Iowa PBS Presents Conversations with Presidential Candidates Hosted by DMACC with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke

Sep 21, 2019  | 58 min  | Ep 103 | Transcript

Iowa PBS presents Conversations with Presidential Candidates hosted by DMACC has been funded by Goldman Sachs, which is delivering its 10,000 Small Businesses program in Iowa to help entrepreneurs across the state create jobs and economic opportunity. Additional funding has been provided by the Arlene McKeever Endowment Fund, a fund at the Iowa PBS Foundation, established by a gift from the estate of Arlene McKeever. And by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.  


The future of the American presidency and our nation's economy are key factors in the 2020 race. In Iowa, the nation's first test for presidential aspirants, candidates face questions directly from voters searching for answers impacting the lives of students, small business owners and everyday Iowans. From Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny, Iowa, Iowa PBS presents Conversations with Presidential Candidates hosted by DMACC. Here is Iowa PBS's David Yepsen.


Yepsen: Welcome to the latest edition of our Iowa PBS Conversations with Presidential Candidates, an in-depth focus on issues relevant to the future of our country and candidates seeking the democratic nomination for President, all hosted here at Des Moines Area Community College. We'll dive into a series of issues, many dealing with ways to improve the economic lives of Americans. Our goal is to help people make a crucial choice in the months ahead. The question will come from me and from Iowans seated in our audience of students, business owners and caucus goers. We're joined now by former Congressman Beto O'Rourke. He represented Texas in the U.S. House after serving six years on the city council in his hometown of El Paso. Mr. O'Rourke received national attention last year for a competitive challenge to sitting republican Senator Ted Cruz, ultimately falling short by a couple of percentage points in the 2018 election. Mr. O'Rourke, welcome back to Iowa and welcome to the Des Moines Area Community College.

O'Rourke: Thank you for having me. It's a huge honor to be with you.

Yepsen: A lot of serious issues to go through so let's get started. Gun violence. How would your plan to do mandatory buy backs of assault weapons work?

O'Rourke: First I think we need to make sure that we're sharing with the American public what it is that we're up against. These are weapons like the AR-15 or the AK-47 that were originally designed and engineered and sold to the militaries of the  world to kill people, expressly to kill people as effectively, as efficiently and as great a number as possible. And for those of us in El Paso, those in Midland-Odessa, those in any community that has suffered a mass casualty shooting with one of these weapons of war, we understand that this is unlike what a handgun or a shotgun or any other weapon does. When that high impact, high velocity round hits your body it destroys everything that is inside. It belongs on the battlefield, does not belong in our homes, does not belong in our streets, should not be used against us or our kids the way it is today. So in addition to universal background checks, red flag laws, ending the sale of these weapons of war into our communities, we would buy back each and every single one of the more than 10 million that are out there. I would expect because I believe in this country and my fellow Americans that people will follow the law. I can't tell you how many times someone has come up to me in an airport or the grocery store after I've announced this policy to tell me they have an AR-15 or an AK-47 and would willingly give it to the government. They don't need it to hunt, they don't need it for self-protection. It is a toy at best, something that is fun to fire at the range, something they would be happy to give up if it makes this country safe.

Yepsen: Prohibition didn't work with alcohol and it didn't work with drugs. What makes you think it's going to work with guns?

O'Rourke: Yeah, I don't think the burden should be on those who propose a solution to this. I think we should ask the NRA or the makers of these weapons of war how they can condone or defend the fact that there are more than 300 mass shootings in this country every single year. The reason that we're at this point with more than 10 million of these weapons on the streets and in our homes right now is because we have failed to take action, we're afraid of the NRA, we're afraid of what this does to our prospects in the next election. I'm confident that with fewer weapons of war out on the street we'll see fewer mass casualty shootings, fewer Americans killed. We lose 40,000 a year, every single year in this country. And we can look to those countries, to answer your question, that have employed this policy, notably Australia, which estimates that they have prevented 16 mass shootings or massacres in the year since they have implemented a mandatory buy back. So we know that this can work, we just have to have the courage of or convictions and do something that for political reasons was unthinkable before but for the lives of our fellow Americans it's very necessary for us to do now.

Yepsen: As you know you have been criticized by some legislators and democrats for radicalizing the National Rifle Association. When you say we're coming for your guns that is exactly what they have been scaring their members about for decades. So aren't you just an organizing tool now for the NRA?

O'Rourke: Yeah, I don't know how much more radical the NRA could be or if any one man or woman could make them even more radical. They have successfully purchased the silence and the outright complicity of members of Congress who prevent the Centers for Disease Control from even studying gun violence in the first place. IT would be as though 50 years ago we prevented the Surgeon General from studying the connection between tobacco and lung cancer and lung cancer deaths in America. Of course we didn't do it, we made it a public health priority and we drove down the number of smokers in this country, the number of lung cancer deaths in America as well. It's time that we look at gun violence as the public health epidemic that it is and defy the NRA and the very small minority of our fellow Americans who believe more in their AR-15's and AK-47's than they do in our children's ability to go to school without fear, to go to Wal-Mart in El Paso without feeling like you have a target on your back, to live in this country, to be able to pursue your potential, to fulfill your promise and not have to be yet another death, another statistic, another number in this country that has a rate of gun violence seen nowhere else in the developed modern world. So I really could care less about the NRA, could care less about those who stand in the way of progress. I'm listening to Moms Demand Action, I'm listening to those students who march for our lives, I'm listening to my fellow Americans, republicans, independents and democrats alike who know that this is the right time to do the right thing. One interesting fact that we learned this week, a poll came out in Texas and it shows that 49% of my fellow Texans believe in a mandatory buyback program, only 35% opposed. Now that's in Texas, this proud but responsible gun owning state. People know that this is the right thing to do. It's just time for the politicians, those in elected office and those who pursue these positions of public trust to reflect that urgency. That's what we're doing in this campaign.

