Beto Effin’ O’Rourke: On running for Senate with the expletive undeleted

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke campaigns at UT on Friday September 22, 2017, for a seat in the U.S. Senate. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Good Monday Austin:

That’s Hiram Garcia, a UT student who is interning for Beto O’Rourk’e Senate campaign, after an appearance Friday by O’Rourke in the auditorium at the UT Student Activity Center sponsored by the Tejas Club.

Like O’Rourke, Garcia is from El Paso.

El Paso is central to O’Rourke’ identity and his campaign.

And so, soon after he took the stage Friday, he exulted about his hometown.


So I am raising my kiddos in the same place where I was raised, a place that really I took for granted growing up.

I didn’t recognize or understand, because I had no point of comparison just how f*****g amazing El Paso, Texas, is, in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, at an average elevation of about 3,700 hundred feet, at a place where three states – New Mexico, Texas and Chihuahua – all come together, at a point where two nations, two languages, two cultures, two histories come together and form one people in this incredibly  beautiful, important place that should be more of an example for the rest of the country.

You may or may not know this, El Paso is one of the, if not the safest cities in the United State of America today, and I tell my surprised colleagues, Republicans and Democrats alike, in the Congress, that that is not spite of the fact, but in large part because of the fact – and the people in El Paso know this – we are and always have been a community of immigrants.

I asked Garcia about O’Rourke’s language, and he explained that it was evidence of his unscripted authenticity.

It may also have something to do with O’Rourke’s background in Foss, a successful punk band – an experience that, like his upbringing in El Paso, informs his political attitude and the DIY way he is running his campaign.

(Note: Beto’s middle initial is F, but that is not for Effin’ but for Francis, the same as his father and his father’s father.)

From Dan Solomon writing recenlty at Splinter: If This Punk-Rock Democrat Can Win in Texas, Maybe We’re Not Totally Screwed

O’Rourke spent his formative years in the city’s punk rock scene, playing in and watching bands whose members included people like Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who would later be the lead singer of the breakthrough hardcore band At The Drive In and the mid-2000’s arena rock smash The Mars Volta.

O’Rourke and Bixler-Zavala played music together in a band called Foss—O’Rourke on guitar and vocals, Bixler-Zavala on drums—and toured the U.S. and Canada in the summers, while O’Rourke pursued his undergraduate degree at Columbia.

Bixler-Zavala credits O’Rourke with turning him on to punk rock touring. O’Rourke, he says, gave him his first copy of Book Your Own Fucking Life, the DIY touring bible. “He introduced me to that whole subculture—he taught me all the ropes of that,” Bixler-Zavala says. “Yet at the same time, he didn’t even know what he was doing. He was winging it.”

The punk rock thing is a big part of O’Rourke’s story. On the way to Burnet, after we start talking music, a staffer tries to impress him by talking about the drum kit he still has at his mom’s house. O’Rourke played in bands in college, and again when he returned to El Paso in 1998. As he began to enter public life, though, it was harder to remain an underground punk rock dude. When he was just a guy who ran a web design company and a local arts and culture website, that was fine.

When he started to pursue politics—first with the El Paso City Council, to which he was elected in 2005, and then in his congressional run—aspects of his past became a liability. He’d been arrested for burglary after tripping an alarm while jumping a fence at the University of Texas-El Paso in 1995, and again for a DWI three years later. (He wasn’t convicted on either charge.)

But he’s proud of his punk days. In the truck, he brightens immediately when I ask him about Bixler-Zavala. He tells me about being at a birthday party for Bixler-Zavala’s kid with his family. He thumbs through his phone for a minute, looking for a photo of himself with a few At The Drive In guys and their kids. (He can’t find it, but offers to send it to me—“Maybe that’ll be interesting?”) It’s clear, talking to O’Rourke, that until pretty recently—probably until he started raising millions in his bid to unseat Ted Cruz—the fact that he was friends with rock stars before they were famous has been one of the cooler things in his life.

O’Rourke talks about his music career on the stump sometimes. At an event in San Antonio in April, he went on a five-minute riff about how “punk rock, at its best, was just stripping down all the corporate rock I was hearing on the radio in the 1980s and getting down to its most basic roots.” That includes, in addition to not hiring pollsters or consultants, taking a Bernie-like approach to fundraising, rejecting all SuperPAC funds, and focusing exclusively on contributions from individual donors. Between April and July, he raised $2.1 million, $500,000 more than Cruz raised in the same time span.

This all fits neatly into the figure O’Rourke presents.

