U.S. Rep. Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, El Paso’s fourth Democratic congressman in a row in the last 48 years, promises to be more accessible to constituents and more willing to compromise than some of his predecessors.
And maybe more relaxed.
Less accustomed to rank than former Rep. Silvestre Reyes, who held office for 16 years after rising to sector chief in the U.S. Border Patrol, O’Rourke still says “Beto’s fine” to old acquaintances who aren’t sure what to call him.
That will probably change in time.
In El Paso, he’s just settled into a new and pretty ritzy office suite on the second floor of the renovated Mills Building, and has been busy hiring his staff. It’s been much the same in Washington, D.C., where he’s been shown around and dined along with other freshmen by the likes of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Now 40, he has come a long way.
A touring rock musician in his late teens and early 20s, O’Rourke graduated from Columbia University with a degree in English literature in 1995 and could have gone in a very different direction. But he spent three years with tech firms in New York and then returned to his hometown to start Stanton Street Technology Group.
He also began dabbling in politics and was elected to the El Paso City Council in 2005 with two friends, Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega. They thought a lot like he did about the need to make El Paso a city where college graduates would stay and to which ex-pats would return.
Voters in an anti-incumbent mood that year also swept in Northeast city Rep. John Cook as mayor and Ann Morgan Lilly as the Westside representative. Though decades older, Cook and Lilly shared the ambitions of the three young friends, and they quickly became allies.
With a majority block on City Council and a new, equally ambitious city manager, Joyce Wilson, they moved quickly, pushing through a host of changes aimed at improving the city’s quality of life that brought national attention to El Paso.
O’Rourke had a knack for politics, likely engendered by his late father, Patrick, a county commissioner and county judge in the 1980s. That O’Rourke switched to the Republican Party and made an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1992.
Pat O’Rourke died in a freak bicycle accident in 2001, not knowing his son would follow his footsteps into politics.
“Every son, to a degree, lives out his father’s dreams,” Beto O’Rourke says. “Certainly, this was one of them.”
It didn’t hurt that soon after winning his first City Council election, he married Amy Sanders, the daughter of highly successful businessman and developer Bill Sanders and his wife, Cita. The O’Rourkes now have three children.
Although his defeat of Reyes, an eight-term incumbent, in last year’s Democratic Primary looked almost easy, O’Rourke insists that a year of knocking on doors and the bruising campaign were anything but.
In Washington, he says, he’s been advised to start raising money for his next election and building relationships, but not to plan on getting much done as a member of the minority party and a mere freshman in the House.
“I’ll respect that,” he says. “But at the same time, I’ve got to represent El Paso and get some big things done.”
In D.C., he lives not far from the Capitol, about a 10-minute walk, he says, while his family remains here in El Paso.
During a recent trip home, O’Rourke sat down with El Paso Inc. to talk about his first weeks in office, his committee assignments, the chances of legalizing marijuana and his priorities for the next two years.
Q: We’re sitting here in your brand new El Paso office in the first days of your first term in Congress. All this must be kind of daunting. Your late father, Pat, ran for Congress, too, didn’t he?
He did. He ran in 1992 as a Republican in the primary and was defeated by Chip Taberski, who had been KVIA’s sports anchor. Chip went on to run against Ron Coleman, one of his first serious challenges.
Q: What would Pat have thought about your political success and the fact that, bang, in your first run for Congress you turn over the local Democratic applecart?
There was nothing bang about it. It was a hell of a trudge for a solid year of knocking on doors, building great teams and everything else that went into the campaign. But from a biological standpoint and what have I achieved, I wouldn’t be here if not for him.
The inspiration he passed on to us, his kids, was just his love for El Paso and his excitement about life and the opportunities and possibilities that are out there and going after them.
Every son to a degree lives out his father’s dreams. Certainly, this was one of his.
Q: When did you become interested in politics?
I followed politics because it was what my dad did. It just provided the drama in the bigger world to watch the presidential debates or follow what was going on.