Yepsen: Is there anything you would do on this issue that is different than what other presidents have done? Calling for a mandatory gun buy back is something but you've still got to overcome the political clout of the NRA. Now, how do you go about doing that? How do you bridge urban and rural gaps that exist on this issue of guns?

O'Rourke: So you first of all don't allow the NRA to set the terms of the debate and that is what they have done not just for republicans but disappointingly for democrats as well. Our proposal for a mandatory buy back of weapons of war, our proposal for mandatory licensing and gun registration, our proposal to raise the age to buy a firearm to 21 years old, to save the lives of those who take their lives with firearms, we lose 22,000 of our fellow Americans every year many of them young Americans in this country every single year. That is an important first step. Second, we go everywhere, listen to everyone. The first place I visited after announcing this proposal was a gun show in Conway, Arkansas and I was listening to those who own AR-15's, who are selling AR-15's and are purchasing AR-15's at this gun show and somewhat to my surprise many of them agreed with me. They said, look, I shouldn't be able to sell weapons at this gun show. If you have a pulse and you're 18 years old, because we don't have background checks, I sell you the firearm which begs the question why this guy is selling the firearm there in the first place. A gentleman came up to me and said look, I have an AR-15, I don't want to sell it back, but I have three kids and they're in school and I worry about them every single day and they are worried every single day when they go to school and so we've got to do something better. At least we began the conversation there at that gun show. Someone else identified themselves as a Trump supporter and said, I'd give my gun back, I don't need it. So I think what we saw in that poll in Texas, what I heard at that gun show in Conway, Arkansas, what people are coming up to tell me all over the country shows me that the time is now to move forward on this. There is the political will and the popular sentiment to do the right thing so let us seize it at this moment and save the lives of our fellow Americans.

Yepsen: I want to switch gears, Congressman. Jobs and the economy are always a big issue in a campaign and one of the things we're trying to do with these conversations is focus a little bit on the problems that small businesses have. What is your big picture view on what you would do to create more jobs and improve the American economy?

O'Rourke: I was a small business owner when I moved back to Texas more than 20 years ago. I started a technology business in El Paso, Texas, it is the third poorest urban county in the United States of America, might be the last place or the third least likely place that you'd expect to find a business like ours. But what we found was that we were a wash in talent, just needed an organization, a channel through which it could express itself. So finding the capital, which I was able to borrow ultimately from my dad because I couldn't get a loan from a small bank, being able to find the talent and ensure that talent had the skills and the education necessary to deliver the services to our clients was fundamental to the success that we enjoyed. Understanding that my story, and frankly as a white man, is exceptional in this country, that my father owned his home and could take a loan against it and then turn around and lend that back to me is not the same for black families in this country who have been redlined out of the ability to have a mortgage or to build equity in their home or to have something to borrow against. So our proposal entails doubling the size of community development finance institutions, to get more capital out to small businesses and potential small business owners. African-American women in this country are creating and growing small businesses at 14 times the rate of the national average. That's job creation where we want it and where we need it right now. Let's get more capital to those black women wherever they are in America to grow and start those businesses right now. So that is important. Investing in pre-K through 12 education so that you have the educated workforce to hire into those businesses and then making sure that someone can afford to go to community college here at DMACC or to a four year university or can join a union and enter an apprenticeship where they will learn a skill or a trade that they will be able to command for the resto f their lives. So investing in entrepreneurs, in community and people, in education, that is the key to growing this economy and making sure that it works for everybody.

Yepsen: We've got a question from the audience relating to both health care and the economy. It’s about maternity leave.

O'Rourke: Great.

Sara Fass: Hi. So the United States is the only industrialized country that does not offer paid family or maternity leave at a national level. What is your plan to create a paid maternity and family leave program that does not take away from Social Security like some have proposed and would be available to all Americans regardless of the size and business type of their employer or how long they have worked at their current job.

O'Rourke: Thanks for the question. When you put it like that it's hard to believe and even harder to explain to ourselves and to our kids the way that we treat one another in this country. As President I will make sure that any one of us can take time off of our job to take care of ourselves, to take care of a parent, to take care of a child, without the threat of losing our income or losing our job in the first place. Not only is that good for the employee, it's going to be great for the employer, the morale within that company, and then by extension really good for this economy. When you couple that with wage increases so that no one is working a second or a third job, $15 an hour as the floor, universal health care so everyone is well enough to go to work in the first place or to finish their education or to start a small business if they are an entrepreneur and then ending discrimination in the workplace in a country that in 2019, and this is also exceptional about the United States, women are paid a fraction of what men are paid for the same work, the same value, the same number of hours. African-American women are paid 61 cents on the dollar, Latinas 53 cents. So ending discrimination as well, if we do all of that then all of us are going to have a much better chance of doing better and this economy as a whole truly will work for everyone.

Yepsen: Another economic issue, trade and tariffs. It's a big deal here in the Midwest. What do you do with our relations with China and specifically how would President O'Rourke keep the Chinese from stealing American intellectual property?

O'Rourke: So day one of my administration we end this trade war, we end the tariffs which are crippling not just the Chinese economy but are thwarting our economic advances and in Iowa are pounding the hell out of farmers. Markets they have worked an entire lifetime or their parents or grandparents worked an entire lifetime to open up are closed to them and closed not only to them but to their children. Many of those farmers tell me they are worried that even when this trade war ends those Chinese buyers are going to find other sellers around the world Art Cullen in Storm Lake, Iowa has made the connection that those fires in the Amazon that are literally burning the lungs of planet Earth right now are set in part because of this trade war. Soybean farmers in Brazil trying to make sure that they can make up for the gap left in this trade war when soybean farmers in Iowa can no longer reach their markets. So how do we hold China accountable for manipulating their currency or stealing our intellectual property or dumping steel on this market or other markets at below cost of production? The way that we do this and former Governor Tom Vilsack was the first one to put it this way to me, is we go in with our allies, with our friends and with our trading partners. Governor Vilsack asked me, when have we ever gone to war, a trade war or a shooting war, without friends and allies? And yet that is precisely what President Trump has put the United States in right now. We're going in this alone with no exit ramp and the American taxpayer and the American farmer and the American worker is taking it on the chin. We estimate, or economists in this country estimate that the average American household is paying $1,000 more related to tariffs right now, it's a $1,000 tax per household, that we have lost 300,000 jobs in the U.S. economy and we're on track to lose a million by the end of the next year. So if we showed up to the negotiating table with China with the European Union, with Canada, with Mexico, with Japan, there would be strength in those numbers and in concert we would be able to get China to play by the rules of the road or face consequences that extend beyond just the U.S. market. That is the way to get China to do what we want them to do  and to make sure that we end this trade war, end these tariffs and get these farmers back to being able to make a profit on what they produce for us and the rest of the world.

Yepsen: Another issue facing rural Americans and farmers is ethanol production, a sensitive issue in Texas too. What is your position on ethanol and on Renewable Fuel Standards?

O'Rourke: We've got to keep the RFS, we have to end the waivers that are granted for refiners right now which are not only bad for Iowa corn farmers here but they're bad for our environment, they are bad for our goal of getting to net zero greenhouse gas emissions no later than 2050, much sooner if we can, getting halfway there by 2030. Iowa showed this country the way both to free farmers from a dependence on a commodity market or which they had no control, by adding value to what we grow right here in this state and then taking about 10% of gasoline out of the market and the exhaust out of the air. So let's build on that lead that Iowa has produced but complement it with wind energy, which you're a leader in as well, solar energy which is what we produce in El Paso, Texas, in my hometown, and the high wage, high skilled jobs that come along with that. So as President we won't grant those waivers, won't hand them out like Halloween candy the way President Trump is doing right now. We'll follow the lead of farmers here and those who are pioneering in renewable energy and we're going to add value to what we and to how we conserve and how we allow farmers in this state and every state in the union to be able to add value to what they do and to be paid for the environmental services that they provide.

Yepsen: But how do you deal with the clout that the oil industry has on public policy in this country? President Trump has been on both sides of this issue. He's in a real bind. He's got electoral votes in the Midwest and he's got a big pile of them in Texas too he needs to get. How do you balance that out? What do you say to your friends in the oil industry?

O'Rourke: It's much like your question about firearms and have we really upset the NRA. It's the same with oil and gas and energy and our carbon emissions and the fate of this planet. We shouldn’t care whether we upset the fossil fuel industry. What we should care about is how we're going to answer our kids. What we should fear is their judgment in the year 2050. By then they will know whether we have made it and made them proud or whether we have lost it forever for them and every generation that follows. That is what I care about more than anything else. And so that there is no real conflict or perceived conflict we don't take money from any PAC or corporation or special interest. We have also signed the fossil fuel pledge to make sure that there is no doubt that our focus is on making sure that we meet our obligations to one another and to every generation that follows ours. And I'll say this, for the oil and gas industry in Texas it is being superseded by the renewable energy industry in Texas. We generate more wind energy in Texas than does any other state including Iowa and those high value, high wage, high skilled jobs are growing by the day in our home state. So this is not just the right thing to do for our commitment to the environment and the planet, it's the right thing to do as we grow our economy and find sustainable, high wage, high value jobs in America. So it's a positive thing for us.

Yepsen: You're in to the subject climate change, the climate crisis. What do we do?

