(EL PASO, Texas) — Just days after a mass shooting claimed the lives of 22 people in an El Paso, Texas Walmart, former Congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke invited ABC News and three Texan voters into his home for the network’s premiere episode of “Around the Table,” a series bringing together candidates and voters for a candid conversation around the dinner table.
Joining O’Rourke and his wife Amy at their El Paso home were Nightline co-anchor and Chief National Correspondent Byron Pitts, Viviana Rivera, Caleb Morris and Tess Clarke. The three voters going into the O’Rourke’s family-style dinner said they were undecided on who they were currently supporting in the presidential race.
Rivera is a life-long El Paso native who retired from a federal government job and has voted both Republican and Democrat in the last couple elections, she told ABC News some of her biggest concerns was legal and safe immigration policy.
Morris is a current Texas Tech college student from Arlington, Texas who says he’d like to see presidential candidates talk more about education and student debt relief.
Meanwhile 36-year-old Clarke, from Dallas, Texas, said she is currently “politically homeless,” but couldn’t see herself voting for President Trump in 2020 after not identifying with either party in 2016.
Right off the bat, during one of the first questions from Clarke in light of the shooting in El Paso, she asked “what does common sense gun reform look like?” given her concerns that her faith-based community would see limiting gun rights as another step towards limiting religious rights.
“It would begin with a background check on every weapon purchased and every weapon transferred,” O’Rourke responded. “This is– perhaps a little bit more controversial. But I think you should also have to have a license for owning firearms.”
Just days later when re-launching his presidential campaign after a 12-day hiatus from the trail, O’Rourke said he would also be proposing a mandatory assault rifle buy-back program, telling reporters “in the past, I’ve said this is something we should consider I want to think about it. I want to talk to people about it. I’ve thought about it…that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Another topic important to the dinner table, the belief that President Donald Trump’s rhetoric had in some part given motivation to the attack on El Paso. When asked if he thought the president was a racist, O’Rourke responded with, “absolutely,” as he listed various instances and policies that he felt portrayed Trump’s racist actions. But he holds that it doesn’t mean Trump’s supporters are racists themselves.
“There may be any number of reasons that somebody supports President Trump. And I wanna be very respectful of that,” O’Rourke said. “But I will say that Trump has encouraged the racists in this country,”
Speaking on a subject central to his campaign, O’Rourke was asked to clarify his stance on whether or not to decriminalize border crossings, something his Texan opponent, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, challenged him on the debate stage in Miami, Florida just months ago.
Rivera noted that she herself had a family member from whom it took over 20 years to get her immigration paperwork processed after having entered the U.S. from Mexico legally, telling the dinner table her aunt passed away just two years after her paperwork had finally been processed.
O’Rourke said he would rather reform current immigration laws and create a family case management program” to keep families together and push immigrants seeking to enter the U.S. to pursue a “legal, safe, orderly process to come to this country.”
Adding that if immigrants are being given a “lawful, safe, orderly path” to enter the country and they “still insist on defying our laws, I will reserve the right to criminally prosecute you,” O’Rourke said. “I think that’s a fair bargain for us to ask.”
For Clarke, who said she sometimes struggles with the label of “Evangelical,” she said one of her main concerns was how a pro-life Christian votes for someone like O’Rourke who supports abortions. O’Rourke said it was a topic he also grappled with given his Catholic upbringing, but that he saw the value in a woman’s right to choose and accessible reproductive health care options.
“I hope that I’ve found some common ground with my mom — in saying that — whether it’s Planned Parenthood or another family planning clinic, in addition to ensuring that — choice means not only having the right but the access to the provider and the services,” O’Rourke said. “It’s also about saving lives in this country and in our communities.”
Other topics the voters pressed O’Rourke on, his education and health care plans. When it came to education, his guests asked how exactly the U.S. would be able to afford his proposals for ending education disparities among disadvantaged populations and debt-free college.
O’Rourke said it would be a matter of refiguring the current budget.
“It’s not a question of resources. As you said earlier, we’re the wealthiest country on the face of the planet. It is where we choose to direct that wealth and the investment going forward,” O’Rourke said. ‘“That’s health care, that’s education, that’s a living wage — that’s childcare. It’s the health of their community. So there are choices for us to make, for sure. But we can afford it.”
Looking forward, the voters noted what they thought were his lackluster debate performances so far, telling him “we need a bulldog in there.” O’Rourke said it would be something he would be working on as he heads into the third Democratic debate of the election cycle to be hosted by ABC News in partnership with Univision in just days on Thursday Sept. 12.
“I wanna do a better job. I really do. I wanna be strong,” O’Rourke said, before noting that for him success isn’t delivering one-liners in 30 seconds.
“Success is winning the nomination. Success is defeating Trump. Success is leading and helping to heal this very divided country. Success is doing that without compromising myself or what we believe in and who we are,” O’Rourke said. “And if that’s the price, it’s gonna be somebody else, you know? I gotta be me at the end of the day.”
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