responsibility [to stop fundraising through PACs] if we don’t want people to accuse us of being hypocritical.”
Throughout the session, O’Rourke described his approach to campaign finance, which does not include paying dues to the DCCC or participating in call time, as “what Texas is doing,” without much clarification of what larger statewide trend he saw happening here. But he explained his evolution on the issue in detail. He talked about campaigning in El Paso and, after knocking on doors, hearing that mental health care for veterans was a major issue for people in the district that includes Fort Bliss. He asked to join the House Veteran Affairs Committee and the Armed Services Committee, and says that he was told (“this is anecdotal, apocryphal, you didn’t hear it from myself,” he started) that he wouldn’t be assigned to the Armed Services Committee because, as a first-term congressman, he wouldn’t be able to raise enough money to be worth the seat. When he asked about Veteran Affairs, meanwhile, which serves a group without much money, “Folks looked at me like I was high.”
“‘That’s where we send people when they’ve really screwed up here, because you’re not going to be able to raise any money,’” O’Rourke recalled being told. “But I was going door to door—not because I’m more ethical than anybody else, we just didn’t have the money to do TV or send mailers, and people kept saying, ‘If you want to know how to help me, fix the V.A.’” He learned that the suicide rate among veterans, who had massive wait times for mental health appointments, was as high as twenty deaths per day. “That became issue number one for me, and I would have never learned that from a pollster.”
There’s been a fair amount of mythologizing of O’Rourke already—his punk-rock past, his Kennedy-esque good looks, even how he “wanted to fit in/so he changed his name to Beto/and hid it with a grin,” as sung in a country music jingle released by the Ted Cruz campaign hours after O’Rourke won the primary on Tuesday night. The congressman has been effective at building a narrative about himself, one that traces from his youth in punk bands to his early campaigns for city council to his current Senate run.
O’Rourke told a story from his first campaign for El Paso City Council, when, going door-to-door, he introduced himself. “My name is Beto O’Rourke, and I’m running for City Council,” he said, “And the person at the first door I knocked on told me that if I wanted their vote, I needed to protect Fusselman Canyon,” an arroyo in the city known for its wildlife that was under threat from developers. At the second door he knocked on, O’Rourke explained, he was told the same thing. “At the third door, I said, ‘My name is Beto O’Rourke, and I’m here to save Fusselman Canyon.”
It got a laugh, but O’Rourke’s point—that politics are at their most effective when a candidate listens, rather than speaks—fits nicely into the “travel to all 254 counties and hold Q&As” approach to politics around which he has built his brand.
That’s fairly well-trodden territory for O’Rourke, at least among those who’ve followed his campaign during the primary. As he gets into the general election, he may find that his narrative needs new wrinkles. That made his SXSW session a strong dry-run for focusing his campaign around his rejection of PAC money—what that actually means, what it looks like in practice, and why it’s important.
“In my first two years [in Congress], there was a PAC meeting that stood out to me,” O’Rourke recalled. “I was meeting with some really great farmers who wanted to tell me about the farm bill. Whether conscious or unconscious, I knew meeting with them was a great way to ensure that maybe they’d be supportive of us in the campaign. And they gave us $10,000. Then the farm bill comes before us, and there are several amendments, including one that will favor this group that just wrote me this check.” O’Rourke said that his staff told him to vote against it because, he said, the amendments didn’t really make sense. “I voted against it,” he said. “I wouldn’t be telling you this story if I voted for it. And the D.C. fundraiser I had hired when I got there called me to say, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’m done. I’m not doing it this way anymore.’”