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Beto O'Rourke Talks Voting in Minot; Exploring Jan 6th in 'War Games'

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Beto O'Rourke

Join Beto O'Rourke in Minot for an inspiring talk on voting rights, dive into the lessons of Jan 6th with 'War Games,' and savor culinary delights on Prairie Plates with Rick Gion.


Former Congressman Beto O'Rourke is coming to Minot to talk about voting. He founded the voting rights and voter registration organization Powered By People, and wrote the book, We've Got to Try: How the Fight for Voting Rights Makes Everything Else Possible.

Interview Highlights: (Full transcript below)

  • The Temptation to Despair: O'Rourke discusses the challenge of avoiding despair in the face of societal and political issues. He emphasizes the importance of looking to historical examples, like Dr. Lawrence Nixon's fight for voting rights, as inspiration to keep trying.
  • Challenges Facing Indigenous Peoples: O'Rourke acknowledges the historical marginalization of Indigenous peoples in America and highlights the ongoing struggles they face in exercising their right to vote. He discusses barriers such as access to identification and convenient polling locations, emphasizing the urgent need to address voter suppression tactics.
  • The Power of In-Person Connection: Reflecting on his experiences in politics and music, O'Rourke underscores the importance of genuine, face-to-face interactions in fostering meaningful connections and driving social change. He emphasizes the limitations of technological substitutes for personal engagement and stresses the value of community dialogue.

Full Transcript:

Ashley Thornberg

The title of the book, We've Got to Try, How the Fight for Voting Rights Makes Everything Else Possible, I want to focus in on that part before the colon, we've got to try. It reads to me like fairly equal parts hope and despair. Is that accurate for you?

Beto O'Rourke

I think the great challenge for many of us, for me personally, at least, is to avoid the temptation to despair, which is a very understandable one, given the times we're living in. There are so many things in our personal lives, in our public life as a country that cause us to wonder whether we're going to make it. In Texas, for example, you have a state that is on the front lines of a national conversation about immigration.

While this debate is taking place, there are hundreds of people, human beings, who are dying because they cannot find a legal way to come into this country, as Congress for decades dithers in the face of this unmet need. You wonder, are we ever going to make it? I live here in El Paso, right on the US-Mexico border.

We have in Texas, one of the harshest abortion bans in the United States of America. Not only does it make it impossible for a woman to obtain an abortion, it has an impact on accessing any kind of reproductive healthcare. It helps to explain why Texas is at the epicenter of this maternal mortality crisis that is literally killing women at record numbers.

The subject of the book, our democracy and the right to vote, is under attack unlike any time in our lifetimes, at least since 1965, when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. You add to that the despair that many Americans have about their choices for the presidency, the broken politics locally, at a state level, nationally. Again, you wonder if we're going to make it.

We've Got to Try is all about how you confront that temptation to despair. In the book, I do this by looking backwards at those who faced much greater challenges, much longer odds, and nonetheless overcame them by continuing to try. The character at the center of this book is a doctor named Lawrence Nixon.

He was a black physician in El Paso at the turn of the last century, very civically engaged, found the first chapter of the NAACP anywhere in Texas in 1914. But in 1923, the Texas legislature passes a law that forbids him and any other African American in Texas from voting. Nonetheless, Dr. Nixon in the next year, which is an election year, 1924, pays his poll tax, waits in line at his regular polling station, presents that poll tax receipt when he gets to the front of the line, and the election judge and the poll worker, who both recognize him by sight because Dr. Nixon's never missed an election, say, hey, doc, we can't let you vote. You know we can't do this. And he says, I know you can't, but I've got to try. And Dr. Nixon for the next 20 years wages this incredibly lonely and yet critical battle to try to integrate elections in Texas again to ensure that people are able to be full citizens in the country for which they fight for, live in, pay taxes to. And by 1944, he and others are able to win a signal Supreme Court victory, Smith versus Allwright, that begins that integration and lays the path for President Johnson, the first Texas president, to sign into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which creates the first multiracial democracy in American history. So if you go back to 1923, when that all white primary was made law in Texas to 1965, what a long, lonely journey. But those who tried were the ones who won our democracy for us.

And so at this moment of, you know, the temptation to despair and the fraught politics of America, we can't give in, we can't give up. We've got to get out there and fight as Dr. Nixon did. And we've got to try.