So, I’ve been around it my whole life, but interested in running? Probably not until I moved back to El Paso, started my business, got involved in civic life through the chamber and then ran for City Council.
Q: Did you haggle with him over politics as a teenager?
Yeah, but I never was really interested in the machinery of politics, the parties and local elections. All of that is of interest to me now and has been for the last 10 years.
Q: What have you been told to expect from your freshman year in Congress?
People say focus on raising money, on just learning and making relationships. But a lot of people told us we weren’t going to be able to win this race and defeat a 16-year incumbent, so I’m setting a much more ambitious agenda for what we do and not necessarily buying into the conventional wisdom.
I’ll respect it. I’ll listen to people and try to learn from those who know more than I do. But at the same time, I’ve got to represent El Paso and get some big things done for this community.
Q: You’re settling into your new office here. Do you have your office staffed?
Our El Paso office is a big priority. It’s largely staffed. I have one more key position there that I am hiring. We’re starting to interview people for the communications position.
As you know from covering City Hall and the campaign, I was always directly accessible. I never had anyone issue statements on my behalf or speak on my behalf. To the best of my ability, I want to continue to do that.
The only thing that’s changed is it’s harder for me to be directly in contact with everyone the way I like to be, because if you include everyone in Washington and El Paso that I’m now working with, it’s just more than I can responsibly handle.
We have a scheduler, John Meza. He has not worked in Washington before, but he has been phenomenal – one of our big success stories.
Q: The Democratic Party in El Paso was pretty divided by your candidacy against Congressman Silvestre Reyes, who was supported by the old Democratic Party folks here. Have you reached out to them? Will they support you or be gunning up for two years from now?
Right after the primary, I started making calls to everyone I could think of that was involved in that part of the Democratic Party. I had great conversations with people like Quetta Fierro and Belen Robles, Jim Scherr, Mike Dipp and Travis Johnson.
I count all those people as supporters and friends. Both on the grassroots side and people who get financially involved in these races, I feel we’ve made a strong effort to reach out. And I feel it’s been very successful. People appreciate it, and I think it’s going to make me more effective having a united El Paso with me while I’m up in D.C.
Q: What are your priorities for this session?
We have this very ambition legislative agenda focused on the international bridges, the VA and Fort Bliss.
Q: Which House committees were you assigned to?
I’m on Homeland Security and the border subcommittee of Homeland Security, which is a really important appointment and a big win for El Paso. It’s the Border and Maritime Subcommittee.
That assignment will be really important for El Paso as we try to connect what is happening here from a security, trade and mobility standpoint to the success of the rest of the country.
Then, I got Veteran Affairs. We really want to work to improve the level of Veterans Administration service here in El Paso, including the VA clinic, and there’s the fight for a full-service hospital. It’s also about improving the response time on disability claims.
I was also named to the subcommittee called Disability and Memorials, which also incidentally covers Fort Bliss National Cemetery.
The third big area we talked about in the campaign was Fort Bliss. I was fortunate to get to spend an evening at the Pentagon at a reception hosted by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for newly elected members of Congress.
Q: Did the entire freshman class go?
I would say about a third the 84 new members availed ourselves. It was a mix of Republicans and Democrats.
Q: What did you get out of it?
What was good for me was to be sure the secretary connects me with Fort Bliss. More important, I met the team that runs the show underneath him. For example, Gen. Ray Odierno, who is the chief of staff for the U.S. Army. I had a very positive conversation with him. I was surprised, because he was familiar with Bliss and the federal government’s $5 billion-plus investment and the $1 billion investment in William Beaumont Army Hospital, the new active duty hospital that’s going to be built, and he was very aware of what the community has invested in quality of life infrastructure, in support of Bliss.
Hats off to the folks at the chamber and business community, Sen. Shapleigh and Congressman Reyes and people in leadership here who have established a great working relationship between the U.S. military and El Paso.
Q: What do you know about the Department of Education’s audit into the EPISD cheating scandal and what was done to students at Bowie High?
