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COVER STORY: You Beto Believe  

O’Rourke talks LGBTQ rights and more in an exclusive interview.

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On a clear evening a few days before Labor Day weekend, a long line stretched around the block outside the Warehouse Live nightclub in Houston’s EaDo neighborhood.

As people in the young, energetic crowd waited to go through security, it may have appeared as though the club was hosting some major musical act. But on this night, the headliner was a politician: Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, who is challenging Republican Ted Cruz for his U.S. Senate seat on November 6.

“We have volunteers, staff, and key team members that are part of the LGBTQIA community. But I also have many close friends and family who helped raise me that are a part of the community.”

Beto O'Rourke

Inside the club, the 45-year-old O’Rourke spoke enthusiastically for 60 minutes about his vision for Texas and his underdog campaign to unseat the incumbent. O’Rourke had no notes or teleprompter, but his infectious energy swelled the crowd’s interest into excitement as he spoke. Around the room, people seemed to be whispering amongst themselves: “This guy is the real deal.”

Indeed, there is something special about O’Rourke. Even those who have become cynical about politicians in the era of Trump will admit it. O’Rourke has an “it” factor unlike any other Democratic candidate in the party’s decades-long statewide electoral drought. Based on recent polls, which put O’Rourke in a dead heat with Cruz, he may also have the best chance of any recent candidate to end that drought.

O’Rourke is objectively handsome—and also athletic enough to skateboard around a Whataburger parking lot, as was evident in a viral campaign video. He introduced his wife, Amy Hoover Sanders, with a reverence reminiscent of president Barack Obama introducing first lady Michelle Obama.

Dressed comfortably in jeans, with her hair pulled back, Sanders eventually sat down on the bare stage, legs crossed, to listen to her husband explain his positions on education, criminal justice, and healthcare. After all, she will be voting, too.

Beto and LGBTQ equality

When it comes to LGBTQ equality, it is easy to spot a candidate who has been trained in the talking points. Even the most underwhelming of Democrats can limp their way unscathed through responses to LGBTQ-related questions. However, in an exclusive interview with OutSmart, O’Rourke seems to demonstrate a deeper knowledge.

“When I was on the El Paso City Council, I began to understand how much more we have to do to make sure that everyone is treated equally under the law,” O’Rourke says.  “I remember in 2008 listening to a constituent who was a City employee who shared with me that although they were in a committed relationship, they couldn’t get healthcare benefits [like straight] married couples could. We passed a City ordinance that changed that, but it became a very contentious and controversial issue.”

In fact, El Paso’s decision to add benefits for domestic partners led to a referendum seeking to overturn them, as well as an effort to recall three City officials.

This scenario may sound familiar to LGBTQ Houstonians, who saw a nondiscrimination ordinance repealed by voters in 2015. Same-sex benefits for our City employees are also being challenged in a Harris County court after the U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to hear the Pidgeon v. Turner City employee-benefits case.

And it is in the courts where the outcome of the Cruz-O’Rourke race could have the biggest impact when it comes to LGBTQ rights. For example, President Trump recently nominated anti-LGBTQ judge Brett Kavanaugh to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the retirement of justice Anthony Kennedy, who had frequently been the swing vote in favor of gay rights.

“[Kavanaugh] could very well play a role in overturning marriage equality and is not someone I could support.” O’Rourke says.

O’Rourke posed for the Pride Portraits campaign earlier this year. (Eric Edward Schell)

In their first debate in Dallas on September 21, O’Rourke criticized Cruz for supporting anti-LGBTQ judicial nominees, including Texas’ Jeff Mateer, who once said he believes transgender children are part of ‘Satan’s plan’.   

“We have volunteers, staff, and key team members that are part of the LGBTQIA community,” O’Rourke tells OutSmart. “But I also have many close friends and family who helped raise me that are a part of the community, and they have been able to share their perspective with me about what it is like to live in Texas when you’re not treated fairly.”

O’Rourke supports the federal Equality Act, which would ban LGBTQ discrimination nationwide. He has also expressed opposition to Trump’s proposed ban on transgender troops, as well as Texas’ anti-LGBTQ adoption law and the state’s failed anti-transgender bathroom bill.

“I give credit to people like my friend Wade Williams and an uncle of mine who early in my life helped me to understand that maybe we could do big things if we only have the confidence and the strength to do it,” O’Rourke says. “I learned that you don’t always have to accept the norms that are laid down for you. Every Texan should have the opportunity to experience the joy of owning and being accepted for exactly who they are.”  

LGBTQ leaders weigh in

Not surprisingly, O’Rourke has picked up endorsements from local, state, and national LGBTQ groups, including the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, Equality Texas, and the Human Rights Campaign.  

“By electing Beto O’Rourke and defeating the anti-equality Ted Cruz, we can not only pull the emergency brake on this administration’s hate-fueled agenda, but send a message that the days of attacking LGBTQ people for political gain are over.”

Chad Griffin, Human Rights Campaign

“Since Beto first ran for Congress, he has been a strong advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, often times leading the charge on fighting back against LGBTQ+ discrimination.” says Mike Webb, president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. In fact, O’Rourke maintains a perfect rating of 100 on HRC’s Congressional Scorecard, while Cruz receives the lowest possible score of zero.

“Senator Ted Cruz’s extreme right-wing stances on LGBTQ+ issues are dangerous to the community, and we have to do everything we can to fight back hard,” Webb adds. “Cruz has argued for states to ignore the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality, and has argued to discriminate against our trans children by forcing them to use separate bathrooms from their peers or in opposition of their gender identity. It is vital for us to remind Texans that this type of rhetoric encourages violence against the LGBTQ+ community.”   

Equality Texas board chair Steve Rudner notes that during his initial campaign for Senate in 2012, Cruz attacked one of his GOP primary opponents, former Dallas mayor Tom Leppert, for appearing in that city’s Pride parade.

Ted Cruz has worked hard to deprive the LGBTQ community of its rights and dignity,” Rudner says. ”He supports laws allowing people to discriminate against members of the community on the basis of their religious viewpoints.”  

Cruz appeared at the anti-LGBTQ Values Voter Summit during his 2016 presidential campaign. (Associated Press)

In announcing his group’s endorsement of O’Rourke in April, HRC president Chad Griffin said his presence in the Senate would be crucial to pushing back against Trump’s anti-LGBTQ policies.

“By electing Beto O’Rourke and defeating the anti-equality Ted Cruz, we can not only pull the emergency brake on this administration’s hate-fueled agenda, but send a message that the days of attacking LGBTQ people for political gain are over,” Griffin said.

Despite his anti-LGBTQ record, Cruz still enjoys support from some gay Republicans.

“O’Rourke certainly talks friendly to what is now referred to as ‘LGBTQ,’” says Marco Roberts, president of the Log Cabin Republicans of Houston. “Cruz, on the other hand, surprised many with his open expressed support for ‘gay rights’ at the [Republican National Convention in 2016]. The difference is that O’Rourke, like almost all Democrats, sees the solution to all problems only through the expansion of the state into our everyday lives. Cruz, like most young and libertarian-leaning Republicans, sees the solutions through the rollback of government and the expansion of the right of individuals to make their own choices with their lives and their own property.”

Cruz’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Going viral

One day after speaking to OutSmart, O’Rourke delivered an eloquent response to a question regarding NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem. In a four-minute clip that went viral, a young man who disagreed with the protests asked O’Rourke at a campaign event if he thinks kneeling during the anthem is disrespectful.

“My short answer is no, I don’t think it is disrespectful.” O’Rourke responded.

He then proceeded to acknowledge people on both sides of the issue and give a short master class on civil rights, peaceful protest, and its vital role in the shaping of America. Again, O’Rourke had no script. As of this writing, the video had been viewed approximately 44 million times, and it catapulted the Texas race to the forefront of the American political debate. His response that day may ultimately be looked upon as the defining moment in O’Rourke’s campaign, but only time will tell.

“We are the least-insured state in the country. People get arrested on purpose because jail is the only place where they can get medical care and treatment.”

Beto O'Rourke

“We are the least-insured state in the country. People get arrested on purpose because jail is the only place where they can get medical care and treatment.”

Even before the video, O’Rourke was breaking fundraising records. As of August, he had raised around $23 million from small donations—all without corporate help. His campaign prides itself on the motto “No PACs, just people.” Cruz had raised roughly the same amount, but with assistance from large donors and PACs. However, Cruz was lagging in cash-on-hand.