O'Rourke: We have to marshal every resource, every part of this country to confront the greatest threat that we have ever faced, the greatest threat which might very well produce our greatest moment, allow us to truly fulfill our potential and our promise to one another. It's one of the reasons I really like the way that the authors or the framers of the Green New Deal talk about that proposal. They call to mind the greatest generation, which in the midst of the Great Depression fought the greatest existential threat that the United States of America and the western democracies had ever faced and in so doing lifted tens of millions of our fellow Americans out of poverty and created the world's greatest middle class known at that time. And it was every single one of us, republican, democrat, independent, small town, big city alike, before we were anything else we were Americans first and that's the kind of challenge that we're up against here today. And so we mentioned what some of the solutions are, embracing renewable energy, freeing ourselves from a dependence on fossil fuels and especially here in Iowa. I've been listening to farmers like Matt Russell who have been telling me that if paid to do so farmers are ready to provide the environmental services that we need, they're ready to keep more land under conservation easement so that they don't have to plant an cultivate every square inch under their ownership and do far more to capture carbon out of the air and sequester it in the soil. The technologies come up with right here in this state, precision till and no till farming, regenerative agriculture and ranching, this is something that could allow the United States to pioneer a solution for the entire world. So if every single one of us is doing all that we can, every single part of this country, we will be able not only to meet the challenge here in the United States but we will be able to establish the moral leadership for the world, convene the other powers of the planet to do their part as well, return to our role, harkening back to the end of World War II as the indispensable nation. We alone can do for ourselves and the rest of the world what no other country can. If we flipped a switch right now and stopped all emissions in this country we would have only resolved 16% of the problem. So we need to take the lead here but then establish that around the world to ensure that we don't warm another degree and a half Celsius after which this is over. So this greatest challenge could produce our finest hour. I believe in this is country and I know that we can do it.

Yepsen: Too late.

O'Rourke: Some are saying it's too late?

Yepsen: Right. Is it too late?

O'Rourke: If it were then we should all just give up and go home and I cannot accept it. I understand and accept that this is the toughest thing we've ever bene up against, so hard I don't even think we know what we are in for yet. But if we were to give up then we're giving up on our kids and Ulysses and Molly and Henry, my 12, 11 and 8 year olds, they're counting on me and it is their judgment I face and fear and I'm going to do everything I can while we still can at this moment.

Yepsen: One of the reasons why the greatest generation was able to succeed in not only fighting the Depression but the war was the leadership of a President. Now, what would you do as President to try to lead and inspire the way Franklin Roosevelt did? Because there are a lot of people that would say this generation, Americans today, we don't have the grit of our parents and grandparents, we're not anywhere near the greatest generation. How do you lead on this?

O'Rourke: I'd say bologna. I have been so struck and inspired by young people who understand that this is the most important thing that we could possibly do and they're not just raising their hand to remind me of that, they're getting up in my face to say that if we're not going to do this then we better get out of the way because they are going to do this right now. Yesterday all around the world young people walking out of their classrooms into the streets to stand up for one another, for this planet, for the very best in us. And I've got to tell you, when we've come up against other intractable problems in this country it really has been the young people who have shown the way. So all credit to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and World War II, but who was storming the beaches in Normandy? It wasn't 60 and 65 year old white men in the White House, it was 18 and 19 and 20 year olds who for the first time in their lives had a rifle in their hand, had just trained and were going to sacrifice their lives for all of us. 1960, February 1, four African-American students from North Carolina A&T sit down at a Woolworth's lunch counter and have the audacity to order coffee and were denied because of the color of their skin and stayed at that lunch counter every single day until it was integrated, shocked the conscience of this country and forced us to act. So all credit to Lyndon Baines Johnson for signing the Civil Rights Act in '64, the Voting Rights Act in '65, but the young people of this country forced him to do the right thing. And so my money is on the young people of this country right now. They're going to ensure that we do the right thing. I would be so lucky and so grateful to do that work with them as President.

Yepsen: How do you deal with the not in my back yard syndrome? Americans know, people know what needs to be done but you start talking about closing coal mines and miners go crazy and it's not just in this country. In Germany the green movement had a setback because when you start making it clear to the German worker what happens they don't like it. You have Americans off Cape Cod, they don't want to look at windmills, wealthy Americans. You have them here in Iowa that don't want to look at them from their mansions and so they oppose wind energy. How do you lead on that? What do you say?

O'Rourke: I was in Roscoe, Texas last year, small farming and ranching community, initially resistant to the idea of wind turbines in their community. They now have more wind turbines per capita than any other place on planet Earth. And what I found when I was at Roscoe High School, home of the plow boys and the plow girls, is that almost every single student there now graduates with an associate’s degree from high school at the age of 18 just as you would here from DMACC at the age of 20 or 22. Many of them are graduating with FAA remote pilot's licenses to fly the drones that perform the maintenance inspections on those wind turbines. They're able to afford to do that because those wind turbines are creating the tax base that is generating the revenue that allows them to invest in the next generation. So the people in Roscoe, Texas, and this is in an oil and gas state, can tell you how beneficial wind energy has become. I was recently in southwest Virginia, coal mining country, in Wytheville, I was in Bland County which no candidate for the presidency has ever voted before and I was listening to those in the coal industry and here's what they told me. They too have sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters and are just as concerned as anyone here about the fate of this planet and climate change and our contribution mutually to this problem, our emissions, our excesses, our inaction in the face of the facts and the science. They just want to have a seat at the table, they want to be heard, they want to be respected. They told me in Bland County we do not have broadband Internet. Try looking for a job or starting a business or finishing your education or finding a date on Tinder if you cannot get online. So partner with our community, invest in us, ensure that we have a shot at the future in this next century. So I know that we can bring everyone in. I know that it's not going to be easy for everyone. But by showing the respect, having the common courtesy of listening to those who are most impacted I'm confident there's a solution for this country going forward.