And only by doing that, will we have any chance of ultimately succeeding.

Ashley Thornberg

North Dakota is home to five indigenous tribal nations, the three affiliated tribes, the Spirit Lake Nation, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Nation. Talk about the specific challenges facing indigenous peoples and why you wanted to come and talk in North Dakota.

Beto O'Rourke

You know, the whole foundational premise of this country is that we're all created equal, and that we will be treated equally under the law, and that we'll have equal opportunity to shape the course and the direction this country takes. Of course, 247 más o menos years into this, we've never fully lived up to that promise. I'd love to think that we've never fully stopped trying to.

But over time, what “we the people” means to America has evolved. And again, over time, imperfectly and through stops and starts, and sometimes taking a couple of steps backwards before we move forwards, we've expanded the definition of who “we the people” are. But those who've always been the target of voter suppression and voter intimidation, and exclusion from the franchise, literally being able to choose their representatives or to run for office themselves, have historically been those who have been pushed to the margins in this country and in our society from its very foundation.

In the book, of course, we center on Dr. Nixon and African Americans in Texas and the states of the former Confederacy. We also look at language minorities like Spanish speakers in Texas and Arizona and other states who really only came into full political participation in the 1970s with the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act that included allowances for language minorities. But you add to that those who were indigenous to this land long before Europeans came to our shores, long before there was a North Dakota or a Texas for that matter.

And here you have a population that has never really fully, at least within the confines of the United States of America, been able to exercise self-determination, full sovereignty, or even until very, very recently, the ability to freely and fairly participate in our elections or run for elected office for that matter. So I think this message of those who have patiently and yet persistently dedicated their lives to winning the franchise and then using that to further expand it for others who've been left behind or counted out or forgotten altogether is critically important. And it's part of the reason that I'm coming to Minot to have this conversation where I want to share what I've learned in the writing and research for this book, but I'm also there to listen and learn from those who have a lot to share and teach me.

And I'm fully expecting this conversation about those who are native to the land and those who have so much to offer this country and their communities, but historically have literally not been able to through law or custom in this country.

Ashley Thornberg

What do you already know about the unique challenges facing in particular, again, the people living on reservations or have close ties to reservations? There are some issues about the way that addresses are listed or the way that tribal IDs are issued.

Beto O'Rourke

Those are really good examples of how pernicious voter suppression can be. You know, the example I gave you earlier, 1923, the state legislature in Texas says, if you're Black, you cannot vote, literally in Black and white, no euphemisms involved. Well, today, that voter suppression comes in different form.

It may be a voter ID law that on its face seems to make common sense, but when you look at who has access to the approved kinds of ID, you begin to realize how these voter ID laws shape the electorate to keep those who are in power, in power, perpetually, unless those laws change. When you look at where voting locations are, in Texas, there have been more than 700 polling places closed over the last 10 years, most of those in the fastest growing Black and brown neighborhoods in the state of Texas. What I know from listening to those in other states is that when we're looking at Indigenous people in America, their access to ID, their access to a convenient polling location is very different from that of someone like me here in El Paso, Texas, or those who are favored within the electorate.

Part of the genius of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a committed intent, not just to remove barriers like poll taxes or literacy tests that have prevented people from voting, but to proactively make it easier for those who had functionally been drawn out of the franchise before. To the spirit of your question, that work is very urgent at this moment. It's not like we fixed it in 1965.

In fact, in 2013, in the Supreme Court decision, Shelby versus Holder, much of the essence of the Voting Rights Act was gutted in that decision, freeing states to further disenfranchise populations, again, who had been pushed at least politically and civically to the margins to keep them there, to stop any threat from those who currently hold power from having to face any kind of real opposition. And so this fight for voting rights is not an academic one. It's not an abstraction.

It's very much connected to what we want to see in our lives. I'll give you an example. Visiting reservations throughout New Mexico, which is our border state here in Texas and very close to where I lived in El Paso, the quality of the infrastructure, and I'm talking about roads, drainage, water, and importantly, schools, is so substandard.

It is not found anywhere else that I've been to in the United States of America. And I live in one of the poorest urban counties in the United States. And yet the quality of infrastructure and investment that we see is significantly higher than what I was seeing as I traveled throughout New Mexico.

That is absolutely connected to the right to vote and the exercise of that right. If those in power don't fear those they are supposed to serve, then those whom they're supposed to serve will never get their fair share of the resources or representation that they deserve. That is the very real world connection to this otherwise ethereal idea of democracy and the right to vote.

