Beto O’Rourke, a former U.S. representative (D-Texas) and presidential candidate, spoke to the American University community about voting rights, gun control and the role of young people in U.S. politics on Tuesday.
The event was moderated by School of Public Affairs professor Ron Elving and was hosted by the Kennedy Political Union in partnership with AU College Democrats and the AU chapter of March For Our Lives.
O’Rourke, who lost the Texas U.S. Senate election to incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 by a historically small margin, first spoke about how his home state was impacted by a winter storm in February, which resulted in an energy crisis leading to nearly 200 deaths and millions without power. The crisis was avoidable, he said.
“Texas, the energy capital of North America, was unable to ensure that you could keep the lights on, the heat running, the water flowing in your home, and dozens of people died of hypothermia in their homes,” he said.
In addition to the failure of power grids, government ineptitude caused Texans to suffer, O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke also spoke about his grassroots organization Powered By People, which he founded to increase voter registration and engagement in Texas. The organization also helped struggling Texans during the storm, including connecting people to warming centers, providing food and water and checking up on elderly neighbors.
Another key issue O’Rourke spoke about was gun control. To prevent shootings, such as the one in his hometown of El Paso in 2019, protections must be put in place, he said.
“Not only should we have universal background checks and extreme risk protection orders and banning the sale of assault weapons,” he said. “But if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, … then we must also buy those weapons back, and make sure that no American civilian owns a weapon of war.”
To conclude the event, O’Rourke spoke about voting rights in the U.S., and how accessible voting is crucial to democracy as a whole.
What many experts call voter suppression legislation in states such as Georgia and Texas, which have made it more difficult for college students and elderly residents to vote, has garnered criticism recently.
O’Rourke spoke about his actions against this legislation as well as his faith in young people to fight against it. It is going to take a “catalyst,” O’Rourke said, to call attention to this issue and to make people aware of its urgency.
“It is going to call for leadership from those young people, who at every turn of greatness for America have been in the vanguard and produced the change that this country has always been waiting for,” he said.