EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
HORSESHOE BAY — As Dana Rushing began planning for Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s town hall Aug. 16 at Quail Point, she thought 100 chairs would be enough, maybe 150.
“I wasn’t expecting a lot of people because we’re having it here in Horseshoe Bay, which is a strong Republican area,” said Rushing, who is the Llano County Democratic chair. “In Johnson City, 700 people showed up a few weeks ago to see (O’Rourke), but it was on a Sunday. I didn’t think there was any way we’d come close to that since ours was on a weekday and in an area known for being Republican.”
The staff at Quail Point, however, recommended she set up 250 chairs then showed her where to find more, just in case.
It was good advice.
When O’Rourke took the floor a little after 3 p.m. Thursday, between 400 and 450 people had crammed into the community center with many standing along the walls and several sitting on the floor.
“They came in droves,” Rushing said. “It was fabulous.”
O’Rourke, the U.S. congressman representing El Paso, is challenging Republican Sen. Ted Cruz for his seat in November. Since announcing his run for the U.S. Senate, O’Rourke has been traveling across the Lone Star State, holding town halls and meeting with Texans of all walks of life. He has visited all 254 counties in the state, some more than once.
The congressman hasn’t shied away from deep-red areas. He goes in knowing far more residents in those communities are Republican and probably voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
He told the people gathered at Quail Point there’s a reason for visiting staunch GOP areas in Texas.
“(I) went to the reddest of places — King County,” he said. “Guthrie is the county seat. (They) voted for Donald Trump by 96 percent in the last election. But we show up there, because you would agree with me the folks in Guthrie and King County are every bit as deserving of our respect, of being heard, being understood, being served, being represented, and being fought for. And that’s what I want to do.
“I want the folks in King County, regardless of who they voted for and regardless of who they vote for in this next election, to know that I want to serve them,” O’Rourke said. “And the only way I can have any hope of being able to deliver to their expectations is to hear those expectations from them in their community.”
Town halls aren’t new for O’Rourke. Since being elected to Congress in 2012, O’Rourke tries to remain open to his constituents. He told the crowd at Quail Point that these public events aren’t always easy, but they’re necessary when it comes to serving people.
“There are folks who are so disappointed in a decision I’ve made, in a vote that I’ve taken, and they want me to account for myself to them, eyeball to eyeball, in the same room, in front of everyone else in the community,” O’Rourke said. “And I’ll tell you, and my team can tell you, I go into those meetings a little worked up with this healthy dose of fear in my gut. (But) I’m going to face those who I serve, who put me into this position. I’m going to account for what I’ve done or what I’ve failed to do.”
One thing Rushing likes about O’Rourke is that he’s not a far-left-leaning Democrat but more of a centrist on most issues. As she’s watched the two major parties push harder to the left and the right, a division has formed that keeps many well-meaning people apart.
“We need to bring this country together,” she said. “I think Beto is the one who can do this.”
She pointed out legislation O’Rourke talked about during his Horseshoe Bay visit. At a town hall about two years ago, before he was running for Senate, an attendee told him how veterans with other-than-honorable discharges are, by law, prohibited from receiving mental health services through the Veterans Administration. Veterans as a whole, O’Rourke said, face mental health issues at a higher percentage than the rest of the U.S. population, and those with other-than-honorable discharges ever more so.
While he knew these veterans had to have violated a rule for this type of discharge, the congressman didn’t believe it should lead to a lifetime of struggles and little chance of needed care.
So he went to work crafting legislation to allow veterans with other-than-honorable discharges access to mental health care through the VA. The only problem, O’Rourke told the crowd at Quail Point, was the Republicans controlled the House and the Senate.
“The bill was worth the paper it was written on and not much more if I couldn’t get it passed,” he said.
O’Rourke could have just threw up his hands and went back to El Paso to tell those who wanted the legislation there was no way it would pass with a Republican-held Congress. But he knew that wouldn’t go over well.
Instead, O’Rourke found Congressman Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican, who had drafted his own legislation regarding the issue. Despite their differences, the two worked together, came up with compromises, and worked out a bill that made its way through committee then to the House floor.
“(It) passed 435-0,” O’Rourke said.
The bill then passed the Senate and was included in the omnibus bill President Trump signed into law in March.
“I know there are a lot of people who talk about reaching across the aisle, but (O’Rourke) does it,” Rushing said. “We need more of that. I think there are a lot of things we can agree on. He’s shown he wants to work with people, no matter if they’re Republican or Democrat.”
Another thing Rushing noted about O’Rourke’s town hall was his emphasis on keeping things positive. He didn’t talk down about Cruz or anyone else. She found that refreshing.
“He’s inspiring,” Rushing said. “I think we’ve felt beaten down the last couple of years, but he’s renewed our hope.”
Renewing hope and winning the Senate seat are two different things. O’Rourke acknowledged the challenges he faces against Cruz. The two plan to hold a series of debates, something in which Cruz thrives.
He debates Bernie Sanders for fun, O’Rourke quipped.
Though there are challenges for the congressman, Rushing said O’Rourke has motivated Democrats as well as people who feel politics have become too divisive.
“I think we’ve been awakened,” she said. “I think that’s what’s happening with Beto.”
Early voting for the Nov. 6 general election starts Oct. 22 and runs through Nov. 2. The last day to register for the general election is Oct. 9. Go to burnetcountytexas.org or co.llano.tx.us for election information in Burnet and Llano counties.