We don't just want it because it's our right here in this country. We want it because, as the subtitle of the book tries to explain, it makes everything else possible. Anything that you want to achieve in a society that's organized as a democracy, meaning that we will peacefully, non-violently determine our fate, our future, our fortune together.

If you don't bring everybody in, then some people, and again, these are the folks who've traditionally been pushed to the margins, are going to continue to receive the short end of the stick. So focusing on restoring these voting rights at a national level is an absolute imperative if we want to see conditions and quality of life improve for everyone in this country.

Ashley Thornberg

The book has a lot of historical examples, but we have already in 2024 heard AI voices and seen AI generated campaign videos. What are you watching in terms of technology and upcoming elections?

Beto O'Rourke

What I've learned in my time in politics, going back to run for the city council in El Paso or running for Congress or other races that I've been part of, either where I'm the candidate or I'm supporting another candidate, is there's absolutely nothing that beats in-person connection. Literally knocking on someone's door and having that face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball, human-to-human connection that is profound and transformative. It doesn't always go well, right?

Like you can knock on someone's door and they are not having it, or they're not excited about you, or they belong to another political party and they don't want to have the conversation. But I have been so surprised over the years, no matter that I've done this tens of thousands of times, how beautiful a connection I can make when I show the common courtesy and deep respect of meeting somebody literally where they are. And it has been key to any kind of political success that I've had over the years.

And my belief is that any technology, whether it's talking to somebody on the phone or texting them or broadcasting a message on social media, or as you bring up, somehow trying to slip under the radar using AI, those are all poor substitutes for the real thing. And my hunch is no matter how alluring or effective these new technologies might seem, no matter how disturbing they are to so many of us, if we will keep our eyes on the prize and stay focused on being with people literally in community. And that's what we're going to be doing tonight in Minot at Main Street Books, literally in the same room where we can all see one another and where the conversation is flowing in both directions.

It's not someone talking to or down to others. It's everyone having a conversation together. Man, if we need anything in this country right now, we need that at a time that we are so polarized, so divided.

And not because that's inherent to who we are. I really feel like the algorithms and social media and the siloing of cable TV and all the other things going on in our lives have really produced this dynamic that doesn't feel natural. And yet the only way you overcome it is showing up literally and being with people.

And so that's why I'm going to Minot. And my hunch is that Minot, like El Paso, where I live, is a place where you don't often see folks who are trying to carry a national message or who are campaigning across the country or who are trying to drum up support or to engage in a conversation about what matters to this country. Our communities very often are the ones that are overlooked or are taken for granted.

And just an interesting coincidence, you know, many years ago, in fact, 30 years ago, I was touring the country in a punk rock band. And one of the places that we played was Minot, North Dakota, at the Minot Cultural Center. And I just remember what a beautiful show that was.

And here were four kids from El Paso who were playing to a bunch of kids in Minot, North Dakota. But for that music, that community, the fact that we were literally showing up and connecting with folks where they were, never would have had that experience. And it's just wild to me that 30 years later, in 2024, I'll be back in Minot and hopefully getting to see some of the same people who were there at that show back in 94.

Ashley Thornberg

Let's talk about the through line there, coming in the ‘90s as a drummer in a post-hardcore punk band, Foss, and also, having once been a member of the computer hacker group, Cult of the Dead Cow, and tricking producers of a public access TV show in Texas that you were part of a Christian band and doing all of these things that are sort of subverting authority. What's the through line? You made it to the U.S. House of Representatives. You ran for president. You launched a campaign.

Beto O'Rourke

The beautiful thing to me about punk rock is that it allowed us to get past what was supposed to be, you know, popular culture. You know, this was in the 1980s and the 1990s, you know, pre-internet, it was what they served you on the radio or what was available to you in the big box record stores. And going to my first punk rock show here in El Paso at a place called Sound Seas and seeing bands, you know, comprised of kids who were roughly my same age, but they were writing their own songs, putting out their own records, booking their own tour.

It absolutely was the most exciting thing in the world. And the messages in the songs about, you know, not having to accept the world as you find it or, you know, as your parents tell you it has to be, but asking these really uncomfortable questions and getting past, you know, corporate rock and roll or corporate politics for that matter was really foundational for me. And there is a through line.

