Beto O'Rourke-- What Leadership Sounds Like
While the whole blogosphere was exploding Tuesday over the major NY Times editorial, Mitt Romney, Class Warrior, Blue America was showcasing the antidote to the kind of bigoted self-interest displayed in the Romney Campaign-- the next generation of American political leadership. Our guest was Beto O'Rourke, the 39 year old City Councilman from El Paso who came out of the blue-- deep blue-- and defeated longtime incumbent Silvestre Reyes in the Democratic primary and is now poised to bring his reform agenda to a place that needs it even more than El Paso ever did: Washington, DC.
A fourth generation El Pasoan, a major motivation of Beto's for running for Congress was to cut through the crap holding up comprehensive immigration reform. "So much of our national public policy regarding the border, Mexico, immigration, etc is based on fear and misinformation," he told us. "There’s a great story to tell about the border and our positive impact on the country, and I’d like to help tell it." He'll be an articulate and persuasive advocate for a 21st Century look at an aspect of national policy that needs to be completely revamped. And that isn't all Beto would like to see revamped. Another of his priority issues in education policy-- and he didn't hold back when asked about No Child Left Behind and the Chicago strike.
NCLB in concept is a well intentioned effort to improve outcomes in public education, hold districts, principals and teachers accountable, and use federal oversight and incentives to get some positive movement in our mediocre global educational rankings.
In practice it is a disaster. High-stakes testing has caused us to prioritize test taking and test prep to the exclusion of those things education should be about. I knocked on 16,000 doors in the primary campaign-- met hundreds of teachers-- most all of whom told me that “this is not why I got into teaching.” It’s destroyed motivation, demoralized teachers, students and parents and made it harder for us to foster a life-long love of learning in the children we’re bringing up. It’s also invited fraud by administrators (our superintendent recently pled guilty to manipulating test scores so he could earn higher bonuses), cynicism from the public and disappointment when it comes to improving outcomes.
I spoke to a high school sophomore the other day who told me she’s reading the abridged version of the Odyssey. It’s one of the great, foundational works of western culture and literature, personally one of my favorite stories of all time (we named our son Ulysses). Abridged? Why?
Her answer was that because the teacher needs to devote extra days to standardized test preparation, there isn’t time to read and discuss the full book. What are our priorities?
So I’m not a big fan of NCLB-- I think we need to recognize its failure, scrap it and move on. I’d like to see federal education resources focused on early childhood education, on recruiting math and science teachers and on making college affordable.
Chicago? It’s a great conversation about accountability and what we expect out of the classroom and from our teachers. I’d like to think the union and the city administration are both trying to get to the same place-- better outcomes for the kids who live there. I favor allowing for more creativity and flexibility from teachers, helping them with resources to work on character, long-term values like discipline, and encouraging them to develop a life-long love of learning in the kids in their classes. Those things matter more to me than accountability through tests. There was a great program on this weekend’s This American Life on the subject.
He was similarly outspoken on Afghanistan and on the Military Industrial Complex. There's no need to guess where he stands; he's not that kind of political leader:
I recently saw Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight, which does an excellent job of putting this in perspective-- starting with Eisenhower’s valedictory speech which includes his famous warning about the military industrial complex. We’ve unfortunately ignored his advice and allowed an armaments industry to dominate much of our thinking when it comes to foreign policy.
Right now we spend nearly half of the world’s military budget-- this is just unsustainable. We cannot continue to be a great world power by meeting nearly every problem with a military solution. Example: crime and instability in Mexico (due in large part to our consumption of illegal drugs in the U.S.)? Answer: the $1.4 billion Plan Merida, which takes U.S. taxpayer dollars to buy Bell and Black Hawk helicopters for Mexico, among other things. Is that really going to help?
Let’s prioritize our objectives and our spending. Let’s do a better job supporting our soldiers and our veterans instead of funding arms makers for projects and systems for which even the Department of Defense has no need. We're quick to make military commitments, to find the resources to fight and fund conflicts all over the world, but incompetent when it comes to taking care of our soldiers when they return. I’d like to be part of a Congress that will set out priorities in order.
And when it comes to Afghanistan, it’s time for our soldiers to come home, now.
El Paso is a very blue city and his district votes very Democratic. But many of the people are Catholic and socially conservative. That doesn't stop him from advocating pro-Choice and pro-equality stands. In response to questions on both topics, he was, to put it mildly, unapologetic. On marriage equality:
This is an example of an issue that might not be politically convenient (at least in my district), but one on which it's important to lay out my values and make a case for why civil rights are worth fighting for.
I think people in El Paso appreciate the honesty and the fact that I've got the courage of my convictions-- even if they don't always agree with my conclusions.
I think this is a federal issue, one that we must move forward on, and one that we'll look back on in 10 years and wonder why it took us so long.
One last thing-- I'm proud of EP's commitment to civil rights and our progress on issues like this one-- 50 years ago we were the first city in the former Confederacy to desegregate public places.
...[Women's health and equality were] was a big issue during the primary campaign. Our current congressman had voted to de-fund Title X and opposed a woman's right to choose.
Of course now I'm running against a Tea Party Republican who is even more regressive when it comes to women's issues.
Digby and John double-teamed him on the economy and the whole idea of an Obama-Boehner Grand Bargain.
It’s impossible to cut our way out of the economic doldrums that we’re in. The immediate priority is creating jobs. We need to invest in our country and in our communities, like El Paso, if we’re going to make that happen. Infrastructure, schools, teachers, public works projects and investment in R&D for the technologies that will allow us to continue to be the world’s leading economy. I understand that over the long term we have to pay down our debt-- but we can’t hobble the economy now through tax cuts and austerity and hope to have the resources in the future to pay it.
Having said that, I realize that there will have to be some level of compromise to move forward, to avoid having our credit rating downgraded (again) and to allow this country to move past the edge of recession and back into full growth and job creation.
Let’s scrutinize every department, program and budget-- I’m confident we’ll find places to trim, programs that can be delivered more efficiently. Let’s put every tax break, incentive, loophole on the table-- I know that we can rethink how we subsidize and incentivize industry and special interests in this country.
But a solution of tax cuts and austerity is a non starter.
...Digby: We're running short of time, but I'm interested at some point in hearing how you think progressives should approach "pragmatism" in a Congress that's largely made up of screaming right wing lunatics. In other words, how does one negotiate with crazy people and avoid moving ever further to their side?
Beto: That's the hardest question asked today.
I think we learned from the President, that if you start your negotiations in the middle, you can only move farther to the right. You must start at your highest, most principled position and negotiate from there. For ex: on immigration-- why do we start with the false choice that you can have security or mobility? Why did the President feel that he needed to make record-level deportations before he could work on reform? Why not first articulate the values behind reform, make the case to your party, to the Congress and to the American people, and negotiate from a position of moral and political strength?
But again, it's easy for me to say that from the outside. The tough thing is to go in with a principled position and come out with a policy that matches it.
This is our future... if not Beto, it's going to be more of the same crap, whether Eric Cantor and Louie Gohmert and Allen West or Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Steve Israel and Joseph Crowley. Please consider making a contribution to Beto's grassroots campaign here. And while you're donating to Beto's campaign, here's Randy Newman's new song. He's dreaming of a white President: