Beto O’Rourke: “Folks, especially at the local level, that’s where the leadership is right now. The dysfunction in D.C. is almost inversely proportional to the level of getting after it at the local level.”

Beto O’Rourke, 46, a businessman and former El Paso councilman elected to Congress as a Democrat in 2012, seeks election to the Senate in the Nov. 6 election. He has gained fame for his refusal to accept money from political action committees. In the past quarter his campaign drew $38.1 million in donations. He has visited Waco six times during his campaign and has a seventh visit planned Halloween morning at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum’s Knox Hall. He serves on the House Armed Services Committee and House Committee on Veterans Affairs where he has pressed against the long waits for health care facing veterans: “Those men and women are the ones who literally were willing to die for us. So many have. The least we can do is make sure that we fulfill our end of the obligation, and we are not right now, by almost any measure.”

Q    I understand you’ve visited all 254 counties in Texas over how long has it been?

A    I think 21 months.

Q    I should wait for the book, but what’s one thing you’ve learned about Texas and Texans that you didn’t know in the very beginning?

A    I’d say every place I’ve been to defied stereotypes in a very positive, powerful way. We’re such a diverse state and you see that everywhere — where you would expect it, Houston, the most diverse city in the country, but also the smaller the town, the more likely I’ll see that those starting the next generation of businesses, small-business owners, are immigrants from other parts of the world and are literally reviving those smaller communities with their presence, with their investment, with the risk they’re willing to take. That defied my expectations of parts of the Panhandle that I had never been to, even though I’m from far West Texas. I saw this in parts of intermediate West Texas, and North Texas and East Texas as well.

Q    Is there anything that jumped off the map where you just thought, “Boy, you know, I never really thought that about Texas.”

A    I assumed that in rural, more Republican communities, there might not be that much common ground but that they were deserving of my respect, of me showing up and listening. What surprised me was on issues of public education, affordability of higher education, even health care... I remember this guy in Henrietta, Texas, being like, “Hey, I am really angry about Obamacare,” and maybe even said he was mad at Democrats specifically, myself included, and described how high his premiums were, and then said: “But I don’t want you to repeal this unless you have something better.” He justified being angry but said, “I want to make sure you guys have a plan before you do something to this,” because he acknowledged that other people could not afford health care before the Affordable Care Act. His wife, a public school teacher, also Republican, was really anxious about her tax dollars being turned into a voucher, sent to a private school and out of her classroom. And I’ve got to tell you, I went into that coffee shop knowing, “No one’s going to want to vote for me, no one’s going to see things the way that I do. No one’s probably going to like me.” Those were the anxieties that I had going in. I left just feeling great, not knowing if they’re going to vote for me but thinking, “Man, we’ve got a lot in common here.” Things like that. There are area-specific issues I’ve learned traveling in rural communities. Half of rural Texas doesn’t have broadband Internet. That’s something I take for granted in El Paso. Many of us do. There was a lot of anxiety, as we all understand, in Southeast Texas about the storms with Harvey and 58 inches of rain and the inability to fully recover more than a year after. But what really is striking, and frankly surprising, is how much we have in common, how decent everyone is and treats one another, despite the national rhetoric and division. We’re just really good people and want to do good by and for one another.

Q     I’ll ask you something I asked of Senator Cruz. It concerns leftists who heckled the senator and his wife in a Washington, D.C., restaurant. You condemned this.

A    Absolutely.

Q    And there’s this white powder mailed to his Houston office. Now we’ve got explosive devices mailed to Trump critics. Who or what is responsible for this? You’ve talked with a lot of angry people. Where does this come from and what do our leaders do about it?

A    To add to that, I played on the congressional baseball team for the first year that I was there and Steve Scalise, the Republican majority whip, was shot at and almost killed at a baseball practice. I’ve got to tell you, I think part of the genius of this country is that, for the most part, we’re able to nonviolently resolve our differences, make enough concessions to find consensus, compromise. Compromise — it’s become a four-letter word amongst the purists of both parties. “How could you ever work with that guy given what he’s done or what he wants to do to me?” I remember many of my constituents were very angry with me for going to President Trump’s inauguration. “How could you do this? This guy who said all these things about our community, about women, about ...” And I said, “I’m not going for him, I’m going because one president who’s labored for the last eight years to lead the country in a direction some people agree with, some people don’t, is going to willingly hand over power to a guy who wants to take it in the opposite direction. That’s awesome. We shouldn’t mess with that and we should celebrate it.” So I am very worried that it’s not just the laws and the Constitution, as important as they are, [that are being treated with contempt], it’s the norms and civility in the institutions that allowed this democracy to really function — the exception, not the rule, and the envy of so much of the rest of the world. And I worry this slip could become a slide and we lose the ability to peacefully resolve our differences and see someone of another party as the enemy. You mentioned [Republican Congressman] Will Hurd earlier. He and I just received the Allegheny Prize for Civility in Politics. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia and Joe Biden and John McCain received it before. We really didn’t do much, to be honest — I don’t know that I was worthy of that — except that what we were doing was so exceptional. Who spends time with a guy from the other party for 36 hours [in a car driving from Texas to Washington]? That, and getting things done in Congress with folks from across the aisle.

