BLAND, Va. — At Bland Square Grill in Bland County, Va., Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke spoke to constituents and media at a campaign stop on Friday morning.
O'Rourke represented Texas's 16th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives from 2013 to 2019. After losing his 2018 Texas Senate race against incumbent Republican Ted Cruz, O'Rourke began his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States in 2020.
O'Rourke, who may be the first presidential candidate to visit Bland County, spoke about many topics that are often discussed in today's politics: health care, education, infrastructure, climate change, immigration, and, hopes of defeating President Donald Trump in the 2020 race. He spoke for about 15 minutes before taking questions from the audience of around 30 people.
Brenda Blankenship, treasurer for the Bland County Democratic Committee, has lived in Bland for 48 years. She was able to ask O'Rourke a question during his visit. She asked the candidate how he would decide who he would put in his presidential cabinet.
"I will give you one example that affords us a wonderful opportunity. We have talked a lot today about education, having a Secretary of Education to replace Betsy DeVos, who has experience in public schools," O'Rourke replied. "Imagine as we write the next iteration of education policy, No Child Left Behind, followed by Every Child Succeeds act, that next version if you had a public school teacher at the helm of that department who understands that high stakes standardized tests in no way determines that child's performance or that teacher's potential, if we made sure that we were listening to teachers in curriculum and making sure that our public schools are world-class education facilities, there would be no stopping this country. So, I could care less about that secretary's connections or money, what I want to know is that she has that experience and wants to bring it to bear. Let's do the same for the other cabinet positions, to ensure that we have the diversity and genius of America in our government."
Blankenship said after O'Rourke's speech, that she was impressed by his answers and that she was excited that he decided to come to Bland County.
"I feel like the average citizen is not being represented, I feel like everything is going to big companies and big corporations and that their voice was being heard and not the citizens and I hate seeing people put in a position of power who have no idea what it is like. Our current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, she has never been a school teacher," Blankenship said. "Put people in there who know what they are doing."
Randy Newberry, a Bland County resident, said that he feels the main issue that faces his home is problems in America's education system.
"Locally I vote either Democrat or Republican because I know the people who are running," Newberry said. "I like what he (O'Rourke) said, a lot of politicians say a lot of things though. Our schools are in really bad shape in this area, just like all of Appalachia, the schools are falling down and there is less and less enrollment. To get a better education system in this area, you need more people and that means more jobs."
Other questions for candidate O'Rourke were more focused on problems facing Southwest Virginia. On the topic of coal-powered energy, he said that he had asked a man at the event, who had been a second generation coal miner in W.Va., for guidance in how to handle the issue.
"First of all, protect the pensions of the coal miners. Make sure lifetime health care for them is guaranteed. You absolutely have to invest in the education, training and technology to ensure that they are competitive for the next generation of jobs," O'Rourke said. "I am going to follow the lead, here in Bland and in W.Va. to make sure that coal miners are taken care of for the great work they have provided for this country and to make sure that their children are able to be just as competitive as any other career in this country."
As possibly the first presidential candidate to visit Bland County as a stop on the campaign trail, O'Rourke said he has learned that no matter where, all over the United States, if candidates do not show up, they have effectively written the people of that area off.
"We should not be surprised when they do not vote for us when we do not see eye to eye on given issues," O'Rourke said. "We just literally have not listened to one another and looked each other in the eye to have the necessary conversations. So coming to Wytheville last night or Bland today, it is really important for me to understand the needs and the opportunities in those communities which I could not do if I did not show up in the first place, and I have to tell you, I am so glad that I did because even in just these last two visits, I have learned so much on issues that are important from a policy perspective in these communities."
O'Rourke also said that he has been heartened by his visit and encouraged that, in his experience, everyone wants mostly the same things, across party lines.
"We want to see our kids have a world-class education, we want to be well enough because we have access to health care, we want to confront the challenges of the opioid crisis, gun violence or climate change," O'Rourke said. "The leadership, the urgency, the willingness to come together here just needs to be reflected in our politics."
On his campaign, O'Rourke said he has been able to connect with rural communities and that he has heard from many potential voters that broadband internet is a large need in the area.
"Ensuring that every business and child is just as competitive in Bland County as they would be in any part of America because we have made the necessary investments," O'Rourke said. "It also means listening to people and bringing solutions to our challenges, whether it is the opioid crisis, or health care, or education, or climate change, we have to make sure that we bring everyone in America into the solutions or not only will we never get those challenges addressed, we will never win the elections in the first place that will put us in the position of power to do something about it. I am very grateful that I had the chance to be in Bland today and loved what I had to hear."
During his trip through Virginia, O'Rourke will also travel to Blacksburg for a town-hall-style meeting in Virginia Tech's Hancock Auditorium.
— Contact Emily Rice at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @BDTrice