Beto O'Rourke at Virginia Tech

Presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks to local audience in Virginia Tech's Hancock Hall auditorium, Aug. 30, 2019.

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke visited Virginia Tech for a town hall meeting as a part of his presidential campaign Friday, Aug. 30. The event, which took place in Hancock Hall’s auditorium, was a part of his larger national campaign through local towns, businesses and colleges across America. His three other stops in Virginia include Bland, Roanoke and Charlottesville.

O’Rourke is a politician from El Paso, Texas. Previously, he launched a 19-month campaign for the Texas senate seat in the U.S. Senate Elections in March 2017. O’Rourke set a national record for the most votes cast for a Democrat in Texas history. Before then, he served as a congressman in the House of Representatives representing Texas’ 16th district, a position he held for six years, from 2013–2018. He was elected to sit on the El Paso City Council in 2005 and served two terms before his first run for Congress.

Issues O’Rourke discussed on Virginia Tech’s campus included college tuition, mental health, the opioid epidemic and gun control policy.

College Tuition

O’Rourke said his policies on education include making sure that the first two years of higher education are free. His plan is to ensure that “at a minimum, every American is guaranteed the ability to earn an associates degree, or the first two years toward a bachelor’s degree or higher education.”

Moreover, he plans to make sure four year degree programs are debt free for middle- and lower-income students, which includes the full cost of tuition, books, room and board. For those who have already taken out loans, O’Rourke is looking to lower interests rates on repayment.

Additionally, his plan is to “completely change” the public service debt forgiveness program.

“If you commit to teaching school, or working at the VA and serving a veteran –– or any public service role, in local county, state or federal governments –– that (this is given) as a reward or incentive to provide public service,” O’Rourke said.

Mental Health

When asked about mental health, O’Rourke tied in his idea of universal healthcare, stating that everyone should have access to mental healthcare with no copay costs for primary care visits and medication.

He spoke on Texas County Justice being the number one mental health care provider in his home state and shared stories of people he had spoken to that would purposely go to jail for treatment.

“I cannot tell you how many meetings like this one I've been at across Texas where someone stands up and says, ‘My brother, my sister, my son gets arrested on purpose to treat their schizophrenia or their bipolar disorder or their clinical depression’ — at a cost of 110 bucks a night to keep them locked up and fed and clothed and prescribed the psychotropic medication they are temporarily able to get, if they are able to get them,” O'Rourke said.

Opioids, Marijuana, Incarceration

O’Rourke stated that he did not fault those addicted, but the companies who created such drugs, as patients are many times not warned of the addictive properties. O’Rourke said that the recent lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson was a step in the right direction, but much further action is still necessary.

In addition, O’Rourke took a strong stance on marijuana and its relation to incarceration and racism.

He stated, “there are 2.3 million people behind bars right now –– that's the largest prison population on planet earth, the United States of America –– and (it) is disproportionately comprised of people of color, many there for nonviolent drug crimes, including possession of marijuana, a substance that is legal in most states in the union today.”

He plans to remove all those convicted of marijuana-related offenses out of the system if he is elected president, stating that this is a solid step to dismantling the systemic racism within prisons across America.

Gun Control

At the event, O’Rourke called for universal background checks and said he would take executive action as far as he constitutionally could to promote gun control, including declaring gun violence as a public health emergency.

“We lose the lives of nearly 40,000 of our fellow Americans to gun violence, every single year,” he said. “But, we know that this is a human-caused problem, with a human solution.”

His policies include having universal background checks that close all loopholes, red flag laws which say say if some who has a firearm is showing violent tendencies toward themselves or others, to take the firearm before it’s too late, ending the sales of assault weapons like AK-47s and AR-15s, and supporting the firearm buyback system. He also said that, ultimately, “the answer has to be all of us.”

“It’s going to take … mass mobilization, and to the degree I can be helpful by going everywhere, not just as a candidate, but as president, to mobilize that kind of direct action to force our representatives to act in our interests, and no other interests,” he said.

In addition, during his talk on gun control policy, O’Rourke mentioned the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, stating that it reminded him of the shooting tragedy in El Paso, Texas, earlier this month.

“In the wake of the shooting on Aug. 3, there was a memorial constructed right outside of that moment where the shooting took place, 22 white crosses on every single one of them,” O’Rourke said. “This willingness to talk about how we use this trauma and this pain and this experience (is how we) inform what we do going forward.”

Finally, O’Rourke said what would stay with him about Virginia Tech was the April 16 memorial and hearing the students’ and faculty's stories in turn.

“In the way that that one act did not define this campus or Blacksburg or this country, but instead the way that everyone chose to ... transcend that in the life that they've lived since then and in the work that they're doing right now, to make sure that we reduce this epidemic of gun violence in America,” he said.

Delegate Chris Hurst, who is running for re-election in the 12th district, also made an appearance at the campaign town hall. Like O’Rourke, Hurst supports reforming gun control laws and challenges the current administration. He expressed his support for O’Rourke at the event.

“We can actually achieve this mission ... to be able to get our country back on the track that's inclusive, welcoming for all Americans,” Hurst said. “And we need strong leaders who are able to make principled stands and call things up for what they are, like racism coming out of the White House, and I've been delighted to watch and observe what this congressman has been able to say, calling it for what it is each and every step along the way.”

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