Thursday, January 17, 2019

Taking Beto to Berlin: Intro



In the interim, there was the 2018 midterm election, and for the first time in over a decade, Texas had a chance of electing a non-amphibian creature to the senate.

His name was Beto O’Rourke. He was a handsome, forty-five-year-old state congressman from El Paso, and although he had an old-fashioned, Robert Kennedy air about him, he was very much a candidate for the modern age. He yielded the power of social media like a weapon, regularly going live on Facebook from town halls or rallies or the drive-thru at Whataburger, keeping his supporters in the loop as he doggedly campaigned throughout Texas, visiting every one of its 254 counties—even the red counties in the panhandle with only five voters all named Jed.

And Beto’s campaign was unique—he didn’t accept corporate money, he avoided negative attacks, and he refused to employ pollsters or consultants.

For this and many other reasons, Texans embraced him, and never more so than in Austin. True, our city was already bluer than a tongue after downing a packet of Pop Rocks, but no politician had ever had much luck getting our city of one million stoners to step out of our live music festivals and food trailers long enough to plant campaign signs in the sun-drenched, dying brown patches we called yards.

But for Beto, we planted thousands of them—in our yards, and everywhere else. All the way down MOPAC and up William Cannon, through Round Rock and into Georgetown, Beto’s midnight blue campaign signs dominated over the spring bluebonnets and summer Turk Caps that grew beside the sizzling black pavement of our roads.

We stuck Beto stickers on our bumpers too and hung Beto banners over the 360 bridge. We wore his shirt, “Beto for Senate” on hot summer day trips to farmer’s markets and parks and paddleboat tours on Lake Travis. I bought four Beto shirts for my family and myself at a Willie Nelson benefit concert for Beto—an event attended by 55,000 of his supporters, whose applause reached an astounding roar when he appeared on stage close to midnight, his characteristic blue button-down shirt sweat-soaked under the arms. Throughout Auditorium Shores and across the lake to the bars on 6th Street and the Warehouse District, onlookers and city dwellers alike repeatedly heard the cry, “Beto, Beto, Beto!”

Even out-of-staters got in on the action. On Twitter you could see pictures of Beto signs staked to yards across the country: a Beto sign surrounded with leaves in Maine, a Beto sign staked in sand on a Florida beach. Beto’s speech that praised NFL players kneeling during the national anthem went viral. “Protest is a form of patriotism,” he argued, causing Ellen DeGeneres to tweet at him, “Come to my show.” He did. He appeared on Late Night with Stephen Colbert too. The New York Times sent a reporter to follow his campaign in east Texas. The glowing article that followed depicted the Democrat candidate as a courageous knight on a heroic crusade through the unholy land of rednecks and hillbillies. “I wish I lived in Texas so I could vote for him!” my friends on Facebook would say.

The media called it Betomania. “Can anything stop the Beto train?” one headline asked.

No, it couldn’t, I concluded, sticking my Beto pin in my black blazer before heading to work. We weren’t supposed to wear candidate gear at my office, but it was election day and I had decided that morning, to hell with it. I was ten fingers and toes in. Finally, I had placed my bet on a winning team.

I was blind, of course. We all were.

Deaf and dumb and blind and way, waaay too confident.

Were there warning signs? Sure. My grandmother used to say, God doesn’t hand you a stone without handing you a pebble first. So yeah, there were warning signs. Tons of them, everywhere; little red flags that I chose to ignore until it was too late.

First red flag: I take a barre class every morning. As a white woman living in a city of overwhelming whiteness, it is probably the whitest thing I do (even the instructors’ names were straight out of a Baby Names for White Women book: Brook, Brittany, Rebecca, Kylie, etc.). If you’ve never heard of barre, let me enlighten you: barre is like yoga if yoga involved standing on your tip-toes and clenching your butt cheeks together like you’re holding in the world’s biggest fart (they call it “tucking”). It’s supposed to give you a nice booty and increase your metabolism, but no studies have proven that it has any lasting effect other than permanently lodging your ass into your kidneys.