Q    We have a hell of a battle raging between Republicans and Democrats over vandalized Beto and Cruz signs. The Republican Party chairman had what I would call a meltdown and wrote a vicious letter to us calling Democrats “anarchists” and tying Congresswoman Maxine Waters to what’s going on at the local level. By contrast, Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Duty went out and actually scrubbed clean vandalized Ted Cruz signs.

A    Good for her. That’s great. My mom, a lifelong Republican — now she would describe herself as an independent — I don’t know she’s ever voted for a Democrat for president. We’ll come to different conclusions on a candidate or even an issue, but perhaps growing up in that house is a reminder she’s no less American for thinking that way. How we get back to that ability to disagree agreeably, I don’t know. But we can try to lead by example. We really have done our best in this campaign. You’ll never ever find me saying something about the Republican Party other than, “If you’re Republican, I’m glad you’re here at this event.” You’ll never hear me saying the Democrats are superior. Any Democrat who says that Republicans don’t care about your health care or don’t care about the poor or don’t care about the environment, any Republican who says Democrats don’t care about national security or our borders or the Second Amendment — we just can’t buy in to those gross generalizations that make us fear... and look, this is dangerous stuff. This guy approached me in Spring, Texas, very disturbed, shaking with anger, and said, “I can’t believe you want to take my AR-15 from me. I can’t believe you want open borders and to allow anyone to come into this country.” And he believed that stuff. This rhetoric is dangerous and it’s dangerous for either side, either party, to use it.

Q    Immigration is the top issue for many Texans. You understand this, living on the Texas-Mexico border. We have a lot of resources, state and federal, on the border. We have what everybody calls “the caravan” on the way. The president and Congress debated two immigration bills this year. Both went down in flames, partly because of Democrats, partly because of far-right Republicans. What is a perfect Beto immigration plan?

A    I’ll begin by saying that, to your point, if we allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good, we’re not going to get anything. So whatever ideally I want to do, I acknowledge there’s probably something short of it that we’re ultimately going to have to find consensus on. But ideally you honor our asylum laws already on the books that this administration has violated by stopping people from claiming asylum at our points of entry. In many cases, we’ve forced the most desperate to try to cross in between. They’ve been arrested and families have been separated. That policy’s in flux but it’s being reconsidered as we speak. Moving from that, [there are] more than a million Dreamers in this country, 150,000 to 200,000 in the state of Texas, who are every bit as American as anyone else. They should be free from the fear of being deported, especially considering so many of them are in professions of public service, school teachers, EMT technicians. Beto’s perfect outcome: They’re on a path to citizenship, and as quick as possible, if not for moral reasons which are compelling to me, then for our own self-economic interests. The more they can contribute, the faster we can get there, the greater this economy is going to grow and the more we’re going to get from them.

The next toughest issue down that line is the nine to 10 million undocumented in this country. The millions, perhaps millions more, who would like to come to this country. How do we rewrite those laws in our own image to reflect who we are, what we believe in, our values, our interests?

Q    Senator Cruz suggests it be based on skills and the kind of workforce that we seek for tomorrow.

A    Otherwise called merit-based immigration versus family-based immigration. I mean, I don’t know if the O’Rourkes five generations ago would have been able to be here if it was based on skill. I don’t know what we had to offer except we were fleeing famine. But another genius of this country is we’ve been able to integrate people from the planet over regardless of where you start and just give you an open field upon which to live to your full potential. So again, I mention those small towns — the cotton gin in Roscoe, the cotton field in Quanah: Not a single U.S.-born person is working in the toughest jobs in the state. What if Senator Cruz and I, John Cornyn and I, could agree we have workforce needs here that are not being met by a labor supply that was born here? What if we acknowledge that not everybody wants to be a U.S. citizen? Some people want to come from El Salvador, work and return to their families. They’re just as proud of their country as I am of mine, but when we are militarizing our border and there’s not a legal path for them to do that, they may be stuck here and want to draw their families up. So I think we need something that acknowledges our need for labor, people’s need for work, and maybe ensuring that you go back to your home country after you provided this job that we need and that you need. And [we need] an earned path to citizenship for millions laboring in the shadows right now who do want to remain in this country, who are raising U.S. citizen children.

Q    Right.

