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Listen: Beto O’Rourke on why he’s running for governor

This post has been updated to include a response from Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign.

After months of speculation, Beto O’Rourke made it official. He’s running for governor. In a prerecorded video message released Monday morning, the former El Paso congressman focused on the failure of the Texas electrical grid during last February’s winter storm. O’Rourke will be a guest on Monday’s Texas Standard.

O’Rourke is the first Democrat to join the contest. Gov. Greg Abbott faces several challengers in the Republican primary. A recent poll found Abbott had a nine-point advantage over O’Rourke in a hypothetical matchup.

Political observers have been watching for months to see if O’Rourke would join the race. In 2018, he challenged Sen. Ted Cruz, coming within a few points of defeating the then one-term Republican. O’Rourke then mounted a failed bid for president in 2020.

This year, O’Rourke’s Powered by People organization has focused on passing federal voting rights legislation that would lessen the impact of new state election laws like those Abbott and the GOP-controlled Legislature enacted this year.

Abbott’s campaign issued a statement responding to O’Rourke’s announcement.

“From Beto O’Rourke’s reckless calls to defund the police to his dangerous support of the Biden administration’s pro-open border policies… Beto O’Rourke has demonstrated he has more in common with President Biden than he does with Texans,” the statement said. “Governor Abbott proudly supports the men and women of law enforcement, has deployed Texas National Guard and Texas Department of Public Safety personnel and resources to secure the border, and has created a business climate that has made Texas the economic engine of America. The last thing Texans need is President Biden’s radical liberal agenda coming to Texas under the guise of Beto O’Rourke. The contrast for the direction of Texas couldn’t be clearer.”

Listen to the interview with Beto O’Rourke above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Why did you wait so long to make an announcement? This was almost one of the worst kept secrets in Texas politics.

Beto O’Rourke: I am very excited to, with a lot of good people, be running to try to help bring this state together, to do big things and get us past the very small, divisive politics of this moment and of the current governor. We want to get back to ensuring that the best jobs in America are created right here in Texas. We want to guarantee that our kids get the best possible public school education. And then we’ve got to make progress on things that most of us actually agree on, like expanding Medicaid and ensuring that people in Texas can see a doctor, fill a prescription, be well enough to pursue their potential.

But instead, the governor’s got us focused on things like praying that the electricity grid is going to work this winter or deciding which middle school girl can play which athletic sport. Or this abortion ban places a bounty on the heads of Texas women. Or this permitless carry law that, despite the advice of law enforcement and police chiefs across Texas, the governor signed into law. [It] allows any Texan to carry a loaded firearm in public, despite the fact that 35,000 licenses to carry a firearm were denied or withdrawn over the last five years because law enforcement, [who] we should trust on this issue, said these people pose too great a threat or a danger to the people of Texas. Let’s get past that small, petty, divisive stuff and get focused on the big things again – jobs, schools and health care.

Here we are on November 15, and a lot of people thought you should have been out there hitting the hustings and running against a governor who had already announced his intentions to seek reelection much earlier. Why did you wait so long?

I don’t think I really waited for anything. I think, you know, that over the last two years, I’ve really been focused, along with a lot of other great volunteers, [on] making sure that we register more Texans to vote. And in that time, we’ve registered more than 260,000 of our fellow Texans to participate in future elections. We focused on defending the right to vote in a state that was hell bent on restricting it, making Texas the hardest state in the country in which to cast a ballot.

And then we also got to work when our governor and our government failed us. Our volunteers were out there during the winter storm and power failure, connecting people with water and food and heat and transportation. We were there trying to make sure that those who didn’t know how to sign up for a vaccine were able to do that. So I feel really good about the work that I’ve been able to be a part of over the last couple of years, and I feel really good about this decision.

Texas Monthly reports your main challenger, Gov. Greg Abbott, has about a $55 million campaign war chest. How do you compete against that in a state the size of Texas?

I don’t know that money is going to decide this issue. I believe it will be people. And I believe in the people of Texas. When we ran in 2018 and I went to every county in the state – wrote nobody off, took nobody for granted, listened to and tried to bring in everyone – we helped to produce the largest voter turnout since 1970 in a midterm election.

Young voter turnout, for example, was up 500% over the last midterm election in Texas. That shows the power, not of the candidate, not of his or her political party, but of the people of Texas.

And I firmly believe that if we keep this focus on the big things – not the divisive culture war issues that Greg Abbott is so obsessed with, but focus on jobs, focus on schools, focus on the ability to see a doctor and be well enough to achieve your potential – these are the things that most of us care about and unite most of us. Then I think we can also win. And I know we can serve and we can make the people of Texas proud. That’s what I’m going to stay focused on.

Are you going to do another effort to hit all 254 counties? Is that an adequate strategy? Is that going to be enough?

I don’t know that you can win, and I certainly know that you cannot serve the people of Texas, if you have not shown up and met them where they are, listened to them and included their ideas and their solutions to the challenges before them in a campaign that you run.

And the only way I know how to do it, and this may not be the most sophisticated plan or idea you’ve ever heard of, is to go and meet them where they are. And in communities like mine – in El Paso – where we’re off the beaten path, and a little bit harder to get to, it is so important that you show up and that you listen and that you seek to understand. Only then do you give people a reason to vote, and only then do you include people in the solutions that you want to deliver as governor. So yes, I’m going to go to every single part of this state – make sure no one’s written off, no one’s taken for granted. We count everybody in. That’s the Texas way.

And that’s what you saw in the power grid failure in the wake of Abbott’s incompetence and mismanagement on the most basic functions of government. The people of Texas came together and helped one another out. We never asked party identification or religion or anything else. We just said, “Do you need some help? What can I do for you?” And I want to make sure that we have a governor who feels that same way.

I think the governor has already anticipated that you’d be entering this contest. In October, he released an ad calling you “wrong way O’Rourke.” And in fact, [it] used some of your previous comments, including the “hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR -15, your AK 47” line and warning that you’re going to confiscate their guns. How do you answer that and what is your position? And has it changed?

I think most of us agree that we shouldn’t have to worry about our family members or friends or neighbors being shot up by weapons of war. And I think most of us also agree that what Greg Abbott is doing in signing the permitless carry law is incredibly dangerous. And don’t take my word for it. Listen to law enforcement…

Police chiefs from across the state begged him not to sign this into law because it endangers the lives of their officers and the people that those officers are sworn to serve and to protect. In this state, women are 24% more likely than women in other states to be shot or killed by an intimate partner with a firearm. We lost 3,500 of our fellow Texans to gun violence last year, and we have had four of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history in this state just in the last five years. Ask the folks at Santa Fe High School or El Paso, Texas, or Midland-Odessa or Sutherland Springs.

We are a proud, gun-owning state. I grew up in a household with guns, learning how to shoot from my great uncle, who was a sheriff’s deputy. That’s the story of so many of us in Texas. Let’s bring that knowledge and experience that we have to bear, to make sure that we protect the Second Amendment and also protect the lives of those in our communities. I think we can do that as Texans.

Do you think it helps or hurts you to be running for a major office like this for a third time?

It helps that we have so many volunteers and extraordinary Texans who want to do this work, and I’m really looking forward to being out there in every single community across the state and meeting old friends again and making new ones.

It’s never the wrong thing or the wrong time to do what’s right for Texas. And by all of us who are part of this campaign stepping up and trying to serve this state, I know that we’re doing the most important work that we possibly could. There couldn’t be more on the line right now. There couldn’t be more at stake. It couldn’t be a more important moment. So I’m very, very grateful for the opportunity to do this and extraordinarily grateful to the people who are going to be part of this.

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Shelly Brisbin