Over the summer and throughout the fall, I spent my mornings performing this masochistic ritual and listening to the (mostly white) women chat before and after barre class. Their conversations spanned an array of tediously trivial topics—anything from Lulu Lemon sales to gluten-free recipes to recaps of The Voice. “I thought Gwen Stefani looked amazing,” one woman would say, stretching out her chicken thin legs along the yoga mats. Another woman would add, “It’s like she hasn’t aged!” The room would pipe up in agreement, and I’d think, yeah, it’s easy not to age when you have a gazillion dollars.

Not once was the election—Beto, the blue wave, the debates, the campaign ads—ever mentioned.

Finally, before class on the first day of early voting, and before Brook or Brittney or whoever could hit the switch on our workout playlist (which somehow always included a high-speed version of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Go Back”), I shouted, “Don’t forget to vote!”

The sole black woman in the class grinned. “I already did this morning,” she said.

The other women looked confused, or else put-off. They pushed their yoga mats far away from me, and I thought, it wouldn’t be ignorance that would cost Beto the election—it would be indifference.

Second red flag: My friend Marian, a nurse who lived on the border of Louisiana and Texas, had volunteered to canvas for Beto on the Texas side. I had met Marian on Facebook after the 2016 election, and had found her to be a dedicated, passionate woman and a good friend when she wasn’t scaring me to hell and back with her dedication and passion. “I knocked on thirty doors today. What did you do?” she would post on Facebook. “I knocked on eighty doors and registered fifteen voters and I called all my reps, what the hell did you people do?” “I haven’t slept in ten days because I knock on doors all damn day and night.” “Seriously if you’re sitting on your ass worried about the midterms but you haven’t done a lick to help, then go fuck yourself, some of us are out here knocking on doors!”

Marian would privately message me and confide, “I don’t know, Erin. A lot of these people don’t even know who Beto is.”

“What do you mean?” I’d write back. “His signs are everywhere.”

“Yeah, but the signs don’t mean anything to them. These east Texas people—they’re blue-collar, you know—they wake up, go to work, come home, and go to sleep. They live paycheck to paycheck. They don’t care about the election because they don’t think the outcome applies to them.”

Third red flag: this was Texas, and Texas would be Texas. When you get a chance, look at the electoral map of Texas. It looks like a smurf head with a giant blood clot. And sure, maybe the counties that made up that blood clot (i.e. the panhandle) were sparsely populated, but there were many of them, and they added up.

Fourth red flag: polls showed Cruz in the lead. A big lead, in some cases. On the night that the New York Times conducted their poll—a poll that I hoped would prove the other polls were good-for-nothing liars—my son and I sat on the couch for hours and watched results pop up, clenching our fists when a vote came in for Cruz, shouting with glee when a vote came in for Beto. But when it was over, the results mirrored all the other polls: 51% for Cruz, 43% for O’Rourke.

Fifth red flag: my own calculations. During early voting, I—a mathematically challenged moron who hadn’t been able to help her children with math homework since they graduated first grade—became a fanatical number cruncher. I kept a spreadsheet of the early tallies from the fifty largest counties in Texas. I compared the numbers and their demographics with data from past elections. I created “if/then” scenarios and weighted equations, and spent hours toiling with statistics—but no matter how I manipulated the data, Beto was always 200,000 votes short.

I hoped I was wrong. I convinced myself that I was wrong, anyway. I told myself: my numbers didn’t reflect the new voters or swing voters, or those infuriating Libertarian voters who would hopefully shut up about slashing bureaucratic regulation on businesses long enough to take one the team (news flash, we’re a two-party system, guys). It didn’t reflect the thousands of California refugees who fled to Texas over the last two years because of our affordable housing and far superior breakfast tacos, or the dormant voters who sat out most elections but who were (hopefully) reinvigorated with Betomania.