I mean, as I travel the country in this book tour in the very first place that I'm stopping is Minot, North Dakota, but I'll be going to 20 different cities over 20 days following that, doing this, you know, essentially on my own. I'll just be in a car going from one place to the next and just kind of dependent on the kindness of strangers and the luck of the road. That very much reminds me of touring the country with the guys in FOSS back in 94, as does, you know, so much of the message that comes through in this book and so much of the way that I've tried to be involved in politics, you know, rejecting the corporate side of this, rejecting what we're supposed to do and the way that we're supposed to do it and trying to find a much more direct, intimate connection with the people that I want to represent or serve, you know, listening to them in open-ended town hall meetings across Texas, across America for that matter.

That's really the spirit of it that carries through. And so, you know, I try to stay grounded in that. I try to not lose sight of that.

And remembering where I came from and how I came up is a big part of that.

Ashley Thornberg

Remembering where you came from, I'm struck by an interview quote that you once gave to the Texas Observer talking about the El Paso of your youth. There's nothing dangerous. There was no energy.

There was no risk. But in the book, you describe El Paso and the sister city in Mexico of Juarez as united, not divided by the Rio Grande. This is a place about new beginnings, new starts, new creation.

Is this a both and or has your perspective changed as you've aged, as you have gone from punk rocker to politician?

Beto O'Rourke

You know, I wonder if my story is not unlike the story of kids all over the country. You know, you grow up where you're born and it's all, you know, and you're just excited to see the rest of the world. And for me, you know, having discovered punk rock and, you know, reading the punk rock Bible at the time, which was a magazine called Maximum Rock and Roll.

And at the back of Maximum Rock and Roll, you'd see the tour dates for all your favorite punk rock bands. And you'd see them play, you know, Tucson, Arizona on Tuesday and Austin, Texas on Thursday. And you knew that they had to be passing through El Paso on Wednesday.

But so many of those bands didn't stop here because, you know, maybe the scene wasn't super organized. You know, maybe they didn't think they could make much money on it. For me, you know, just monomaniacally focused on music.

I wanted to be where the action and energy and the excitement was. And for me, that ended up being New York. And I was lucky enough to get there, you know, before CBGB closed its doors, you know, to see all these bands that I've been listening to and ordering their records and see them in person.

It was just incredibly thrilling. But then I moved back to El Paso in 1998 and, you know, just felt this draw, you know, to be close to my folks and to be back home again. But, you know, to your question, I really do think I saw it with new eyes and just, you know, had this epiphany like, oh, my God, I don't think I understood how lucky I was to grow up here.

There's no other place on the planet where two cities from two countries with two peoples speaking two different languages and two cultures come together in this one place.

To also have a chance to tell our community's story in the face of the lies that you're hearing about the border being this, you know, death trap or war zone, when El Paso is actually one of the safest cities in America. And I'd argue it's one of the safest, not despite, but because it's a city of immigrants. One out of every four people who live in this city were born somewhere else.

And how lucky are we that they chose this community to make their stand and to raise their families, to start a business, to do whatever they are doing. And part of the reason it is so important that I tell this story, and it actually figures in this book, We've Got to Try, is that when we fail to tell our own story, others will tell it for us. And Trump, talking about invasion and all the awful animals, again his word, and criminals who are coming to get us, inspired somebody in 2019 to bring an AK-47 into a Walmart in El Paso and to slaughter 23 people there in a matter of minutes.

And when he was finally arrested by police, he said that he came to kill Mexicans. He came to repel the invasion of Hispanics who were taking over the state of Texas. Those were his words.

So the stories we tell about ourselves and the way we understand one another, again going back to the conversation you and I had earlier about voting rights and democracy, it's not academic. It's not an abstraction. It has real world and literally life and death implications.

And so telling this story and reminding people that this isn't an invasion, that we're a country of immigrants, that we can handle this. We're the greatest country on the planet and we're great because we're comprised of the people of the planet. And we've got to find and we will find a way to make it work.

That all comes down to El Paso and Juarez and my life experience here. And I'm fully hoping that will be part of the conversation that we have tonight in Minot.

Ashley Thornberg

And again, that conversation starts at 5 p.m. at Main Street Books. We're visiting today with Beto O'Rourke about his book, We've Got to Try, how the fight for voting rights makes everything else possible. Beto, thank you so much for your time today.