Yepsen: Congressman, I've got way too many questions and not enough time so I want to switch gears and go to health care. Where do you come down in this debate between Medicare for all and public option? You've got a plan. What does yours do and why is it best?

O'Rourke: We ensure that we're able to deliver guaranteed high quality universal health care for America by rejecting the false choice contained within your question. There are some who say it is an all or nothing proposition, single payer Medicare for all or bust means that nearly 150 million of our fellow Americans would have to leave, some would want to, but many would have to leave private insurance that works for them, works for their families, in many cases members of unions who fought for those health care plans. There are others who propose kind of improving things at the margins, adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare and while that is an improvement over the status quo it still leaves millions uninsured. Here we are in a state that is 51st in America to see a mental health care provider. My home state of Texas, the largest mental health care provider is the county jail system. People with schizophrenia far too often are getting arrested on purpose to go to the one place that they are guaranteed the care that they need to make life okay temporarily. So that's not an option for me either. Our proposal is Medicare for America. It says that if you are uninsured we enroll you in Medicare today. If you're underinsured meaning that you are unable to afford your copay or your premium we'll enroll you in Medicare if that is your choice. But if you have a health care plan that you like, that works for you and for your family you're able to keep it. That is how we get to guaranteed universal high quality care for every American.

Yepsen: How do you pay for it?

O'Rourke: We make sure that everyone in this country is paying their fair share. We roll back the worst of the $2 trillion Trump tax cuts. So a corporate rate that went from 35% to 21%, we'll take it back up to at least 28%, generates hundreds of billions of dollars. We will tax returns on capital at the same rate that we tax ordinary and wage income, hundreds of billions of dollars. We will end the wars in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria, in Yemen and Somalia and Libya and so many other countries around the world and invest that dividend in those who bore the battle in the first place, make sure that they have access to the care for their PTSD and TBI and MST but then also make sure that those savings are applied to those who should be well enough to live to their full potential here in this country. We're going to ask the wealthiest to make sure that they pay their fair share with an additional tax on transitions into the next generation to make sure that not only do we not build up intergenerational wealth but that there is some equality and fairness in this country. And if we legalize America, that means the nearly 10 million immigrants who are here undocumented, work in some of the toughest jobs in Iowa and in America, that's hundreds of billions of dollars to the positive of the U.S. economy. That allows us to make investments in ourselves.

Yepsen: Another issue you've been talking about is the legalization of marijuana. How does your plan work?

O'Rourke: We would end the prohibition on marijuana federally. So right now it is a state by state pursuit which means that in some places you can legally go into a dispensary, buy weed and get high, no questions asked, perfectly legal. In other states you could be buying marijuana for recreation, you could be buying it for your fibromyalgia, for your PTSD because you do not want to buy an opioid to which you may become addicted, from which you may overdose and die, and you're a criminal and may be arrested and may be locked up. And though Americans of all races and backgrounds and ethnicities use marijuana at the same rate, African-Americans are far more likely to be stopped and frisked and arrested and jailed and then after prison forced to check a box on every employment application form saying they have a conviction, no longer eligible for student loans to come here because of their arrest. So not only do we end the prohibition, we expunge the arrest records for everyone caught for possession of something that is legal in more than half the states in the country.

Yepsen: Congressman, we've got an audience question related to this subject. It's about felon rehabilitation.

O'Rourke: Great.

Madison Bonner-Palmer: Hi.

O'Rourke: Hi there.

Madison Bonner-Palmer: I'm Madison, I'm a student at the University of Iowa and I have debated going into law and so I have a question about felon disenfranchisement. What are your views on that? Do you support giving convicted felons their voting rights back? And if so, how do you plan to do that?

O'Rourke: Thanks for the question. The answer is yes. Everyone who has served time will not only be able to be eligible to register to vote and participate in our elections and ensure that their voice is heard and their vote is counted, they will automatically be registered. Right now in those states that have opted to re-enfranchise convicted felons the onus is on the person who was formerly incarcerated to learn about this program and to be able to sign up. We would make it automatic but we would also add to that automatic voter registration throughout the country so that when you turn 18 you are registered to vote, same day voter registration in this country. That nets us we believe 55 million additional Americans who are not registered today who by 2024 will be registered to vote. It will fundamentally and for the better change our democracy. If we couple that with a new voting rights act that ensures that there are no barriers to the ballot box, Texas up until recently was 50th in the country in voter turnout not because we like our democracy less than you do here in Iowa but because we drew people out based on race, we gerrymandered African-Americans and Mexican-Americans to diminish the power of their vote. Stacey Abrams would be the Governor of the State of Georgia right now if we had not purged hundreds of thousands from the voter rolls there. So a voting rights act ensures that every vote is counted and every voice is heard. That's how we get our democracy back and I'm really grateful that you asked the question. Thank you.

Yepsen: Congressman, we're on a campus, the Des Moines Area Community College, so I want to ask about issues of student debt and paying for higher education. What are your thoughts?

