BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – Packed coffee houses and sandwich shops in Lee County were the springboard of a national news cycle introducing Beto O’Rourke to the 2020 Presidential race, as well as to the state of Iowa.
O’Rourke, a Democrat from Texas who garnered national fame by nearly knocking off Ted Cruz for the U.S. Senate last year, stepped out of the shadows of that slim 2.6% defeat back into the national spotlight with a campaign he says is for “all the people”.
O’Rourke, in three different Lee County campaign stops Thursday morning, repeated what will assuredly be a stump message going forward that he doesn’t care what party you’re from, he’s running for everyone. He served in the House of Representatives for six years from 2013 – 2019.
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“This setting right now, the very first event of our campaign for president, is an example of not only the way I wish to campaign across this country for every single American, and I could care less your party, persuasion, your religion, anything other than the fact that we are all Americans and human beings and we do everything within our power for one another, for this great country, and for every generation that follows us. This is democracy,” O’Rourke said to applause from the packed house at Lost Canvas in Keokuk Tuesday morning.
O’Rourke hit all the heavy Democratic issues including abortion, universal health care, gun control, and alternative energy with the crowd in Keokuk and at a later lunch gathering with a packed Sub-Arena Sandwich Shop in Fort Madison.
With national media outlets in tow in Keokuk and Fort Madison, O’Rourke was able to peel away for a 90-minute visit to Fort Madison High School.
O’Rourke took a quick tour of the school and chatted with trades instructor Clint Kobelt, Spanish teacher Ryan Smith, Science teacher Mike Rieck, and welding instructor Jim King. He also randomly popped into a few classrooms to wave to students.
He questioned Kobelt and King about how the school’s vocational programs are having an impact on jobs and careers for the students and whether programs are in place for certification.
O’Rourke said partnerships between high schools and community colleges around the country is just one way to help reduce the staggering $1.3 trillion in student loan debt in America.
“I would like to see more high schools partner with community colleges to offer certification tracks. And this goes right to what Mr. King said in their welding class. He kept saying over and over, “Debt Free”. These programs lead to careers where jobs are available and there is no debt.”
But O’Rourke also told students in Mike Ehlers’ government class that the country needs to take steps to make college debt easier to manage so people can move forward in productive lives.
The Texas native, who was visiting Iowa for the first time, told about 100 people at SubArena that guaranteed health care, including health care for veterans and those “other than honorably discharged” will be a topic of his campaign as well.
“Whatever that expense, I guarantee you it is a hell of a lot less than what we pay to lose the people in our lives… to lose the productivity of Americans who are now well enough to go to work,” he said “Let’s make sure we spread those costs out more equitably. The dividends we receive on the investment we make in the health care of one another will more than pay for the cost up front.”
The 46-year-old father of three from El Paso, said he hopes the campaign can be run without the personal attacks of the past and said any candidate in the pool of 13 that have announced candidacies would be a better choice than President Trump.
“It is critically important that we not denigrate or demean any other candidate. Don’t talk about their personal issues,” he said. “Every single Democrat running today, and I may not be able to enumerate every single one of them, will be far better than the current occupants of the White House.”
Janice Sportsman, of Fort Madison, said she was impressed with O’Rourke.
“I think he did a very good job and engaged with the people here. He’s young with good thoughts on things. We need someone young with good ideas and not being afraid to share them,” Sportsman said.
Owen Gach, a Republican from Burlington who attends the University of Northern Iowa, said he travels around to listen to candidates from different parties so he can get a feel for the issues and learn more about the direction of the country.
“I think it was a good conversation,” Gach said. “I’m a Republican, but I like listening to other people’s view on bipartisan issues. That way I have a better idea on who I will support.”
Russell Townes of Fort Madison said he was happy to have a national candidate come to Fort Madison, especially the day he announced he was running for president.
“It’s nice really, to be recognized by a bigger name candidate. It shows we’re important in the election process,” he said. “Fort Madison is fairly older population and we have concerns that need to be heard.”
Just before leaving for Burlington, when asked why he chose to announce in Lee County, in a state he’d never visited before, O’Rourke said it didn’t make sense to announce in a red state like Texas.
“The people of southeast Iowa are the type of people we need to start this campaign with. They have a history of influence in presidential campaigns and we were thrilled to be able to start here today,” he said.
When pressed on the issue of trade, specifically China, O’Rourke said Trump’s goal with China is sound, but his methods are not the way of a world leader.
He said Trump has alienated every single trading partner the U.S. has, and then confronted one of the largest economies in the world.
“It’s the largest market for soybeans, for corn, for what we produce in Iowa and Texas. I want us to be successful in holding China accountable. I want to make sure we are as competitive as possible for what we grow and produce in the United States. In order to do that, we have to bring to bear every ally we have.”
In Fort Madison, O’Rourke answered a question about public school teachers and where the country should step in. He said more needs to be done to make sure teachers have just one job – educating our children, not two or even three jobs that some teachers in Texas are holding down to just to make ends meet.
“Our educators need a true living wage so they can focus on one job, as well as a providing a health care system they can depend on, and our retired teachers can afford a life of dignity,” he said.
At all the events, O’Rourke pushed the issue of climate change and said the world has about 12 years to take “incredibly bold action” to save the planet.
“It’s only a matter of degrees,” he said. “Along this trajectory, there will be people who can no longer live in the cities they call home today. There is food grown in this country that will no longer prosper in these soils. We’ll have mass migrations of 100s of millions of people from lands that are inhabitable today, that will be under water.”
“This is our final chance. Scientists are absolutely unanimous on this. We have no more than 12 years to take incredibly bold action on this crisis. “
After leaving Fort Madison’s Sub-Arena, O’Rourke headed to Burlington for another opening day rally at a coffee shop downtown.