Some counties had me worried more than others. Williamson, home to Austin’s populous but more conservative suburbs (and home to my Trump-supporting sister); El Paso, who was reliably blue, but had a historically low voter turnout; Nueces County, another county that was home to a lot of blue voters who never voted.

Tarrant County had me the most worried. I called it, “The Florida of Texas.” The Fort Worth area was predominantly middle-class and whiter than a barre class, making it swing voter central. Even Beto said, “As Tarrant goes, so does Texas.”

On election night, I sat on the edge of my couch and nervously slurped on my P. Terry’s caramel shake, watching the results roll in: Beto ahead, Beto behind, ahead, behind, ahead. Thirty-two percent of Tarrant County’s votes were in at nine o’clock, and Beto was only ahead by a slim margin. Please, suburban white people, I prayed, don’t mess this up for us.

Shortly after ten o’clock, CNN announced the projected winner of the 2018 Texas race for the United States Senate. Cruz’s reptilian grin splashed across the screen.





Have you ever been mid-sip in a sugary beverage when it suddenly tasted like ash? Have you ever felt an enormous pressure barrel into your gut, like a ten-ton roof just fell in your lap? Have you ever stood up so suddenly that stars appear, and you have to grip the corners of your couch to keep from flipping out? Have you ever witnessed firsthand the obliteration of hope when it crashes into despair?

If you haven’t, meet me some time. Come down to Texas. We’ll have a drink and I’ll tell you all about it.

In the end, Tarrant County did go for Beto (by a slim margin), but it wasn’t enough. Beto lost by 2,000 votes—exactly as my calculations had predicted.

“You should poll for a living,” Doug suggested. “You missed your calling.”

I grunted and threw my caramel shake in the trash. This was the one occasion where I’d hoped to be proven wrong.

#

The next morning, I set a bouquet of yellow roses and a Whataburger cup next to my Beto sign. I taped a piece of paper over “For Senate” that read, “For President.”

Fast-forward a month later, and the sign is still there—and my sign isn’t the only one.

I, like many Texans, have refused to let Beto go. His campaign signs still dot our yards, and his stickers still adorn our car bumpers, proudly announcing our support to any S.O.B riding our ass in traffic. Collectively, we are like a rejected suiter still infatuated with a former lover who has run away, blocked our number, and eloped with a gargoyle.

Speculations about Beto’s next move remain the talk of the town—whispers about another Beto run, perhaps for John Cornyn’s seat when that ole sad sack of horse manure retires next session (fingers crossed).

Some say Beto should run for president. Why not, they argue. He has the nation’s attention. Had the nation’s attention, rather. But he could very easily have it again.

Why can’t we just let go? Was it because we, his supporters, were sore losers? I don’t think so. Hell, we’re Democrats, we’re used to losing (I mean, if the coup de gras of election night 2016 hadn’t numbed us to defeat, then what would?) No, it was something else. I think our unwavering allegiance to Beto has less to do with letting go and more to do with holding on—holding on to the hope he had inspired in our state, in our country, and in ourselves, and the crackling energy that came with the hope. For almost a year, our sleepy red giant came to life with the promise of turning blue. My fellow Texans and I didn’t want to forget that, and we didn’t want the world to forget it either.

#

It’s the night before we leave for Europe, and my carry-on is already packed to the brim, but I decide at the last minute to add one more item.

Doug watches by the door. “Why are you bringing your Beto shirt to Berlin?” he asks. “It’s short-sleeved, for fuck’s sake.”

“I don’t care, I’m bringing it.”

Doug sighs. “You get cold standing next to the refrigerator, Erin. You’re going to freeze wearing that thing in Europe.”

“I don’t care,” I repeat. “I’ll wear it over a long-sleeved shirt.” I look up at him. “I want to bring it because when people see me wearing it, they’ll know I’m one of the good guys.”

And because I still hope, I added silently to myself. Hope for my state, hope for my country, hope for myself. And I wanted to take hope with me to Europe.
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