O'Rourke: Cost should be no object, no barrier to anyone who wants to be able to improve themselves because when we know that when they're able to do that they improve the rest of us. Their earning potential is greater. What they give back is greater. What they are able to do over the course of their life is greater. But right now we have $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loan debt making it hard for those who have an education to move forward in their lives and telling those who are in high school right now maybe this isn't the best path for them to take, especially when we see there's about a 10% default rate on that student loan debt. So how do we meet this challenge? For those who hold outstanding student loan debt, which is one kind of debt that you will never shake until you've paid it off or until you're in the grave, we refinance it at the lowest possible interest rates. And for those who will pursue any kind of public service, so if you're willing to go teach in a classroom anywhere in America then we're going to waive your outstanding student loan debt completely, clean it, clear it, you're focused on those kids in front of you. If you work in any level of local, county, state or federal government we're going to clean your student loan debt. If you are going into school right now we're going to guarantee that the first two years of your education are completely free, not just for tuition but room and board and books, the full cost of being able to be educated. And in four year programs debt free for low income and moderate income Americans, debt free for every aspect of college life. And then lastly, and I think this is really important, for those Americans who do not want to go to college, we're also going to elevate the role that unions play, create 5 million additional apprenticeships to ensure that at no cost and no accrual of debt young Americans can learn a skill or a trade that they'll command for the rest of their lives which will allow them to command a living wage for the rest of their lives. So that's a comprehensive education plan that addresses cost and outstanding debt and ensures that we're rising to our full potential.

Yepsen: Another issue younger Americans care about, regulation of the Internet. A lot of older Americans do too. We've got a question from the audience about that.

O'Rourke: Great.

Ryan Holliday: Hi, Beto, I am Ryan Holliday. I am a senior systems engineer at a large cloud services company. As we become more and more connected through online social media our rights online are becoming extremely important to everyday Americans. Would you support a digital rights platform that includes net neutrality, online privacy and holding platforms accountable for their content?

O'Rourke: Yes. And before I continue with my answer let me just commend you on your style and fashion tonight with that Beto shirt. The answer is yes. Net neutrality meaning that all data and content flows at the same speed and no one for their wealth or their power or their privilege is able to get their information or entertainment or news or opinion or candidacy across faster than anyone else. That is essential to our democracy, it's essential to entrepreneurship and the chance for the mom and pop shop to compete against the giant corporations and it's essential for our ability to create entertainment and arts and those aspects of our quality of life that define us as Americans. You also mentioned these digital platforms and social media companies being responsible for the content that they share. Right now in this country we effectively treat them as utilities or common carriers when really they are publishers. Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, they curate the content that I see based on my likes or dislikes, my biases, my preferences and my friends and so they have some control over what I see therefore they should be accountable just like the Des Moines Register is accountable for what they publish in their paper. So removing the blanket immunity which they enjoy today, holding them accountable and responsible for our privacy and our data, our photos at a time that you and I have become the products on our platforms is essential if we're going to protect one another and also if we're going to give those small businesses a chance to compete as well. So thanks for asking the question, appreciate it.

Yepsen: Congressman, Iowa is one of the oldest states in the country. An issue relevant to many of them is Social Security. What are you going to do to keep it sound?

O'Rourke: I'm going to make sure that we fulfill our commitment to every single American who has paid into Social Security every working day of their lives. And we know that within the next 15 years along this current trajectory we will no longer be able to pay 100 cents on the dollar of earned benefit. So we've got to make sure that we have the resources for everyone who is counting on Social Security going forward and we also have to raise the earned benefit that is paid out so people can afford to live in their older age on the earned benefit that they paid into. How do we do this? We raise the arbitrary cap on income that is taxed for Social Security purposes. Right now it's at $131,000 --

Yepsen: $132,000.

O'Rourke: $132,000. What's a thousand dollars between friends right? $132,000 and then what that means right now is that every dollar, every million dollars, every billion dollars more than you earn over that is free and clear from being paid into the Social Security tax --

Yepsen: You just raise the cap a little bit or do you take it off completely?

O'Rourke: We would take the cap off completely. That ensures that we have the resources to pay well into the next century, to pay a higher earned benefit for those who paid into Social Security, and to make sure that we're addressing things like long-term care, the ability to age in place, and also when I'm talking about long-term care those caregivers right now who may have left a job or have not gone to work to take care of a wife or a husband, a father or a mother, we're going to make sure under our administration that every quarter that you do that for a family member counts as a quarter paid into your Social Security earnings down the line. Right now women who are primarily the caregivers in our homes are disproportionately penalized for choosing to be there for their fellow family members. That's something that we change and we can afford to do that by lifting that cap.

Yepsen: Another thing you could afford to do is simply eliminate the Social Security tax on some of the lowest income workers, make the tax more progressive. Would you entertain an idea like that?

O'Rourke: I hadn't thought of that before you asked the question but it makes a tremendous amount of sense to me. You have the greatest divide right now between the haves and the have nots whether measured on wealth or measured on income and not only is that inimical to an economic democracy where everyone sees an economic future for themselves and their kids, it is inimical to a political democracy in this country. People are just going to start giving up in participating in the democratic process if this country no longer works for them. So I like your idea a lot, anything that ensures that our tax code is more progressive, that people can have a chance to earn enough to work just one job instead of two or three and spend time with their kids, read to their daughter before the first day of kindergarten, do those things that so many of us, myself included, take for granted because so many millions of our fellow Americans are unable to do that. Then let's focus on those opportunities.

Yepsen: Congressman, as I was thinking about the questions asked today a theme kept coming back, crime, immigration and that is race relations, racism in America. How do you feel about reparations as a way to help heal the racial divides in this country?

O'Rourke: I think it's essential and I don't know that you're able to address this issue and really address the future of America without moving forward on reparations. There is a very compelling case that I am persuaded by that the foundation of this country is not the Fourth of July 1776 but August 20, 1619. It's the first time that someone kidnapped from West Africa was brought in bondage to this country and as a slave forced to perform work that would ultimately build the greatness and the wealth and the success of America. And that person's descendants even today in 2019 not fully able to participate in the success that their ancestor made possible in the first place. There's 10 times the wealth in white America than there is in black America today. I think in Iowa African-Americans represent 3% of the population, more than 25% of the incarcerated population in this state. When you look at health care, a maternal mortality crisis in America, three times as deadly for women of color. And in Texas in a kindergarten classroom a child is five times as likely to be suspended or disciplined or expelled if he is a child of color for the same infraction, in front of the same teacher versus a white child. A schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline that begins at five years old when the kid is in kindergarten absolutely defenseless. We have to figure out how we got here. And the reparations bill as introduced by Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, Texas in the House of Representatives would force a telling of the national story and ensure that everyone's story is brought to bear so that we understand how we got here. Bryan Stevenson who wrote Just Mercy and is an absolute leader on this issue for this country has talked about how in Germany after the Holocaust everyday Germans were forced to go to those concentration camps and gas chambers so that not a one of them could deny what their country had done. In South Africa you had a truth and reconciliation commission. In Rwanda, Hutus and Tutsis alike were made to understand their story and their history so they wouldn't repeat it again. In this country we have never forced ourselves to have this conversation, we have never learned it in our history books, a reparations commission is the right way to start to do that.

Yepsen: Congressman, another issue looming at this country is the national debt. It's exploding. What programs will you cut? What taxes will you raise to do something about the national debt?

O'Rourke: Yeah, you have to ask yourself the question how did we get to $22 trillion in debt? Why are we deficit spending to the tune of $1 trilling annually adding to that every single year? You look all the way back to the George W. Bush administration, the first administration following the surpluses produced by the Clinton administration and you see two unpaid for tax cuts that ultimately added trillions. You see wars that were started in 2001 added to in 2003 that we are still fighting today in 2019 added trillions of dollars to the debt. You find the greatest bailout following the greatest recession since the Great Depression at the very beginning of the Barack Obama administration and you understand how we got here. So how do we get ourselves out? We already talked about rolling back the worst of the Trump tax cuts which begins to help us. We talked about ending the wars that we have been fighting without end, without a definition of victory, without a clear strategy, bringing those service members home and focusing on diplomacy to resolve our foreign policy concerns instead of putting them on the back of 18 and 19 and 20 year old women and men who are fearlessly serving this country right now tonight overseas. We legalize America meaning those 10 million undocumented immigrants able to contribute even more to our national success and grow this economy and add to the tax base. And then we have to make decisions about what we're going to invest in and what is important and in my administration it's always going to be people and communities, education, health care, our ability to rise to our full potential and to fulfill our promise. We know that when we invest in a child at pre-K there is a cost up front but it is paid back 6 times over the course of their lives. We know that when someone can afford to go to this community college or any other institution of higher learning or enters an apprenticeship their earning potential and what they give back to this country and our economy is far greater over the course of their lifetime. We know that when health care is not delivered in the county jail or the emergency room, when people aren't dying of diabetes or the flu or curable cancers our economy grows at an even greater rate. Making those necessary investments while cutting those tax, while reducing or rolling back the worst of those tax cuts and ending these wars, that gives us the resources over the long-term to grow our way out of this debt and ensure that we no longer deficit spend in this country.

Yepsen: Just a few minutes left. Are we headed toward another recession?

O'Rourke: Unfortunately many of the indicators point in that direction.

Yepsen: What would you do? Because in 2009 they cut interest rates and they increased federal spending. Interest rates can't be cut anymore and how much money do we have in the bank? The till is empty. Print more money? I'm just curious how our leaders are going to confront this next recession because the same tools aren't in the toolbox that have been in the past.

O'Rourke: That's right. On your question about monetary policy, it's one of the dangers of what President Trump is doing, haranguing and bullying the Federal Reserve, trying to push them to negative interest rates. Once you go below zero there is literally no more room to go and when you're really in trouble, when you hit a recession or God forbid a Depression, your flexibility, your room to maneuver has been constrained. Your options have been reduced literally to zero. But it goes back to the question that you asked about trade earlier. This is not an act of God or a force of nature, this is a consequence of political decisions that we have made as a country and most economists agree that the helter skelter trade policy of Donald Trump, these trade wars not just with China but what he is doing to our relationship with the European Union or Canada and Mexico that is having a real consequence and effect here in this country. I mentioned the $1,000 per household tax that that has resulted in, the 300,000 jobs already lost in America, wages last year grew by 0.5% in America so this $2 trillion tax cut that was supposed to increase wages paid by corporations really just funded stock buy backs for investors who were already wealthy. So where we're headed is a consequence of the direction, the course that the current President has set and so I think setting a completely different course, ending these trade wars, paying the American worker enough so that they don't have to work a second or third job, that is the best way to avoid it or to bring us out should we go into a recession.

