Beto O’Rourke, the former El Paso City Council member, U.S. congressman, and Senate and presidential candidate, is about to earn another title: Professor.
O’Rourke will teach a seminar about the struggle for voting rights in Texas at the LBJ School for Public Affairs at the University of Texas starting in January, O’Rourke and school officials told the American-Statesman.
The class, titled Texas Democracy and the Fight for Representation, will examine democracy in action, Texas legislative policy and executive power, and the history of voter rights and voter participation in the state — while also unpacking the running of a political campaign in Texas.
O’Rourke said he wants to examine the tension in Texas, where a state that produced Lyndon Baines Johnson, signer of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act, also remains in 2020, despite historic record turnout, “one of most restrictive states in terms of voter participation.”
“There are no sidelines in a democracy,” O’Rourke said in an interview. “Part of the price of being an American is your expectation to participate — civically, in front of the school board, voting in a presidential election. For young people, time and again, inside and outside of official power, they’re able to move this country ultimately to do the right thing — though it can take a long time and be frustratingly slow.”
LBJ officials said the school will decide by lottery the 16 graduate students who get to enroll in the class — out of a little more than 300 graduate students overall. In keeping with pandemic protocols, the class will be held via Zoom.
O’Rourke is “uniquely positioned to speak to the practical and current challenges in public affairs,” said David Springer, acting dean of the LBJ School. “We know that a good many of our students are interested in a life in the political arena and a life of public service, so we think there’s going to be great interest in this course.”
In addition to the course, O’Rourke, a Democrat who rocketed to national fame in his narrowly unsuccessful campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, will convene at least a pair of bipartisan forums, online and open to the public, about policymaking and politics.
O’Rourke told the Statesman that the texts in the class he will teach will include Alexander Keyssar’s “The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States;” a biography of Lawrence Nixon, a Black El Paso physician who successfully challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1920s a Texas law that denied African-Americans the right to vote in the Democratic primary; and the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case, a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that rendered a key section of the Voting Rights Act all but useless.
In her opinion, Ginsburg pointed to continued efforts to discriminate in Texas, among other places, writing that “throwing out preclearance” — the requirement that certain historically discriminatory areas get federal approval before making changes to their voting laws — “when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Part of the course, naturally, will turn to campaigning.
O’Rourke, who famously connected with record numbers of Texas voters in 2018 — especially younger ones, said the course will discuss “what it’s like to start a campaign and run for office.”
“One of the things I hope to do is demystify it,” he said, explaining that he will speak about his own experience running for El Paso City Council. “There’s no secret handshake, and no necessary magic on the part of the candidate — the basics are actually pretty simple.”
Along these lines, the students will read and discuss a letter of advice from the Roman orator Cicero to his younger brother about running for office.
“This 2,000-year-old text — we’re going to read because the fundamentals still apply,” O’Rourke said. “The Facebook ads, the broadcast TV spots, the slick mailers — from my perspective, a lot of that is just interference, and is a poor substitute for the basics of political campaigning, which essentially call for you to meet the people you want to serve and represent, and have a chance to hear from them and understand what their expectations are and then do your best to meet them.”
O’Rourke will be paid $10,000 for the graduate course, comparable to the standard rate for adjunct assistant professors at the LBJ School, said school spokeswoman Victoria Yu. He will also be paid $10,000 to convene at least two public forums.
He is also scheduled to teach an online course on politics at Texas State University in the spring, the university newspaper reported in October.
That class, O’Rourke told the Statesman, will be an undergraduate course that will be a broader overview of state politics, with an eye to historical movements — such as a farmers alliance that came out of Lampasas — as well as figures and institutions.
And will he be running for governor in 2022?
“I have no plans to run for any office,” O’Rourke told the Statesman. “I’m focused on teaching and that’s what I’ll be spending my time doing.”