This is extraordinarily great news.
I’ve known Beto since he was first elected to Congress in 2012. A month before he was to be sworn in, he called, out of the blue, and wanted to meet for coffee. We met the next day. Seven months before, he had managed a stunning upset in the Democratic Primary, unseating an eight-term incumbent. He went on to beat the Republican in the general election with 65% of the vote.
There were very few pleasantries when we met. He smiled, we shook hands, and sat down quickly. He had a look like we all did on November 9, 2016 — stunned, and wondering, “how could this be true?” For like most who run for Congress, Beto had had no real sense about what the Democratic Leadership considered to be his number one job — fundraising. And as he had listened to their careful instructions about the time he would need to spend raising money, he, literally, could not believe it. “This is insane,” he said to me. “What can we do? Because we have to do something.”
O’Rourke represents El Paso. A century ago, El Paso was home to an amazing figure, Dr. Lawrence Nixon. Nixon was a physician. He had moved to El Paso in 1910. And every two years from 1910 until 1922, Nixon had walked down to his polling place, paid his poll tax, and voted. In 1924, he did the same thing: he walked to his polling place, paid his poll tax, and presenting his receipt, requested a ballot to vote. But this time, the poll worker, who knew him well, didn’t know what to say. “Dr. Nixon,” she stumbled, “you know we can’t let you vote.” Nixon responded, “I know you can’t. But I’ve got to try.”
Nixon was blocked because he was black, and in 1923, Texas had, by law, created an all-white primary for the Democratic Party. The NAACP decided to challenge the Texas law. Its field secretary, William Pickens, told the local chapter head to find “someone who is not afraid.” Ku Klux Klan violence was common across Texas at the time. It would certainly be directed against anyone challenging the very expression of white supremacy — the denial of the right to vote.
Nixon was not afraid. As his wife described it, once “he set his mind to it, he went ahead, regardless of what people would say.” With the support of the NAACP, he challenged the Texas law. In 1927, the Supreme Court struck it down.
So Texas changed its law to try a different strategy to block African Americans from voting. Nixon challenged that law too. In 1932, he won, again. And so again Texas changed its law to evade the Court’s rule. But this time, the Supreme Court upheld the law — unanimously. That was 1935. It would be a decade before the Court would finally recognize the right of African Americans to vote in party primaries.
The “white primary” has always struck me as the perfect analog to the “insane” system Beto lamented in 2012. For by making representatives dependent upon white voters, the white primary guaranteed that the Texas government would do what whites wanted it to do. To survive in that system, you had to keep the whites happy. All voters may have been equal, but whites were more equal than others.
That’s precisely the dynamic of the “insane” system we have now. To be elected to Congress in America today, you must succeed, not in a “white primary,” but in a “green primary” — the “primary” in which candidates raise the money they need to run for Congress. Yet in that green primary, as in the white primary, not all citizens get to vote. Instead, the people who matter in the green primary are the tiny tiny slice of Americans who can afford to contribute significantly to candidates running for Congress. Representatives in a representative democracy are meant to represent all of us. But what our representatives know is that they must represent this tiny tiny few first — if they’re to have even the chance to run for Congress, or for reelection.
Beto O’Rourke wants to challenge one of the very few politicians in America today who actually openly and firmly defends this corrupt system — Ted Cruz. When he ran for President, he was asked repeatedly about the corrupting influence of money in politics. Again and again, he defended the system, because, as he tried to school us, this was a matter of “free speech.” “The first amendment demands” that the rich have power to pick the candidates that the rest of us get a chance to vote among. If you’re against the current system, Cruz insists, you’re against freedom and the Constitution.
That was precisely the argument that whites used in 1923 to defend the white primary. “The First Amendment,” they said, gave every American the right to associate with whomever they want to associate. And if whites “choose” to associate together in one party by excluding blacks, that’s their private choice, and just what freedom requires.
It took way too long, but eventually, the Supreme Court called that argument insane. The right to participate — equally—in the selection of our representatives is fundamental in a representative democracy. And no one should be excluded, either because they’re not white or because they’re not rich.
Beto has a tough fight. Cruz has tons of money. He beat his Democratic opponent by 16 points in 2012. I’m sure the experts have told him that he just can’t win. I’m sure Beto told them back, “I know you think I can’t. I have to try.”
I don’t care much for the views of the experts. How much did they get right in 2016? If a crazy man could be elected because he promised America he would “drain the swamp,” I’m quite sure this incredibly-decent,-former-punk-rocker,-40-something,-takes-no-PAC$,-Congressman-willing-to-drive-1600-miles-in-a-car-with-a-Republican can be Texas’ next Senator.
America is tired of the insanity. I suspect Texas is tired of Ted Cruz. And we all should be tired of leadership by the polls. We should stand with someone because it’s right. That is how equality wins.
I’m with Beto. Stand with him too.