Yepsen: Congressman, I want to talk a little politics here. One issue that I hear from democrats and you do too, the most important issue to them is electability. They're looking for somebody that can beat Donald Trump and we have an audience question about that electability.

O'Rourke: Great.

Joe Coen: Hi, Beto. Joe Coen, Newton, Iowa, just down the road on I-80. I have republican friends who are looking for a moderate democrat to consider supporting. What specific policies and positions do you have that could appeal to these voters who don't want to vote for Donald Trump but also won't vote for a far left democrat?

O'Rourke: Yeah. To be honest with you I don't know what moderate or what the political labels or how the political spectrum works anymore. I was in Katy, Texas, it's a pretty conservative part of my state, last week and a gentleman approached me and he said, I'm as republican as they come, never voted for a democrat in my life, I'm an AR-15 owner, but what you said on that debate stage about taking those AR-15's and AK-47's back is exactly how I feel and absolutely what this country must do. So I don't know where that falls on the political spectrum but it has definitely struck a chord and it has resonated with this country. Universal health care, making sure that everyone is well enough to go to school or to work a job or to run their business or to start a punk rock band or to do whatever they were put on this planet to do in the first place, that's something that people regardless of party affiliation just seem to be able to agree upon. But I'll give you one example of working across the aisle when I was in Congress. We learned that more than 20 veterans a day, every single day, take their lives in this country and the vast majority of them have been unable or for whatever reason unwilling to go into a VA and see that provider who could literally save their lives. Veterans who have what is known as an other than honorable discharge are twice as likely to take their own lives. So we wrote this bill called the Honor Our Commitment Act to extend mental health care access to those veterans. That bill was going absolutely nowhere in a chamber controlled by the Republican Party unless I could find a republican with whom I could work. I found a guy in Colorado, different party, saw this issue differently, we compromised, found a consensus piece of legislation, introduced it to the House, implored our colleagues to vote for it though it's going to cost a little bit more, though it changes how we treat veterans today, let's make sure that we bear any burden, pay any price to deliver for those who put their lives on the line for this country and it passed 435 to 0, passed the Senate and was signed into law by the one man with whom I agree on almost nothing, Donald Trump. But we found enough common ground to do the common good. And that might be part of the reason not only that we were successful on that bill but in Texas in that Senate campaign going to each one of those 254 counties we won independence for the first time in decades and won nearly half a million republican votes in that state including my mother who voted for me in that election. So I know, and it's personal for me, I know that we can do this. We've just got to be open to bringing everybody in, listening to everyone, counting no one out, taking no one for granted. That's the way that I'm running for President and that's the way that I'll serve as President.

Yepsen: We've got just a few minutes left. I want to talk about the U.S. role in the world. What is your view of the U.S. role in the world? Are we the world's cop? I've heard the saying that when somebody in the world dials 9-1-1 Uncle Sam picks up the phone. Is this a vision you would want to continue? What is your vision of the U.S. role in the world?

O'Rourke: I see the United States as the indispensable country. We can do for ourselves, we can do for the rest of the world what no other country is capable of. So pick the largest challenge, the greatest threat that we face, climate change, we are right now the only country that has exempted itself from the Paris Climate Agreement. We have an administration that will not even utter the word climate change nor believe the science behind it though we only have 10 years within which to act or lose this place forever. So as President I'll make sure that climate is at the forefront of all foreign policy conversations and policy. So if it's a trade agreement the trade agreement is going to be underpinned by our goals on climate. If it's meeting with the G7 as President Trump did a few weeks ago and walked out of the only conversation they had on climate, we're going to lead that conversation on climate. It's going to extend to our other priorities, nuclear nonproliferation, dealing with historic flows of asylum seekers and refugees, going to the places where people are hurting like Guatemala and El Salvador and Honduras and reducing violence there and addressing droughts that were caused not by the people there but in large part by first world countries like ours. What if we brought farmers and agronomists from Iowa to Guatemala and helped them to improve yields there so that no one has to flee 2,000 miles to come to this country and show up at our border. They can stay in their own. I want us to lead by example, to lead through inspiration, to end the wars that we're fighting and see partners and common cause throughout the world. That's how we established after the end of the Second World War a world that has seen far less conflict than the decades and centuries that proceeded it, that has been the century for this country where we have exceled and dominated the other countries of the world. We can return to that rightful place but we're going to have leadership that reflects the confidence and the courage and the aspirations of our fellow Americans and I want to do that as President.

Yepsen: Congressman, always way too many questions and never enough time. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.

O'Rourke: Thank you very much, appreciate it, grateful.

Yepsen: I want to thank the former Congressman for joining us for our Conversations with Presidential Candidates here on Iowa PBS. For our audience of Iowans and our entire Iowa PBS crew here at the Des Moines Area Community College, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


(applause & music)

Iowa PBS presents Conversations with Presidential Candidates hosted by DMACC has been funded by Goldman Sachs, which is delivering its 10,000 Small Businesses program in Iowa to help entrepreneurs across the state create jobs and economic opportunity. Additional funding has been provided by the Arlene McKeever Endowment Fund, a fund at the Iowa PBS Foundation, established by a gift from the estate of Arlene McKeever. And by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.

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