I have been pursuing the Department of Education’s audit. It began over two years ago and has yet to be released. So we’ve had a series of meetings with them to pursue final release of that audit.
In a recent meeting with the inspector general, they made it very clear that the primary reason an investigation was initiated was because of Sen. Shapleigh and the allegations he made. The reason we’re seeing justice beginning to be delivered in all this malfeasance and corruption at EPISD is due to Eliot Shapliegh. He deserves credit for that.
Q: Will they release the audit?
Yes, it’s very possible that we’ll see the final product before summer. Obviously, the goal is to find out what happened and who is responsible for it and help the kids who were affected by it and then, to identify the procedures going forward.
Q: Do you think the audit will cover all of those issues?
I don’t know. They’ve been very tight lipped. The process is they release it in the next couple of months to the Texas Education Agency and TEA is afforded opportunity to respond to the findings. That’s up to a 30-day process, I understand. After that, the audit is published.
I underscored to the Department of Ed how important it was that we get this done right.
Q: How long might it take to get that veterans hospital?
I’ve taken my questions to the secretary of defense’s staff and people like Gen. Odierno about the new William Beaumont Hospital East. The answers to those questions will impact the availability of the existing William Beaumont and whether it can be converted into a full-service veterans hospital.
Q: What will they do with it? It’s a huge building.
It is currently used as a full-service hospital. It just makes a lot of common sense that you would convert that to a full-service veterans hospital when you have the need here and the facility waiting to be used. But, it only becomes available if they build William Beaumont East, which, again, we have every indication that they’re going to.
But El Paso and our office are going to take the lead in doing this. We need to continue to make the case that the investments are warranted and matched by the community support.
Q: Anything new on international bridges? We had a story a few weeks back about the freight shuttle system that could virtually take all the 18-wheelers off the bridges. That would mean the city and the federal government wouldn’t have to expand the bridges they have. Where do things stand with improving wait times at the bridges?
There are a lot of things we can do to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our ports of entry. You could do the freight shuttle. You could do what Secure Origins is piloting, which is this pre-inspection program. You could staff our bridges so you don’t have these nine-hour delays, in some cases, for cargo that is crossing. You could improve the passages leading up to the bridges. You’re familiar with the C-TPAT System that pre-certifies trade and cargo coming over the bridge.
The problem is you’re certifying that and having companies go through that rigorous process, but when they get in line headed north in Juárez, they are not separated from the common traffic.
Q: They had a segregated traffic system for pre-inspected cargo going for a while, but the city of Juárez dismantled it for some reason. What’s the next best solution worth looking at?
I think we need to look at all of them, but the near-term opportunity is staffing the bridges. I’ve talked with our legislators along the U.S.-Mexican border. I have made it part of my introduction to any member of Congress or the administration that I meet.
When I introduce myself and tell them about the district I represent, I never fail to mention the bridges, the wait times and their impact on the national economy.
Q: Medical marijuana is now legal in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. There’s a bill in the Texas Legislature to allow it, though it probably won’t pass. Have you heard anything about it in Congress?
There is a lot of interest because you just had two states lift the prohibition on marijuana, so now you have a disconnect between federal law and state law. There are some legislators who are working to bring federal law into line with what those states have done – at a minimum to respect what those states are doing. That’s whether it’s New Mexico and medicinal marijuana or a state like Colorado or Washington ending the prohibition.
The lead person on that is a young congressman from Colorado named Jared Polis. I know he’s working on legislation, and I would love to see it. That’s as much as I know. I’ve been real focused on these three areas.
Q: Is it something you would favor?
Yes, I want the federal government to respect the decision that those states have made. So, yes, I’m in favor of that. Politically, it doesn’t look like either the president or the Congress is going to be able to do a whole lot more than, hopefully, coming to some kind of agreement on the budget, the debt ceiling, sequestration, the tax code and immigration.
Almost all parties agree those are the primary issues. You also are going to have to respond to issues that come up like gun violence. But, it just does not seem politically possible to make a lot of progress on drug control legislation, at least not in this session.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.