Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke committed to free tuition for the first two years of any college education, a shift from his former stance against free college tuition for all, during a Saturday visit to Los Angeles.
O’Rourke held a town hall in Boyle Heights where he answered questions from residents on a variety of topics including gun control, climate justice, health care, partisan politics and the statehood of Puerto Rico.
The former congressman said he also plans to enact policies ensuring four-year programs are debt-free, not just for tuition but also for books and housing, and called for student debt cancellation for graduates who enter public service careers like teaching.
“That way, costs will no longer be an object to people being able to better themselves or serve their communities,” O’Rourke said.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, the current federal student debt relief program, cancels Direct Loans for people working in the public service sector after they make 120 qualifying payments. Although over 1 million people work with qualifying employers, only 1,724 people have made more than 90 qualifying payments so far and a total of 1,216 people were approved for the program since applications opened in October 2017.
According to the Department of Education, 100,835 applications, or 91%, were rejected, mostly due to insufficient qualifying payments or missing information. Loan servicers often encouraged borrowers to switch to payment plans that had lower monthly payments but did not qualify for PSLF, according to Forbes.
O’Rourke, a rising Democratic star from Republican-dominated Texas, surprised voters by narrowly losing to Ted Cruz in the 2018 Senate elections. He is best known for his gun control proposals, which became the most aggressive of all candidates’ after his hometown El Paso, Texas, where he served on the city council for six years, was rocked by a race-fueled mass shooting that left 22 dead two months ago.
“We willingly sell AK-47s and AR-15s, machines of war designed and engineered and sold to the militaries of the world to kill people, effectively, efficiently, in as great a number as possible,” O’Rourke said. “We are going to buy back every AK-47 and AR-15 that is out there.”
Demarcus Gilliard, a former captain and communications officer for the U.S. Marine Corps, asked O’Rourke about how he plans to pass such aggressive measures when many on Capitol Hill resist it, just as many resisted changing legislation on slavery in the 19th century.
“I am confident that the politics and the polling and everything else that matters and makes it possible will either catch up or, with you as example, will lead the way,” O’Rourke said. “No half-steps, no half-measures, no half-the-country.”
Ariana Gonzales, a fourth-year public health student at the Univeristy of California, San Diego who attended the town hall, said many issues O’Rourke focuses on have an immediate impact on students.
“I think us students care more about these things because we are in schools,” Gonzalez said. “We’re told we have to get an education, and we don’t feel safe in our spaces. How are we supposed to be educated? We’re distracted by the possible harm that can be inflicted on us because of these firearms.”
Neda Ashtari, a second-year medical student at UCLA and the chair of the American Medical Student Association’s Just Medicine campaign, pushed O’Rourke on health care, another topic that directly affects her as a medical student.
“I see patients constantly who can’t afford their medications and are forced to either forgo treatment altogether, or give up their homes and their livelihoods entirely, to pay to stay alive,” Ashtari said. “I lost my own mom, because we couldn’t afford to pay for (her) chemotherapy at the age of 55, when I was 16. And it’s crazy to me that I keep reliving the same story over and over again.”
O’Rourke said he will pass a universal health care option where people with no or insufficient coverage will automatically be enrolled in Medicare, regardless of the partisan divide.
“Getting a universal, guaranteed, high-quality care and preserving choice for those who have plans that work for them and their families: That is the goal,” O’Rourke said. “And I’m going to work to make sure that we have a Democratically controlled Senate (and) add to the members who are in the House to make sure that we can pass this.”
The frankness with which O’Rourke pushes his agenda has also grabbed the appeal of younger voters, who see his use of expletives as necessary and genuine expressions of anger. O’Rourke cursed at least twice during the town hall, once about the current political climate and once about the horrors of gun violence.
Danny Brownstein, a third-year medical student at UCLA, said he likes how O’Rourke is breaking the political taboo against expletives.
“Times of high emotional stress, that’s how people speak,” Brownstein said. “You can tell that he genuinely cares about the things that he’s saying.”
Earlier Saturday, O’Rourke shared the stage with fellow Democratic candidates Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg at the Unions for All Summit, held by the Service Employees International Union. The multiday summit also hosted five candidates Friday, including the Democratic front-runners Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren.