A Promise of Change
Gun laws, immigration, and social justice were the main topics Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke addressed during a crowded question-and-answer session at Tufts on September 5. It was the first installment in Tisch College’s Presidential Town Hall event series, which brings presidential candidates from both sides of the aisle to Tufts for informal discussions.
An El Paso native who was its youngest city councilor for six years and the founder of a small technology business, O’Rourke served Texas’s sixteenth Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2013 to 2019, helping pass veteran health-care and voter law reforms. He ran for U.S. Senate in 2018, setting a record for the most votes ever cast for a Democrat in Texas, and inspiring huge numbers of first-time voters.
At Tufts, O’Rourke painted a grim and urgent picture of where the nation is today and drew wild cheers and applause from hundreds of audience members as he spoke passionately about his vision of a more inclusive and equitable America—starting with a promise to listen. “Showing up for people works, so I’m showing up for you today,” he said. Here are some of the main takeaways from his talk.
Deal fairly with immigration at the border and at the source. Asked by a student about his proposal for immigration reform, O’Rourke said he supports decriminalizing undocumented immigrants, stopping the practice of separating families at the border, and making efforts to reunite children and parents who have already been separated. “When you’re at your most vulnerable and defenseless, there’s no reason we should keep you in a cage or a concrete cinderblock cell, sleeping on the floor under a mylar blanket,” he said.
He also urged broader measures such as helping address drought, poverty, and violence in Central America, much of which he said can be traced back to American actions. “We have an opportunity and responsibility to do the right thing by and for those people—either to try to solve that problem here when they show up at our border, or to help them where they are, to stay in their countries in the first place,” O’Rourke said.
Gun control that works. In response to a question from moderator Alan Solomont, A70, A08P, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, about several recent mass shootings in Texas, O’Rourke proposed gun control measures including universal background checks for firearm purchases, ending sales of “weapons of war” such as AK47s and AR14s, and instituting mandatory buybacks of those weapons.
“This is a human-caused problem, with a human solution. We have to be really honest with ourselves about what that solution is,” he said. “If we reflect true leadership and courage in the country, and we have someone or something—a leader, an act of Congress—to rally around, I’m confident we’ll get it right.”
Cybersecurity and digital privacy need to be priorities. In response to questions about cybersecurity and Russian interference, O’Rourke condemned President Donald Trump for failing to acknowledge the problem. “As president, I would make sure we have the resources commensurate with this threat, and to call it out in the open—and those countries who participate in these kinds of cyberattacks will understand there will be real consequences and accountability for their actions, which is something we have failed to do under this administration,” he said.
Answering a related question on digital privacy, O’Rourke said we need to look at social media companies more as a publishers than as utilities, which means holding them accountable for “capitalizing on our likes and biases and turning us against one another.” Federal legislation controlling their user agreements is one way to start doing that, he argued. “The immunity from legal consequences and accountability and justice with which they can act now leaves us in the breach,” he said.
Climate change action is critical. Speaking about his foreign policy priorities, O’Rourke brought up global warming, criticizing Trump for failing to mention the Amazon rainforest fires or anything related to climate change at the recent G7 Summit. He warned that if we don’t act now, we may forever lose communities like the ones we enjoy now.
“We have ten years left, not just as Democrats and Republicans, but as humans on the planet to get this right. Every connection we have with the rest of the world should be leveraged to address climate change,” he said. “We have the culpability and the responsibility, but also the opportunity to lead.”
Bring social justice to everyone. O’Rourke described challenges including “an economy that works too well for too few and not at all for many; health care that is now a function of privilege and luck and circumstance instead of the basic human right it should be; or the millions of people living in this country working the toughest, shittiest jobs available in America today, whose undocumented status is used as leverage against paying them a fraction of the value they deserve.”
As important as foreign policy is, change should begin at home, he said—which means treating all Americans with respect and dignity. “I’m running because this is the moment for all of us to stand up and be counted and do everything in our power to make sure not only to stop the worst excesses of racism and un-American behavior of this president, but to make sure to live up to fulfill our potential and promise as a country,” he said.
Monica Jimenez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.