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'He's got his own oligarch' | Beto O'Rourke compares Gov. Abbott to Russian leaders in SXSW 2022 discussion

The Democratic candidate discussed his campaign Saturday in a featured session with The Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith.

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke was back in Austin on Saturday for a stop at South by Southwest (SXSW).

O'Rourke was tapped as a headlining keynote speaker for a conversation with Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, at the Hilton Austin Downtown. While the hour-long discussion touched on his campaign for governor, they also discussed topics such as the 2021 February freeze, women's rights, the State's ongoing legal battle regarding transgender children, a recent lawsuit filed against O'Rourke and more.

First question? Smith asked O'Rourke why is was campaigning for a major office a third time.

"Why do I do this? Because I have this extraordinary opportunity to join amazing people in service to my state and to this country," said O'Rourke. "Yet there is no higher honor. I'm grateful for the opportunity and I love the fact that we're in this race right now."

Then Smith brought up his opponent Gov. Greg Abbott, drawing up strong words from the Democrat.

"I just had a chance to meet with the ambassador from the EU," said O'Rourke. "We talked about the fact that you're seeing the continued rise of authoritarians and thugs across the world, and we have our own right here in the state of Texas."

That sparked an interruption from Smith.

"Greg Abbott is a thug in your mind?" he asked.

"He's a thug. He's an authoritarian," said O'Rourke. "Let me make the case not only to this guy, to his own incompetence, not keep the lights on in the energy capital of the planet last February. But when people like Kelcy Warren and other energy company CEOs made more than $11 billion in profit over five days, selling gas for 200 times the going rate, not only did he not claw back those illegal profits, not only was there no justice for the more than 700 people who were killed who literally froze to death in their homes outside in their cars … but he's taking millions of dollars in payoffs from these same people … he's got his own oligarch here in the state of Texas. You Think this stuff only exists in Russia or in other parts of the world?"

O'Rourke then brought examples of Abbott's policies and viewpoints, such as recent changes in the state's mail-in ballot rules, abortion law and opinions on gender-affirming care for transgender youth. 

"We've got to get past this guy, this extremism, these fringe politics that are so deeply hurting the people in the state of Texas," said O'Rourke. "While the governor has this crazed fixation on transgender kids and their families, he has been told for the last seven years that we have a crisis in foster care and child protective services in the state. … Four months ago, Gov. Greg Abbott was warned that there is a facility here not too far from Austin and Bastrop, where children who have been trafficked for sex are in the custody and care of the State of Texas, and they are in turn being abused by their caretakers."

Smith then changed the topic to the state's electric grid and last year's fatal statewide winter storms.

"You have made the grid a central issue, if not the central issue of your campaign, talked about it every place you've got," said Smith. "What exactly did the governor do to cause that last February?"

"So you said he didn't cause the weather? It gets a lot colder in other parts of the country right now," he replied. "They didn't have the kind of power outages that we had here in Texas that the governor, on whose desk the buck stops, was warned repeatedly that we had underlying vulnerabilities in the grid, namely that we had failed to weatherize and winterize the gas supply. Well, when the temperature dropped last February, the gas supply literally froze at the wellhead and we couldn't get it to the generators that spin and produce the electricity that power our homes. He knew about that was warned about that repeatedly, 2011, 2014, right up until the day that he promised all of us in February of last year that will be able to keep the lights on in the state of Texas, and the lights went out and the heat failed and the water stopped flowing because the pipes froze as well, and people lost their lives as a consequence."

During the state's legislative session last year, lawmakers did pass legislation to address the grid failure. However, O'Rourke claims Abbott has done little to fully fix the issue.

"But to add insult to injury, not only did he not fix it when he was warned before we had the outages last year, he still has not fixed it more than a year later," said O'Rourke. "We still have yet to weatherize and winterize the gas supply. I don't know, but it may have something to do that. He's accepted more than $4.6 million from the gas supply companies, CEOs and interests who don't want to invest in winterizing."

Smith then asked him what he would have done differently had he been governor at the time.

"After the storm hit, I would have weatherized the gas supply," he replied. "I would have connected ERCOT to the national grid so that we can draw down power when we need it. El Paso, where I'm from, is not part of ERCOT. El Paso, where I'm from, last February got just as cold as some other parts of the state, but we didn't lose power because we can draw power down from the rest of the country when we need it."

The duo then touched on the recent lawsuit filed by Texas billionaire Kelcy Warren of Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners. He's suing for defamation, slander and libel after O'Rourke's remarks that his company made billions in profit during the storms and he made campaign donations to Gov. Abbott.

"The lawsuit says you accused him falsely of, this is a quote, 'serious crimes, including extortion, bribery and corrupt influence.' He says you defamed him. Did you defame him?" asked Smith.

"No. The best defense against libel is the truth. And by pointing out that this person's company made $2.4 billion while a Vietnam-era veteran who could not charge an oxygen tank at home, went out to his truck to try to charge it there, and they found him later frozen to death in this state after his years of service and sacrifice to this country, after an 11-year-old boy and Conroe, Texas, froze to death in his bed because his mom could not pile enough blankets on his body to keep him warm enough to survive the night," said O'Rourke. "This guy's company made $2.4 billion, and that money did not appear from the sky."

The pair eventually touched on the confusing topic of the state's new rules regarding mail-in ballots. Smith brought up a Texas Tribune report showing that in 16 of the largest Texas counties, nearly 19,000 mail-in ballots were recently rejected for failing to meet the new requirements.

"It's not that the thing isn't working, it's that it's working exactly as intended?" asked Smith.

"Absolutely, yeah," said O'Rourke. "Willie Nelson had his ballot request rejected three times because, for those who don't know, the new law signed by Gov. Abbott last year requires you when you want to vote by mail in the midst of a pandemic or if you have a significant disability … you have to use the same form of ID with which you originally registered to vote and match that with the ID that you have right now voting in 2022."

O'Rourke said he believes this law targets big counties like Harris and Dallas to "disenfranchise voters who might otherwise threaten the governor's purchase on power."

He also claimed that it's now easier to carry a gun in the streets of Texas than it is to vote, due to the recently signed permitless carry law in Texas.

"You have seen a spike in gun violence," O'Rourke claimed. "More cops or sheriff's deputies or members of law enforcement have been gunned down in the state of Texas than in any other state. So when you hear b---s--- about defund the police – and some folks support law enforcement, some don't – Greg Abbott turned his back on those members of law enforcement who put their lives on the line for this community, and they're losing their lives at a faster rate than in any other state because of it."

On the topic of gun control, Smith asked the candidate to clarify on his stance on the idea of confiscating assault-style weapons from Texans. After some prodding, O'Rourke gave a direct answer.

"I don't think anyone should have one," said O'Rourke. "And if I can find the consensus within the Legislature to have a law in the state of Texas that allows us to buy those AK-47s and AR-15s back, we will. As you said earlier, I cannot mandate or dictate anything as the next governor of the state of Texas. I'm going to have to do this by listening moving forward."

Prior to his run for governor, O'Rourke also ran against Ted Cruz for senator in 2018 and U.S. president in 2020. O'Rourke also served as a U.S. congressman from 2013-2019 and as an El Paso City Council member before that. He currently leads Powered by People, an organization that works to expand democracy and fight for Democratic victories.

O'Rourke will also be hosting a "Beers with Beto" event grassroots fundraising event at Revival Coffee later Saturday from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $25.

Smith and O'Rourke's full discussion is expected to be available on demand on Sunday at 10 a.m. It was also streamed live on YouTube.

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