Evan Smith, the CEO of the Texas Tribune, stands on a stage decorated by Tribune backdrops, two chairs, and a coffee table.

Democratic Candidates One-on-One at Texas Tribune Fest

By Juan Garcia
Assistant News Director

Would a president O’Rourke pardon Donald Trump? The question from moderator Garrett Haake seemed to linger for a moment before Beto O’Rourke answered with a simple “no.”

The tension was evident every time impeachment came up in the panel. O’Rourke was one of four candidates who held one-on-one panels with moderators from MSNBC. The relatively tight time frame meant the panel had to be efficient with its pace, but the intimate setting inside the paramount theater allowed for good discussion on a wide variety of subjects.

The four candidates I covered were former US Representative Beto O’Rourke, US Senator from Minnesota Amy Klobuchar, US Senator from Colorado Michael Bennet, and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro. Each panel was moderated by a different journalist, and each one’s style influenced the panel they moderated. 

Beginning with O’Rourke, moderator Garrett Haake jumped right into the hot topic of the week: Impeachment. O’Rourke began by contextualizing the moment in history by saying “This moment will test our democracy.” He then praised congressional republicans that came out in support of the investigation.

The former representative presented the ideal scenario where the president would resign, but when asked if he would pardon a former President Trump if he is found guilty, he answered with a simple “no.”

This set the tone for the rest of the panel. He spoke very directly, with a casual tone, and he employed the occasional profanity to help get his point across. He promoted a bold and aggressive approach to curb gun violence, bringing up El Paso as a turning point in his campaign.

His signature stories came with him, as he used an anecdote about a republican man who approached him in the Buc-ee’s bathroom in Katy, Texas to praise his gun control agenda.

This agenda includes the mandatory buybacks of assault rifles and universal background checks. “No more mass shootings” is what he aims for with this aggressive approach to gun control.

When Haake asked him about his campaign, he praised the youth for their turnout during his Texas senate race. Even though his poll numbers are substantially lower than some of the front running candidates, he confidently praised his campaigns financial health.

“I feel empowered by those who want me to speak for them, and I will as long as there is air in my lungs,” said O’Rourke. The setting and time limit allowed him to showcase what made him so popular during the 2018 senate race: his speaking.

His signature speaking style resonated with the crowd, who let him know how loved he is in Texas. It was a very enlightening look into the mind of the candidate from El Paso.

 Immediately after O’Rourke, I attended a one-on-one with Amy Klobuchar. This time, it was moderated by Steve Kornacki. Kornacki brought out a cheat sheet, so his panel was more organized and less free flowing that Haake’s with O’Rourke.

Naturally, the first topic discussed was the impeachment investigation. Klobuchar did not hold back, calling out President Trump for being selfish. She declared that he always puts his interests, business and otherwise, ahead of the wellbeing of the country.

The shadow of Watergate loomed over the event, with all four candidates bringing up the similarities with our current investigation. Klobuchar emphatically said, “This is about our democracy, our national security.”

She called on the public to trust the government to make the decision to impeach, as opposed to allowing Trump to run in 2020 and letting the election decide.

Moving on from the day’s hot topic, she spoke of the midwest as the quiet child that gets left behind at the gas station. She said it was how Trump won in 2016, and boldly claimed it is how she can win in 2020.

Klobuchar intends to listen to the Obama-Trump voters, especially on universal background checks, mental health reform, and rural broadband. She hopes her experience winning in Minnesota gives her the experience to flip a Trump voter into a Klobuchar voter.

The president was a major subject for Klobuchar, as she went on to call him out for his false promises. She clearly wanted to position herself as the moderate option that can rope in the independent and moderate republican vote.

Moving on from the president, she criticised the new debate format, saying it prioritizes “zingers” as opposed to substance, and she brought up her own debate prep to limit her own reliance on zingers.

Her election history as she told it is full of victories dating back to grade school. The heavily Texan audience loved her younger self’s reference to Lyndon Johnson with her slogan, “All the way with Amy K!”

She prioritized her economic plan throughout the debate, and paid special attention to the “how” whenever she brought it up. She finished with a discussion on voting. She called for sweeping measures to stop voter suppression.

She boldly claimed she would abolish the electoral college, and ended on an effective line about immigrants: “Immigrants don’t diminish America, they are America.”

 After a break, the panels came back with Senator Michael Bennet. Bennet was supporting his book Land of the Flickering Lights, so most of his panel centered around the book.

Moderator Lawrence O’Donnell spoke openly with Bennet, and he effectively brought his own experience in congress to the discussion. The book based approach gave the audience an in depth look at Michael Bennet the man, as opposed to the politician.

He believes America’s political system is broken, and he is the guy to fix it. His biggest problem with our government appeared to be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Bennet called McConnell corrupt, and called him out for his shifty strategies.

He said Democrats need to beat McConnell at his own political game. Bennet also called out the Committee on Finance, which he is a part of, for using their power for the benefit of the republican party. Aside from McConnell, the Freedom Caucus was the biggest target in his crosshairs. The title of his book was inspired by Congress’ inability to pass a long term budget.

Ted Cruz was not safe from Bennet, as he criticized his colleague for his filibuster featuring Dr. Seus that shut down government at a time Bennet called crucial. He believes government shouldn’t praise itself for “keeping the lights on for six hours at a time.”

Once he said all he needed to say about McConnell and congressional republicans, the panel moved on to his economic view of America. He emphasized his experience as superintendent of Denver Public Schools. He bypassed the issue of free college to talk about an issue he believes is more pressing: free pre-K.

The Senator believes students miss a critical part of their upbringing if they miss pre-K. Along with his belief in free pre-K came his plan for a $15 dollar minimum wage. He believes that parents that make enough money to live on will inevitably spend that money on their children. When parents can’t pay for the child’s education, then the child can’t get themselves out of the difficult situation they were born into. 

 My final panel of the day was Julian Castro with Katy Tur moderating. As with all other candidates, impeachment was a hot topic. The main topics on impeachment were the private server and Watergate.

“I think that the server needs to be turned over to the United States Congress,” said Castro, and then followed it up by saying he “wouldn’t be inclined to pardon” Donald Trump should he be impeached.

Tur put Castro on the spot by asking him about the impeachments lack of support from the American people, but the young candidate took it in stride, boldly claiming the people will come around just like they did during Watergate.

At that point, the conversation moved to immigration, when Tur asked Castro about his intention to repeal Section 1325 of the US Code. He calmly replied he wants civil courts to handle deportation cases, and then criticized President Trump for weaponizing section 1325 to separate families and send people seeking asylum back to their home countries.

Katy Tur then grilled him again on his campaigns performance and the potential of a Senate Race. Castro calmly but confidently declared that John Cornyn will lose next year, but followed that up saying it won’t be to him.

Tur put him on the ropes one more time, asking for specific measures to pay for his healthcare plan. Castro again took it in stride, calmly explaining his modification to the tax bracket for the top 0.1%, and ending by saying the exact numbers are up for negotiation in congress.

After that, they touched on a bit of a lighter note, as Tur asked Castro to explain his Animal Welfare plan. Castro discussed his success in reducing San Antonio’s euthanization rate as mayor, then confidently proclaimed he can get people on board.

The plan would make animal cruelty a federal crime, among other measures designed to protect animal rights. Tur ended by asking Castro about gun legislation. Castro disagreed with Beto O’Rourke’s  mandatory buyback plan for assault weapons, instead offering a voluntary buyback program. He is willing to listen to mandatory buyback arguments, as he said “in an ideal world, nobody would have a gun.”

Featured image by Juan Garcia.

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