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Political Mercury

‘Approachable’ Beto makes his Iowa pitch


Presidential candidate delves into rural issues, immigration.

Beto O’Rourke is known for climbing atop tables or even the higher flats of bars to speak with audiences. Photo by Carroll Times Herald.

Onica Ulveling of Carroll stumped a stumping White House aspirant. If but for a moment.

The 41-year-old pharmacist, a mother of two, asked Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke — who frames his candidacy as something of an urgent generational answer to questions he expects to get in 30 years from his own children about what the nation did at its 2019-2020 crossroads — how he parents during the administration of President Donald Trump, a leader Ulveling said showcases bullying and character flaws.

“It’s a really good question,” O’Rourke said after pausing to consider it at a recent event in Carroll.

O’Rourke, 46, a former Texas congressman who vaulted to national prominence with a near-miss U.S. Senate challenge last year of Ted Cruz, the conservative lawmaker who won the 2016 Iowa Republican caucuses, said he and his wife, Amy, work to exhibit the sort of decency O’Rourke says escapes Trump in their own public service and business endeavors.

What’s more, for example, they have taken their daughter, Molly, to work with refugees seeking asylum, O’Rourke told a crowd of about 60 people, including a large contingent of national and local media, at Kerps Tavern in Carroll.

“It’s important for Molly to understand that there are people who are really struggling,” O’Rourke said.

To reinforce Ulveling’s point, O’Rourke recalled going to a grade school in Texas and being struck with a question from a third-grade Mexican-American girl who asked him: “Why doesn’t the president like me?”

O’Rourke drew comparisons between what he described as the dehumanizing language of the Trump administration and the propaganda machine of Nazi Germany and wondered what effect Trump has on the third-grader.

“When the president of the United States has called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, he then went on to call asylum seekers animals and an infestation,” O’Rourke said. “Now we would not be surprised if in the Third Reich, other human beings were described as an infestation, as a cockroach, or as a pest that you would want to kill. But to do that in 2017 or ’18 in the United States of America, it doesn’t make sense.”

O’Rourke, known for climbing atop tables or even the higher flats of bars to speak with audiences, delivered remarks from the floor of the modern party room at Kerps. He then posed for dozens of photos with voters and chatted with Democrats evaluating his place in the largest and most diverse Democratic field in the history of the first-in-the-nation presidential testing contest.

“This is going to be a moment of truth about what our kids and grandkids read about,” O’Rourke said, adding that he thinks the nation is as polarized as it’s been since 1860 as the Civil War brewed.

O’Rourke advocated a raft of progressive positions in his remarks, including efforts to reverse climate change, immigration reform and universal health care. He also called for debt-free public college and higher taxes on wealth and estates.

The immigration issue ties directly with climate change, said O’Rourke, who said the number of Central Americans and others seeking asylum or an improved quality of life in the United States would spike if world leaders don’t address the fallout from warming temperatures.

Imagine when some countries in the Western Hemisphere near the equator no longer support human life, O’Rourke said.

Where climate change is concerned, O’Rourke said global leaders face the “last best chance we have to get it right.”

O’Rourke — in response to a question from Seth Johnson, an operations supervisor for the Renewable Energy Group in Ralston — challenged the Trump administration’s granting of small refinery waivers for petroleum producers as an assault on the Iowa-commodity-boosting Renewable Fuel Standard, which is designed to not just assist farmers but promote cleaner air quality.

“It reflects the president’s disconnect from science,” O’Rourke said.

He later added in a session with the media at Kerps that Trump’s comment about the noise from wind-energy turbines causing cancer also is out of step with facts.

Big picture, O’Rourke, who campaigned aggressively even in the remotest of Texas counties, said rural America needs partnerships with government, not handouts. That means extension of high-speed Internet to rural America and better trade deals, he said.

“Democrats used to be the party for rural America,” O’Rourke said.

Some of O’Rourke’s more fierce rhetoric came on immigration, something the fourth-generation Irish-American sees as a strength for America, and a topic on which he has personal familiarity as a resident of El Paso, Texas, a border town. O’Rourke said millions of undocumented residents living in the shadows are boosting the United States economy and should be given a path to legal status.

Later in the day, in Denison, O’Rourke drew a crowd of 120 people, about half of them Latino and many of them young people who are not regulars at political events. Latino leaders in Denison said the enthusiasm for O’Rourke, who is fluent in Spanish and conducted a full interview using his second language with Iowa’s La Prensa Spanish newspaper in the Crawford County seat, is greater than what they saw there for then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008.

“Watch out for this guy,” said Lorena Lopez, the editor of La Prensa, who interviewed O’Rourke.

Matt Wetrich, a naturalist with Carroll County Conservation, said after the Carroll event that one of O’Rourke’s strengths is his understanding of the humanity and economics of immigration.

“Who better than somebody that’s literally first-hand on the ground to talk about immigration, to talk about the wall and the pros and cons, bringing real statistics, bringing first-hand experiences of things, and talking about helping the legalities of immigrants, and helping them to contribute more rather than being in the shadows?” said Wetrich, who also is a Jefferson City Council member. “The wall and immigration is such a huge topic through this administration, right? Somebody from Boston’s not going to be able to do that.”

O’Rourke doesn’t support a wall or fence stretching across the full border. He says there are key places for barriers and that a mix of strategies should be involved to deal with border security and immigration.

Wetrich, a Democrat, said he remains undecided but would place O’Rourke in his top five candidates for consideration in the caucuses. ♦

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman. He and his family own and publish newspapers in Carroll, Jefferson and other neighboring communities.

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Summer Stir (June 2023)