Beto O'Rourke's Punk-Rock Past Could Help Him Beat Ted Cruz

El Paso congressman and U.S. Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke (center, powder-blue shirt) meets some potential constituents at a recent rally in The Woodlands.
El Paso congressman and U.S. Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke (center, powder-blue shirt) meets some potential constituents at a recent rally in The Woodlands.
Photo by Sara Button
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One Sunday afternoon last month, hundreds gathered at the Baker St. Pub & Grill in The Woodlands. Much to the chagrin of the usual “Sunday Funday” brunch crowd, these people were motivated by their political convictions and not the previous night's hangover. The crowd had gathered to catch a few moments with the Texas Democratic Party's rising star, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, as he made his way through the Houston suburbs following a small-town tour of North Texas.

The politician is rapidly making a name for himself, traveling across the state after announcing that he plans to challenge Senator Ted Cruz for his seat. With close to 600 days until the November 2018 election, O’Rourke is not taking the daunting task of turning Texas blue lightly. He is shaking as many hands as possible and delivering a message of political change free of any PAC motivations. The 44-year-old had the crowd charmed the packed room, speaking on top of a chair reminiscent of a traveling evangelical preacher speaking truth to power. The crowd applauded as the El Paso congressman spoke about the idiocy of a border wall and how the cost of it could lead to a government shutdown in the coming weeks.

After announcing he planned to run for Senate, it was revealed that O’Rourke was once in a band with the singer of recently reunited El Paso modern-rockers At the Drive-In, Cedric Bixler-Zavala. The Houston Press was able to get a couple of minutes with O’Rourke after he took a photo with every person who had crammed themselves into the pub that afternoon. I asked him about his punk rock past and how it may have motivated his political career.

Beto O'Rourke's Punk-Rock Past Could Help Him Beat Ted Cruz
Photo by Sara Button

Houston Press: Growing up playing music, being in bands — how do you believe that influenced your transition into politics?
Beto O'Rourke: Well, it’s really connected to what were doing now. Playing in bands is about writing your own songs, putting out your own music, pressing your own records, writing your own zines, booking your own tours and just connecting people in a way that is not filtered by corporations or anybody else. You just show up in somebody's town and you make a connection, or you don't, and we're doing that now; we don't take any PAC money.

Just then, our interview was interrupted by two little girls shouting “Hi Beto!” O’Rourke proceeded to talk to them about their ice cream, still remembering them by name after meeting them hours earlier.

How do you feel musicians can drive change?
Musicians are among the most connected and trusted people in our communities; they're the ones that we literally let into our hearts. They're on our record players, whose shows we go out to see. And too often and you know, I'll just say this for when I was playing music, I thought that was unconnected to politics or the future of our communities and it’s totally connected. Musicians have an amazing opportunity. We just got an invitation from Cedric and the guys in At the Drive-In to come to their show in El Paso on May 6 and talk to their audience. I don't know if were going to be there or able to do it, but to me, it was incredibly gratifying. Everyone in that audience, they deserve to know what's at stake and the opportunity to change the course of this state and this country and I think that's great.

What is your advice do you have for the many people across Texas who feel frustrated and powerless in the current political state?
It's up to us. I think one of the the mistakes Democrats have made in the past is instead of listening to people directly, [or] talking to them directly, we have allowed people to do it on our behalf. So they hire consultants or pollsters or people to tell you what to say or write the message for you, and I think if we just have the courage of our convictions, trust in ourselves, we have the power to decide what's possible and no one else gets to decide that for us. I think that's terribly exciting. We had no business being with a couple hundred people right now, in The Woodlands, 500-plus days away from an election. But there were that many people out because they decided they’re gonna do this. We're not doing any corporations, no PACs, no special interests, just people. People, connecting with people. That's really exciting.

Beto O'Rourke's Punk-Rock Past Could Help Him Beat Ted Cruz
Photo by Sara Button

How do you expect to influence younger voters to get out and vote?
I'm betting on the future of Texas and I'm betting on young people, and I'm betting on the issues they bring to the campaign. Issues like the drug war, issues like student debt, and issues like the quality of their opportunities. And ensuring that Texas, in its representation, is showing off its diversity and innovation and creativity and all the exciting opportunities that today aren't part of the conversation.

How do you think the current political climate will change music?
I think that music is one of the best ways to express what we're feeling and what we need at any given moment. You look at the music that defined the '60s or the '70s, or the punk rock I was listening to in the '80s, that was what was on our minds. That was helping us understand what was going on in the world and in our communities. In that same way, I know that this year, 2017, musicians are doing the same thing and I think there is tremendous power in music and musicians' ability to interpret and also in some degree guide us in where we’re going.

What are you listening to now?
Khalid, from El Paso. I’m super-proud of him and what he's doing.

It may have been easy for O'Rourke to say that; Khalid is an up-and-coming R&B singer who calls El Paso home. However, with the November 2018 election a year and a half away, and O’Rourke’s plan to hit as many Texas cities leading up to it, perhaps he’s drawing some political inspiration from Khalid’s hit single “Location.”

Send me your location, let’s
Focus on communicating ‘cause
I just need a time and place to come through

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