“We’re connecting with people in a very direct way, booking our own tour,” he says of the trip he’s on right now. “I listened to 70’s FM radio with my dad, and when I came of age, there was something wrong with rock and roll, and I didn’t realize it until someone took me to my first punk rock show. It was, ‘Holy shit!’” He was 15 years old, and he pauses to drop Bixler-Zavala’s name again, talks about watching the future rock star at 13 years old play Misfits covers.

 “I got into punk rock because the corporate stuff didn’t get me going,” he says. “When you look at the DNC or the RNC or national politics, it’s corporate rock and roll. The songs sound familiar, but it’s really glossed and produced, and has very little soul to it. Maybe no soul at all.” It’s felt so good, he says, “to do this in as raw a way as possible.”

After his UT appearance Friday, O’Rourke was interviewed by Daily Texan Editor-in-Chief Laura Hallas, and a little bit past the nine-minute mark, Hallas asks about his history as a punk musician and how it informs and guides his Senate candidacy, and how his role in Foss was less about his musicianship, which he said was minimal, and more about his role in figuring out the logistics of becoming a band, touring and selling themselves in very much the same way he is now going about running for Senate.

On Saturday, I did a 20-minute interview with O’Rourke during the Texas Tribune Festival as a kind of warm-up for his main event interview with the master, Tribune co-founder and CEO Evan Smith.

The interview makes up the last 20 minutes of this livestream from O’Rourke’s Facebook page. I obviously don’t know what I’m doing and am barely audible. But you can mostly hear O’Rourke, and below are a few key passages.

I read back to O’Rourke something he had told the Daily Texans’ Hallas the day before:

If it ever gets too slick, too produced, too corporate rock and roll, then we’ve lost the magic of what we’re doing.

I asked him to explain corporate rock and roll, in the political context.

When I was growing up, interested in music, transitioning from my parents’ Beatles albums to what was on the radio in the early 1980s, there was this disconnect that I couldn’t really explain or understand until somebody took me to my first punk rock show and I saw rock and roll stripped down to its bare bones and essence and people just telling their stories and sharing their songs with other people in the most honest, direct way, and that just changed my life forever, writing my own songs, touring with my own punk band, turning out our own records.

And I feel like politics has gotten like that today, very corporate, it’s literally driven by corporations and special interests funding the major candidates and major parties and there’s a reason why people feel so disconnected and frustrated and anxious with politics and the state of our democracy. It’s no longer honest. There’s no longer a direct connection They no longer feel that those in positions of public trust are accountable and responsive.

So we’ve thrown out the corporate playbook in politics. We’re just trying to make this as open and direct as we possibly can. So, no pollsters, no focus groups, no political action committees, no special interests, no corporations, our fate is 100 percent with the people of Texas, and we will trust the people of Texas to make this decision, but we are going to make sure we get in front of every single person in Texas that we can to ensure they make an informed decision.

That feels like real rock and roll, going from town to town, sharing our story, listening to those in the communities we visit, learning from that. It’s kept us energized, inspired, fueled to make the drive to the next place, and we will continue to do that for the next 14 months.

I noted that as is the case for O’Rourke, the personal is political for rival Ted Cruz as well.

I read to O’Rourke from this account of an interview Cruz did with CBS This Morning  right after he announced for president in March 2015.

 … he “grew up listening to classic rock” but that that soon changed.

“My music taste changed on 9/11,” Cruz said..

“I actually intellectually find this very curious, but on 9/11, I didn’t like how rock music responded,” he said. “And country music, collectively, the way they responded, it resonated with me.”

Cruz’s comments came during a lightning round of interviews the morning after he announced his candidacy for president in 2016 in a John Lennon-inspired, “Imagine”-themed speech.

Cruz did not mention any specific country music that resonated with him or which rock artists did not respond well to the terror attacks.

“I had an emotional reaction that said, ‘These are my people,’” Cruz said. “So ever since 2001, I listen to country music.”

I asked O’Rourke for his reaction.


I respect people’s personal music decisions. As they say, there’s no accounting for taste. There are things that turn us on, that move us, that allow us to connect with something bigger than just ourselves. Music is a great way to do that.

You know I was born and raised on the Beatles, really kind of found my own voice listening to punk rock, love, love Bob Dylan and had a couple of chances to see him when he came to El Paso. Bob Dylan is the essence of punk rock in a lot of ways.


I just love Willie Nelson. I love that Willie Nelson after his shows stays around to meet and greet and shake the hands of everyone that comes out.


I love Waylon Jennings, love Johnny Cash, love the music that has come out of this country because it tells the story of this country. There’s no one form of popular music that does it any better than any other form.

