DERRY — In his second visit to New Hampshire since March, Beto O’Rourke said at a town hall meeting Thursday that it’s up to all Americans to work for change.
The Texas Democrat and former congressman running for President spoke to a crowd of close to 100 people at the Grind Rail Trail Cafe in Derry for about 20 minutes, covering a range of issues, before taking questions from the audience.
“Something I’m learning in my old age of 46 years is that there is an inertia to power,” O’Rourke said. “There is not an inertia to change.”
He said he used to believe things like increased justice, and expansion of rights and opportunities, came inexorably through the passage of time. Now, he said he believes people have to act to make those things possible.
After a brief introduction, O’Rourke began his speech by presenting the case that immigrants are not a harmful element in the country, but a beneficial resource. He pointed to his home city of El Paso, Texas, saying it is safe and successful, not despite a high share of Mexican families living there, but because of it.
O’Rourke returned to the theme of immigration throughout his talk.
He pointed to the since-rescinded family separation policy at the border, President Donald Trump’s disparaging statements about Mexican immigrants, and his recent tweet about Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments about 9/11, and O’Rourke warned that language like that can become policy.
“This is where our country is today, and it is on all of us to change our course if we disagree with it,” O’Rourke said.
He touched on gun violence, and said the students who survived the shooting at Parkland, Fla., last year provide a good example of how activism can result in positive change, such as some state law changes the students lobbied for.
Issues like affordable healthcare, affordable higher education and addressing climate change rounded out his rapid-fire speech, before he took questions.
In response to a question about the influence of money in politics, O’Rourke said he believes everything he wants to do is dependent on getting back control of our democracy.
“I’m not taking PAC money now, for the past four or five years, of any kind,” he said.
He said the influence of money can be seen in the country’s criminal justice system, because non-violent minorities are jailed for using non-addictive drugs like marijuana, but Purdue Pharma executives who had a hand in marketing dangerous opioids, contributing in large part to the current opioid addiction epidemic, he argued, are not serving any jail time.
O’Rourke said Israel and Palestine need a two-state solution, but none of the sides in power right now reflect that interest.
When asked how he would work to restore civility in the nation’s political discourse, he said it starts with the person in the Oval Office.
“It doesn’t help when we have a President who describes the press as the enemy of the people, not the best defense against tyranny,” O’Rourke said.
He added that, if elected, he would lift a ban on transgender people serving in the military, and sign legislation that would protect them from such policies in the future.
Speaking with reporters as the Mueller report was being released Thursday morning, O’Rourke declined to weigh in on the report until he’s had a chance to read it.
“I’m going to read the Mueller report, understand what, after many months of investigation, has been discovered, and then will be prepared to make a statement,” O’Rourke said.
But he said he is deeply concerned by hearing that Attorney General William Barr has been sharing information about the report with the White House.
“If there’s any coordination, if there’s any attempt to punish those who were investigating the single largest invasion of our democracy, which took place in 2016 by a foreign power, that really concerns me, but I want to make sure that I have a chance to read the report first,” he said.
There were several residents of Derry and town official present for the event, and some from out-of-state as well.
Peter Sage of Medford, Ore., said he is a blogger and political tourist trying to see as many presidential candidates as possible.
“He’s the most passionate, and it’s clear to me the Democratic nominee will need to express passion,” Sage said.
Simone Labine, 27, of Boston is a school teacher. She said she came with a fellow teacher to learn about O’Rourke, and they’re still undecided.
“He was captivating,” Labine said. “I think he’s a great speaker.”
She said his ideology seems to fit hers and those of her demographic, but she felt O’Rourke was light on specific plans, which she said would help differentiate him in the primary.
“Nobody has really set themselves apart based on that,” she said.