A    This counts on a willingness to reach across the aisle. Steve Pearce, who I would describe as a tea party Republican colleague of mine in the House, and I worked on a bill that was not a panacea but basically said for foreign-born family members of U.S. citizens who have a lifetime ban on re-entry into the U.S. for a technical violation of immigration law, you should be able to go before a federal judge and adjudicate your status. Maybe that judge says you’re a danger to the country, stay out. Or maybe they say you were 12 years old and falsely claimed citizenship when you were trying to cross into the U.S. There should be a penalty for that, but now you can be with your family again. We were able to show that, regardless of our differences — and [Pearce] doesn’t believe in comprehensive immigration reform — we can find enough common ground to get something done.

Senator John Cornyn and I worked on border security bills. So there’s a way to do it. And I’ll tell you, when I worked with Pearce, who’s in what they call a vulnerable seat [in New Mexico], my party leadership came up and said, “You have not been here long enough. You don’t understand. Do not work with this guy because you make him look good. It’s going to be harder for us to take him out.” That is part of the problem you begin with in terms of how are we unable to work with each other. Obviously we didn’t listen to the party.

Q    Do party officials control too much of what’s going on in Washington?

A    Absolutely. I haven’t been to a Democratic Caucus Meeting in two years in the House. I don’t get any value out of it and my responsibility is to my constituents in El Paso. I hold a town hall every month without fail. Everyone is welcome. No holds barred. Ask any question. Level any criticism. I fear those meetings in a healthy way because I face my constituents. That’s who I need to be focused on. And that’s made me a much better representative than I would have been otherwise.

Q    What does border security mean today?

A    That’s a great question. So by way of context: 1.6 million apprehensions in the year 2000 along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last year a little over 300,000. Lowest number since 1971. So if you’re going to look at that measure, the border is as secure as it has been. El Paso, one of the safest cities, has been ranked first, second or third safest city for 20 years running. U.S. cities on the U.S.-Mexico border are often far safer than cities deeper in the interior of the U.S. Some 20,000 border patrol agents, we’re spending $19.5 billion [each year] — a record sum — and any way you quantify it, the border’s as secure as it’s been. However, we will never be satisfied. Nor should we. We’re raising our kids on the border with this level of security we have because we still have people crossing with illegal drugs. We still have people crossing with humans in bondage. We still have the possibility, although it’s never materialized, that there may be a terrorist who wants to exploit that border to attack us. So the vigilance is paramount and I’m grateful for all who help us do that. But there’s this idea that you can get to a 100 percent operational control. That’s the term the Department of Homeland Security uses. That would literally mean hermetically sealing the border, which even a 30-foot wall wouldn’t do. So you get to a point of diminishing returns. I don’t know if we’re there yet. Every extra billion dollars you spend, every 5,000 agents you deploy, brings you just the most marginal of safety improvements — and, importantly to the last topic raised, becomes an excuse for not moving forward with immigration. Even Democrats say, “You know what? I’m all for immigration reform first. Let’s fully secure the border.” I’ll tell you, we can always do better. I like some of Will [Hurd]’s ideas of employing more technology, more smart investments, along the border. I like the bill John Cornyn and I worked on that invests in more customs officers who inspect who and what attempts to cross because more than 90 percent of everything and everyone that comes into the U.S. comes through a port of entry. And while they’re inspecting, they’re also facilitating legitimate trade and travel connected to more than a million jobs. So we can do both. We can make ourselves more secure and capitalize on the jobs and economic growth connected with the bilateral relationship with Mexico. That’s the, in my opinion, smart way to better secure the border and to make the most out of what is not inherently a threat but what I see is an inherent opportunity or connection with Mexico.

Q    So a physical barrier between points of entry is not something you support?

A    I think there are places where physical barriers make sense.

I would defer to local stakeholders, local landowners, because as you probably know, the federal government owns almost no land in the state of Texas. So all of that border, if we were to wall it off, it would not be built on the international boundary, which is the river, but on someone’s farm or ranch or homestead. We’re going to have to take their property. We were just in McAllen and there was a property owner who said, “I’ve got a property that abuts the border and I’m really concerned about people’s ability to cross my property, maybe damage what I have.” I want to make sure we’re listening to him — and if there’s a physical barrier that’s helpful, let’s work with him. But I also met another landowner who said that there is now a wall on his land. There’s a gate through which he has to go. He has to punch a code to get to his house that’s on the other side of the wall. And he says, “What if my daughter, who’s 18 or 19 years old, is coming home? She goes through that gate. That gate is now the funnel for perhaps anybody who does want to come in. They might be waiting for her.”

Q    Do you find that a lot of people have a certain stereotype about life in El Paso or McAllen?

A    Yeah, my colleagues in Congress, Democrats, say, “Hey, do you have to wear a gun all the time? Do you have a bodyguard when you’re back home?” And I’m, “Why do you ask?” “Well, I’ve just heard all these stories about the border and El Paso.” We’re one of the safest cities — and, no, I don’t fear for my safety.

Q    What of this narrative you’re against the Second Amendment?

A    Oh, it’s like, you know, I wanna take your guns, I wanna legalize heroin, I want open borders — it’s just trying to scare you about me. The fact is I believe in the Second Amendment. As somebody who came up to me and said that about an AR-15, I said, “Keep your AR-15, I don’t want to take it from you. Continue to use it responsibly and safely.” I do want to make sure there are universal background checks. I do believe, and I know others come to a different conclusion on this, and we’ve got to respect each other, but I don’t know that weapons like an AR-15 need to continue to be sold, going forward, to the public. As a Vietnam-era veteran told me, he had a version of that when he was in Vietnam and he said that belongs on the battlefield. Doesn’t belong in our communities. Emergency room doctors have told me that a high-impact, high-velocity round from an AR-15, it just destroys your insides. “You’ll bleed to death before we can get to you.” We should be able to have that debate without you saying that I want to take your guns or that I’m against the Second Amendment, as Senator Cruz said in the first debate that we had. But Texas, perhaps better than any other state, should lead the conversation. We are a state of hunters. We have more military installations in this state than does any other.

Q    The Affordable Care Act is getting attention these days. It’s been dismantled in so many ways it’s not really the Affordable Care Act anymore, yet it’s not really any sort of Republican plan either.

What should we salvage from it?

A    It was in Waco, we were knocking on doors. A young woman named Eliza, who was supporting her mother who’s been in and out of the criminal justice system, her disabled brother and three kids, they were all packed in a van with the windows down going to the zoo in the summer. We stopped them and they talked with us. And Eliza tells us she just got offered a promotion at work and was going to decline it because it would come with a pay increase. The pay increase would mean her kids are no longer eligible for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, nor will she be able to afford insurance for herself because she’ll earn too much for Medicaid, not enough for private insurance. I thought about not only her ability to get care and for her kids to get care but her ability to move up the economic ladder and earn more and get a better house and fix the air conditioning in that van so they could put the windows up. But she’s pegged where she is forever until we can figure it out. Expanding Medicaid — this state left a hundred billion dollars on the table most notably at the time when the [federal] government was willing to pay a hundred cents on the dollar for expansion. That to me is a no-brainer. It frees more people to pursue their education, to go to work, to be healthy enough to raise their families. Introducing Medicare as an option on the exchanges so that gentleman in Henrietta, Texas, so angry justifiably about rising premiums — that would create some downward pressure in counties where there’s only one or two insurers competing for your business. Expand choice. And maybe we rid ourselves of the name Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act. What’s in a name? Maybe something not so connected with one party that involves more compromise. Maybe there’s something we can work on with Governor Abbott. The state has extraordinary power when it comes to Medicaid eligibility and standards. We should be working together and ideology should not prevent us from doing that. So those are a couple of ideas. Last thing on pre-existing conditions: Half of Texans under the age of 65 have one. We have met so many parents who have a child with cancer, with asthma, with neurological conditions that are incredibly expensive to treat. The anxiety I see on their faces when they recognize that the equipment that they have, the medications that they are able to pick up, the therapist they work with will no longer be available to them if those pre-existing conditions are not protected [in insurance coverage] is very real. And we have to make sure we do the right thing there. So I might begin there.

Q    You have rock-star status in politics, but how difficult is it going to be for a regular candidate to campaign effectively without these PACs?

You’ve been an unusual phenomenon, I think we would all agree.

A    I really hope it’s the new litmus test, that people can say, “Hey, O’Rourke in Texas just in one quarter raised $38 million without a dime from PACs, most of it from Texas, and so you should be able to do it, too.” People should be able to say, “I don’t ever want to wonder whether you voted for the pharmaceutical corporation, for some special-interest group, for this PAC, or for us. It should always be us.”

Q     Given that Congress has clearly looked the other way regarding current White House ethics and corruption, what’s to keep the next Democratic president from doing such things as ignoring the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause? It seems we’ve trashed a lot of norms.

A    I just finished this biography of Julius Caesar, which is really a story of the late Roman republic. It showed its transition from a republican form of government to an imperial, essentially a dictatorship, under Augustus. And it wasn’t him just crossing the Rubicon. It was the chipping away at norms and institutions over 100 years preceding Julius Caesar. And at some point it just gave altogether. So, yeah, when we’re no longer a nation of laws, when we instead become a nation of men — and when some people, some men, are above the law because of the position of power they hold — we’re going to lose this.

Interview conducted by Steve Boggs, J.B. Smith and Bill Whitaker. It has been condensed for space and edited for clarity.