By Blake Neff - 03/24/14 06:00 AM EDT
In a different reality, Rep. Robert “Beto” O’Rourke (D-Texas) might be touring the world as a rock star rather than doing a tour of duty in Congress.
As a young adult, O’Rourke traveled the country playing bass in the indie rock band Foss.
“For me, it was a great opportunity to see the country. You literally were playing for gas money, in a bar, in a club, or in somebody’s basement, and that would take you to the next town and the next show,” O’Rourke told The Hill.
The group had no shortage of skill; drummer Cedric Bixler-Zavala later won a Grammy Award as a part of The Mars Volta.
While the band’s other members have remained active as professional musicians, O’Rourke decided he had a different life calling.
After completing a degree at Columbia, O’Rourke stayed in Manhattan working for a variety of start-ups in the nascent field of Web design. He longed to return to El Paso, however, and after three years returned home and opened his own firm, Stanton Street Technology Group.
Started in O’Rourke’s apartment, the firm today is an eight-person business currently owned by his wife, Amy.
In 2005, O’Rourke won a seat on the El Paso city council, unseating a two-term Democratic incumbent in the process. During six years on the council, O’Rourke helped push through major upgrades to the city’s bus system, and also drew national attention when he authored a resolution calling on the United States to reevaluate the war on drugs. (The resolution passed but was vetoed by El Paso’s mayor.)
Shortly after leaving the city council, O’Rourke made a longshot bid against eight-term Democratic congressman Silvestre Reyes. Reyes, a former chair of the House Intelligence Committee, received an endorsement from President Obama and had former President Clinton campaign on his behalf. O’Rourke, however, was boosted significantly by $250,000 spent by the independent Campaign for Primary Accountability, a PAC which targets long-time incumbents of both parties. The primary turned into a bitter contest, with Reyes targeted for doling out $600,000 in campaign funds to family members, while O’Rourke was attacked for a youthful DWI arrest and his support for marijuana legalization.
Helped by the PAC cash, O’Rourke defeated Reyes with more than 50 percent of the vote, thus preventing a runoff. In the general election, O’Rourke easily defeated Republican Barbara Carrasco.
Now in Congress, O’Rourke’s leading priorities are firmly focused on the city that raised him, a focus abetted by the fact the 16th district contains almost all of El Paso and its suburbs but nothing else. His top goal for his time in Congress, he says, is to have a full-service veterans’ hospital built in the city, to accompany the city’s large military presence at nearby Fort Bliss.
O’Rourke’s other, more general legislative priorities are bound inextricably with the national border his district straddles. El Paso sits directly across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juarez, a booming Mexican city of more than 1.5 million people.
The cities have a strong economic relationship and thousands make a daily commute across the international boundary, making the crossing point one of the most congested between the two countries.
One of O’Rourke’s goals is to help pass reforms that will speed up cross-border traffic and thus boost the economy of El Paso.
To facilitate this, O’Rourke aims to set a positive tone in Congress regarding the Mexican border. His predecessor Reyes, a former Border Patrol agent, was a major backer of an annual border security conference held in El Paso that heavily featured defense firms such as Boeing and Raytheon.
O’Rourke said he prefers to focus on the border as a source of opportunities rather than as a threat. Last August, he moderated his own conference in El Paso, the Border Conference on U.S.-Mexico Competitiveness Agenda, which drew more than 300 business and civic figures and focused on the two countries’ economic relationship.
“The border, and how it is represented and policies that disproportionately impact the border, are a big reason for running for Congress in the first place,” O’Rourke said.
He is committed to selling his colleagues on the ways Mexico benefits the United States, and his office has even created a leaflet for every single state describing the gains it reaps from trade with Mexico. North Dakota’s, for instance, credits 15,646 jobs to Mexico as well as $282 million in exported goods.
O’Rourke acknowledges, however, that not all border issues are positive and he is an advocate for reform regarding both illegal immigration and the war on drugs. O’Rourke says the U.S. needs to face up to its own responsibility for what flows illegally across the Mexican border.
“One thing that you rarely hear but that I think needs to be said is that the U.S. is the dominant country for immigrant labor and illegal drugs. We’re 5 percent of the world’s population and something like 25 percent of the world’s drug market,” he said. “We’ve been telling Mexico through these economic signals, through our demand for cheap unregulated labor and illegal drugs, that we want these things … the source of these problems is here in this country.”
O’Rourke’s interest in the war on drugs predates his time in Congress. While El Paso is among America’s safest large cities, neighboring Ciudad Juarez is among the world’s most violent, with thousands of drug cartel-related murders in recent years.
In 2011, O’Rourke coauthored a book, Dealing Death and Drugs, which argued for ending the nation’s prohibition on marijuana. O’Rourke asserts that marijuana itself is far less dangerous than other drugs, and that by legalizing it the country could reduce the usage rate of harder drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines.
“Marijuana is a gateway drug today in the United States precisely because it’s illegal,” he said. “If someone is buying marijuana from a dealer, that dealer is also selling a number of other drugs that they have an interest in getting you hooked on.”
O’Rourke said he has no plans to stay a long time in Congress, despite being only 41.
“I want to work really hard, get a lot done, and then get out of the way,” he said. He sees himself only sticking around for eight years, “at the outside,” before returning to Texas permanently.
“El Paso is my calling. That’s my home, that’s where my family is.”