Beto O’Rourke speaks on public policy, importance of human connection in medical student leadership series

Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke talked about empathy, vaccine distribution, gun control and drug prices as he fielded questions from students in a Healthcare Management Student Association lecture Thursday. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/Gage Skidmore

Former Texas Congressman and one-time presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke is adamant that listening to others and being empathetic have been the reasons behind his success. When speaking about leadership to the Healthcare Management Student Association (HMSA), he tried to convey that kindness is key when it comes to making any sort of change. 

O’Rourke was February’s guest speaker in the monthly HMSA leadership series installment Feb. 4. During the hourlong lecture, he spoke to a group of 74 students on Microsoft Teams about his thoughts on public policy. The event was hosted by HMSA President Vishal Panchigar and Assistant Professor at USF Health Zachary Pruitt, the latter of whom is a longtime friend of O’Rourke after consulting on a small online startup, Stanton Street Design, in which O’Rourke was involved in 2000. 

“I’m so grateful for the invitation but also just for [Pruitt’s] friendship and staying connected after many years that we’ve known each other and the many years since we’ve actually physically lived in the same city,” O’Rourke said. “To be able to continue to call [Pruitt] a friend and to connect professionally like this or over a beer and a slice of pizza, it’s pretty nice when life works out that way.” 

He spoke primarily on the importance of making connections with other people. Whether the topic was gun control or COVID-19 vaccine distribution, O’Rourke emphasized the value of opening up to other people. 

“What I’ve learned and what I expect to be true is that we make decisions on a much more fundamentally personal level in terms of our ability to judge a person’s character or their ability to connect with us about what’s important to us in our lives, and that is often reflected in the policy positions that someone takes,” he said. 

Listening to people is the key to all careers, according to O’Rourke, especially in his own career within the political sphere. He beat an eight-term incumbent in his 2012 congressional win, and he attributed that success largely to his willingness to sit down and listen to people. 

“People will spend a kajillion dollars on consultants, posters, slick mailers, fancy TV ads and all that jazz, but the thing is, in a democracy, your ability to connect with people on the most direct fundamental human-to-human front is the whole game,” he said.

He said he knocked on the door of an elderly woman during his 2012 campaign to be the representative for Texas’ 16th congressional district and she invited him in for coffee. He sat with the woman for 20 minutes and listened to her political concerns, as well as her life concerns, talked with her and then left. 

A week later, O’Rourke said he was approached by a man about his age. He told him that the woman he spoke with was his grandmother and that she had told him and all 23 of their family members to vote for O’Rourke. 

After a monologue about some of his experiences as a politician, O’Rourke opened the meeting up for questions. Students were able to raise their hands and ask questions with their microphones and cameras on. All the questions revolved around public policy in some form.

Among the many topics discussed was coronavirus vaccine distribution. The pandemic hit his hometown of El Paso harder than almost any other city, according to O’Rourke, with 2.5 million cases and 38,200 deaths in the city alone. He said 10 mobile morgues were brought to the city because regular morgues were filled. He has been active in trying to get as many vaccines out to the community as possible. 

“We got to be really intentional about vaccine distribution,” he said. “We know the underlying comorbidities, the underlying environmental challenges and the underlying housing and population density challenges that we have in these communities, they’ve been there for a long time.”

O’Rourke and a team of 50 volunteers will be knocking on doors all over El Paso on Feb. 6 to register as many people as possible for vaccine appointments. He said he wants others to follow in his footsteps to mobilize citizens to vaccinate themselves and encourage others to do so as well.

One student asked what O’Rourke hopes to see President Joe Biden do in regard to gun control, as it was a large part of O’Rourke’s campaigns for Congress and the presidency.

He said he wants to see mandatory background checks and a ban accompanied with a  buyback on all assault weapons for civilians. 

“[Assault weapons] were initially designed, engineered and sold to militaries to kill people,  they’re just really good at that, and most people agree that you don’t need one to hunt and you don’t need it for self-defense,” he said. “You need one to kill somebody on a battlefield, so keep [it] on the battlefield.” 

He elaborated by saying that women in Texas are 24% more likely to be killed by a firearm than women in any other state. He believed this was due to Texas allowing documented domestic abusers to obtain firearms. 

“There’s no consequence for domestic violence or domestic abuse in terms of your ability to possess a firearm in the state,” O’Rourke said. “When there are no consequences and accountability, you then end up using that firearm to kill your intimate partner and other people with whom you live.” 

A few questions dealt with artificially high pharmaceutical prices, which was a concern of some Master of Public Health students. O’Rourke called the phenomenon “inexplicable” and said the only ways he can see to lower the prices to an amount that the average citizen can afford is to make health care universal or for people to participate in democratic reform. 

“My cynicism, fear or my dose of reality tells me I don’t know that we get there until we get reform of our system so that folks are making decisions based on the needs of their constituents instead of the desires of their donors,” he said. 

Throughout the event, O’Rourke emphasized communication with representatives, community members and neighbors as a key to success. He said that it is especially urgent to connect with people who have different political views in order to expand viewpoints and bridge gaps. 

“I think the attitude to import is one of empathy, kindness and compassion, despite the real ugliness that you see right now in this country,” he said.