I love punk rock and talk about it a lot because that helped shape me.

O’Rourke talked about being in Rockport after Harvey and hearing stories about how there was this tailer  serving BBQ to first responders and it was only later they learned it had been the Josh Abbott band.


I’m open to all music and happy for Ted Cruz.

But was he offended by rock music’s reaction to 9/11?


I was not offended by rock music’s reaction to 9/11. Thanks for asking.

I asked O’Rourke about his use of profanity on the stump and told him what Hiram Garcia had told me.

I noted that Hillary Clinton now wonders in retrospect whether, when Trump loomed menacingly behind her at one of the presidential debates, she should have turned, looked him in the eye and said, ‘Back up, you creep, get away from me.”

Maybe, I suggested, if Hillary Clinton had turned to Trump and said, “Back up you effin’ creep,” she might be president today.

I asked whether his own use of profanity was a bit of calculated authenticity.


No, it’s a terrible lack of discipline on my part. And, Amy (O’Rourke’s wife) has tried to help me, and friends have tried to help me, gently suggesting that I not swear so much.

I grew up raised by a world-class swearer in my dad, Pat O’Rourke, who made up so many incredible amalgamations of four-letter words that he could string together, and those are part of my consciousness and maybe my DNA, so when I am passionate, if I’m angry, if I’m frustrated, if I’m excited about talking about El Paso, introducing the concept of one of the most amazing places anywhere in the world that most people don’t know enough about, sometimes that will slip out.

And at home, my nine-year-old daughter, Molly, started a program whereby every time I swore I had to put a dollar into a jar and she’s going to be filthy rich by the time this campaign is over because, as hard as I try, , if I’m honest, and I at least want to be hotness  and if I’m direct, and I always try to do that, then I’m just going to tell you what’s on my mind and you’ve seen me enough times to know I don’t have a standard stump speech, there is not a three-point plan that I roll out at every event. I feel like I owe you all at least my candor, my honesty, letting you know exactly what’s on my mind. I remember sitting in the same seats that you’re sitting in, listening to someone like me before, feeling like I was being sold. I just never want you to have that feeling and sometimes a consequence of that is the language gets a little bit colorful.

I asked if he wanted to finish with a Pat O’Rourke riff.


Amy’s shaking her head no. I want you to all use your imagination.

From Tessa Stuart at Rolling Stone earlier this month: Beto O’Rourke: Ted Cruz’s Punk-Rock Problem
How a progressive congressman – and former bassist – from El Paso is threatening to unseat the Senate’s most hated Republican

As we drive away, O’Rourke says the party reminded him of the kind he attended as a kid with his dad, Pat Francis, a beloved Democratic politician in his own right. “We’d be in someone’s backyard watching the Reagan-Mondale debates and everyone is drinking beer,” he says. “I just remember there being this energy and excitement around politics.” Pat, who died in a bicycle accident in 2001, served eight years as an elected official in El Paso, and was Texas co-chair for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. Today, O’Rourke says of his father, “He just couldn’t give a shit who he pissed off. If he knew it was the right thing to do, he was gonna do it.”

During his interview a little while later with Evan Smith, Evan asked him to talk about his father and he choked up.

Smith also asked O’Rourke about his “youthful indiscretions.”

“You know that somewhere, right now, the Cruz campaign is recruiting actors  on Craig’s List who are tall and have floppy hair to play you in the re-enactment of the breaking and entering,” Smit said.

At around the 42-minute mark, O’Rourke recounts what happened in some detail.

“I absolutely have made mistakes, and some of them are very grave. I think people are owed that story and should make a decision based on the complete story.”

And then, in what was today’s Quote to Note in the Texas Tribune’s The Brief:

I really f***ed up, and I really made a huge mistake, but look at what I’ve been able to do in my life since then.

After his interview with Evan Smith, O’Rourke did On the Media, the NPR newsmagazine hosted by  Brooke Gladstone, along with Rep. Will Hurd, the Helotes Republican with whom O’Rourke, last March, went on a much celebrated and mostly live-streamed bipartisan San Antonio-to-D.C. road trip.

Finally here, are Beto and Amy back on the road post TribFest, listening to KRock 101.7.

It starts off with the tail end of Rush doing Freewill.

You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose freewill

And then it’s Elton John and Rocket Man, which, if things blow up between President Trump and his Rocket Man in North Korea, may end up a rueful requiem for a ruined planet.


Author: Jonathan Tilove

Jonathan Tilove is the Statesman's chief political writer. He was a Washington correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 2008 to 2012. Before that he covered race and immigration issues for Newhouse News Service for 18 years.

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