TEMPLE — Even in this deep red county, Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke can pull in a large crowd on a Sunday morning.
An estimated 300 residents gathered at the Wilson Park Recreation Center in Temple to attend a town hall hosted by the El Paso Democrat hoping to oust Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
O’Rourke had made campaign stops in Killeen in the late summer.
After Bell County Democrats Chair Chris Rosenberg introduced O’Rourke, the third-term congressman grabbed the microphone and told the crowd that this is what democracy is supposed to look like in the United States.
“We all come together in a gym like this one and have a chance to see each other eyeball to eyeball and listen to one another and figure out how we’re going to work together and do what our country needs at this most critical moment in our history,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke, 45, described 2018 as the most critical year in U.S. history since 1860, the year in which tensions between the northern and southern states began to boil over as Abraham Lincoln was elected president.
Despite high tensions in the country, O’Rourke said Americans have more in common than what divides them.
In an effort to prove that, the Senate candidate explained his campaign is visiting all 254 counties and listening to Texans — regardless of their party affiliation — and the problems face every day. So far, he has visited 219 counties.
The safety of students is a topic candidates across the country are discussing because a school shooting 10 days ago in Parkland, Florida, left 17 people dead.
The topic was brought up at the town hall by a woman sitting in the front row. She asked O’Rourke, “How are we going to protect our schools from weapons of war?”
The congressman said he plans to sponsor legislation reinstating the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.
“We’re going to get this done,” O’Rourke said, explaining it’s only going to happen thanks to the public pressure being created by students across the nation.
Student loan forgiveness
Bell County resident Brendon Hogan works at the Temple VA where he sees patients with mental health problems. In his pursuit of becoming a doctor, Hogan has taken on $400,000 in student loans that has a monthly payment equal to his mortgage.
Hogan said he is disgusted that President Donald Trump wants to end the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which allows graduates who work in certain public service jobs to have their loans erased after a decade of on-time payments.
“Let me get this straight: You went through a rigorous education, took on $400,000 in debt so you can be qualified to care for veterans in this community. To me, that is an example of public service we should all follow,” O’Rourke said.
The congressman wants to double down on the program and continue it.
“If you’re going to serve those who served or come back to a community that needs your help, I think we should fund the totality of your education in the first place,” O’Rourke said.
First-time voter Dakota Widner asked the congressman, “How can we be sure that your loyalties lie with us, the American public, not with special interest groups and what will you do to end the corruption in Washington?”
O’Rourke, who is not accepting funds from political action committees, said special interest money is an existential threat to the United States.
He pointed to how many of his colleagues in the U.S. Congress have been silent on how to deal with gun violence as an example of how special interest money has swayed legislation.
“The silence of my colleagues has been purchased by the (National Rifle Association), the gun lobby, special interest and corporations whose bottom lines, apparently, are more important than the lives of those that we were sworn to serve and protect,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke’s pledge to not take money from special interests groups seems to not have hindered his ability to raise funds.
In the first 45 days of this year, the El Paso Democrat raised $2.3 million, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Cruz brought in $803,000.
“I’m only telling you this not to brag about my campaign, but to answer those who … say this is impossible; this is a red state; (and) that we have not won a Senate race since 1988 when Lloyd Bentsen won 30 years ago,” O’Rourke said. “Our opponent — the sitting junior U.S. senator who takes money from PACs, who ran for president and has national fundraising base from which to draw — raised $1.5 million less than we did.”