“Beto is nibbling at the edges of the metro area—the suburbs and exurbs—to peel away [the moderate] Republican or non-voters,” says political scientist Robert Stein, director at Rice University’s Center for Civic Engagement. “What is important is the social-networks campaign we cannot see from traditional ads, campaign stumping, and mailings. Social networks address millennials and younger voters who are hard to reach through traditional media and who are not likely to vote, but might be mobilized by Beto and this style of campaigning. It’s a long shot, but it may be the only option to move infrequent Democratic voters to the polls.”

One of the key issues driving those infrequent voters could be access to healthcare. Cruz has made it his mission to dismantle Obamacare. He supported Trump’s tax overhaul, which increased the debt by a trillion dollars and undermined the Affordable Care Act by removing the individual mandate.

“I am going to work to ensure that every one of us can live our lives to their fullest potential, and that we are well enough to do that,” O’Rourke says. “We are the least-insured state in the country. People get arrested on purpose because jail is the only place where they can get medical care and treatment.”

The Harris County jail system is the number-one healthcare provider in the state—an alarming fact unknown to most voters. The day after the Warehouse Live event, O’Rourke toured a Harris County jail facility to bring attention to the issues of healthcare and criminal justice. He told the Houston Chronicle that the solutions are better access to outpatient care, expanding Medicaid (something Texas Republicans in power have refused to do), and introducing Medicare into the healthcare insurance exchanges to drive down premiums.

“We have got to invest in universal, guaranteed, high-quality healthcare,” O’Rourke tells OutSmart.

“We could be providing access to PeP and PrEP with even the most modest expense,” he adds, referring to the HIV treatment and prevention drugs.

Contrasting styles

Cruz and O’Rourke clearly have differences on the issues and an even starker contrast emerges when you observe how they campaign. The last question of the September 21 debate allowed both an opportunity to say something nice about the other. O’Rourke earnestly thanked Cruz for sacrificing time from his family serve in the Senate. Cruz thanked O’Rourke in-kind before falsely implying that the Congressman was a socialist.

In the last moment of the debate O’Rourke clapped back at this smarmy dig with a simple, “True to form.”

“We have gone to every single one of Texas’ 254 counties,” O’Rourke says. “Some we are visiting many times over—places where you might not find an officeholder who is a Democrat because they’ve been written off or taken for granted. This campaign isn’t just about Harris and Fort Bend counties. It is about Taylor, Tom Green, Lubbock, and Amarillo. Nacogdoches. Every county. Every Texan.”

“If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina

O’Rourke’s campaign approach rarely involves mentioning Cruz directly or in the pejorative. He prefers the more formal title “junior senator” when referring to Cruz. Rather, O’Rourke’s focus is talking about issues and finding common ground where he can.

Cruz, on the other hand, has adopted a more negative approach in hopes of taking the wind out of O’Rourke’s sails. After O’Rourke’s comments about the anthem protests went viral, a slow trickle of negative attacks against him began. The Houston Chronicle reported detailed information about O’Rourke’s 1996 drunk-driving arrest. The charge was dismissed, but O’Rourke leans into the topic while admitting he made a huge mistake. During a subsequent appearance on Ellen, O’Rourke pointed out that because of his white-male privilege, the mistake hasn’t defined his life—an opportunity that he argues is not extended to many black and brown Americans.  

As for Cruz, Rice’s Stein notes that the incumbent has never been well liked by fellow Republicans in Washington.  

GOP senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina joked in 2016: “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.”

Former President George W. Bush was more succinct: “I just don’t like the guy.”

Trump, who lost to Cruz in the Texas GOP primary in 2016, nicknamed the senator “Lyin’ Ted.” Cruz has now enlisted Trump to campaign for him during the home stretch of the midterms, despite Trump’s personal attack on Cruz’s wife, Heidi, and his false claim that Cruz’s father played a role in the assassination of JFK.

“He cannot count on being reelected [simply] because he is a well-known and liked incumbent,” Stein says of Cruz. “He has to use the threat of dethroning Republican majorities and the president to rally his base of Republican supporters. Hence, his invitation to Trump to come to Texas to campaign for him, where Trump is more popular among Republicans than is the senator.”

This article appears in the October 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine. 

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Ryan Leach

Ryan Leach is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine. Follow him on Medium at www.medium.com/@ryan_leach.
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