“Little did I realize yesterday when I got on that plane in Houston, Texas, bound for New Orleans, that I had just boarded the Essence Express,” 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke said to cheers and laughter, charming the crowd with his opening anecdote as soon as he stepped foot on the 2019 Essence Festival Power Stage.
“A lot of joy, a lot of fun, a lot of power on that plane, “O’Rourke continued. “So glad that I boarded that flight and got to be part of that…at the risk of stating the obvious, African American women are the heart and soul of the Democratic Party.”
O’Rourke wasted no time bringing up the 2018 Senate election, when political observers saw the nation explode in Beto-Mania. Though he lost the state to Republican incumbent Ted Cruz, O’Rourke carried Harris County by 17 points. Further, through the power of straight-ticket voting, a history-making 17 Black women were elected to the judicial bench, bringing the total number of Black women judges in Harris County to 19.
“A state that had ranked 50th voter turnout before 2018 stood up to be counted,” O’Rourke said with enthusiasm. “We won more votes than any other Democratic contender in the history of the state of Texas; won independents for the first time in decades; saw young voter turnout up 200 percent.
“And though we did not defeat Ted Cruz—we came awfully close in the pursuit,” O’Rourke said, slowing down his cadence. “We saw 17 African American women elected to judicial positions of power in Houston, Texas. Literally changing the face of criminal justice in the most diverse city in the United States of America.”
The applause was immediate.
O’Rourke then pivoted to living wages, painting a picture with the question, “What if every working American were paid a true living wage, so they didn’t have to work a second or a third job?”
According to O’Rourke, if he is elected, the nation will find out.
“African American women are making 61 cents on the dollar of what white men make. We [will] end discrimination in the work place,” the former congressman promised the crowd full of prospective voters. “[We will] no longer use salary history as a factor into what you are paid going forward. And [we will] enshrine the Equal Rights Amendment into the Constitution.”
O’Rourke said that, if elected president, among his plans is a new Voting Rights Act that removes every barrier for every American. “No more voting purges in Georgia, so that Stacey Abrams could become the rightful governor of that great state,” he envisioned with his attentive audience. “No more voter ID laws that are racist in their intent and the way that they are carried out, and [we will have] same-day and automatic voter registration to bring 10s of millions of our fellow Americans into our democracy and into the process.”
“That is how we do justice to the inspiration, and leadership, and the guidance that [Black women] have provided,” O’Rourke said in closing. “I am grateful. Thank you very much.”
As with the other 2020 Democratic candidates who made their pitch on the Power Stage, O’Rourke sat down with Michelle Ebanks, CEO of Essence Communications, and Richelieu Dennis, CEO of ESSENCE Ventures. In the conversation, O’Rourke talked about excessive and disproportionate punitive action against Black students and other students of color.
Watch O’Rourke’s full remarks and the post-interview below: