When former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, now a 2020 candidate, bounded up onto a platform inside Trinkle Hall on the campus of William and Mary College in Virginia in mid-April, he may not have known he was bounding into a carefully planned ambush. Scattered throughout the audience, student activists were engaged in a coordinated, and ultimately successful, campaign to force the congressman to swear off donations from the fossil fuel industry.
The Sunday before O’Rourke’s planned visit to campus, activists involved with the local chapter of Sunrise Movement, a grassroots group that sprung to life in the summer of 2017, began to work out their strategy over pancakes. They’d already scrambled to secure as many tickets as they could to the event. “We had multiple plans that we were going to follow in case there weren’t questions or in case we were not selected to ask questions,” says Maddie Belesimo, 20.
The day of the rally, they staked out their positions around the hall early. On their phones, each had the same question pulled up. Nineteen-year-old Maggie Herndon, a freshman history major, was the one who got to ask it. “You’ve already pledged to reject corporate PAC money. Given the corrupting influence that fossil fuel executives and their lobbyists have exerted on our politics and the role they’ve played in blocking climate action, will you pledge today to not knowingly accept any campaign contributions over $200 from the PACs, executives or lobbyists of fossil fuel companies by signing the no fossil fuel money pledge?“ she said.
O’Rourke had signed the No Fossil Fuel pledge in 2018 during his star-making run for the U.S. Senate against Ted Cruz, but Sunrise activists believe he broke it by accepting contributions from industry executives. In 2018, he took in more money from the fossil fuel industry than anyone in Congress other than his rival, Cruz. O’Rourke’s defenders argue that swearing off donations from individuals who work in Texas’s biggest industry would have effectively kneecapped his campaign.
It was a fraught question and so O’Rourke took a deep breath before treating it with one of his characteristically long, multi-clause answers.
“If you work in the oil fields, if you answer the phones at the office, if you’re one of my fellow Texans in one of our state’s largest employers, I’m not gonna single you out from being unable to participate in our democracy,” he began. “At this moment of division, if we exacerbate the divides, if we fail to include people into the solution, including those who work in oil and gas companies, if we fail to include coal miners in our transition from carbon-based energy sources, then we have written off their families and their communities.”
His voice rose, building to a crescendo: “You’ve got my commitment on the end-goal. You’ve got my commitment not to accept any PAC money. You’ve got my commitment not to accept any participation from lobbyists, but other than that I want to bring every single American together around…” Applause drowned out the last few words of his answer. “Thank you!” He shouted, looking satisfied with his own delivery.
The students in the audience, however, were not. “We were all a little bit frustrated that it seemed to us that he was avoiding the question,” Belesimo recalls. “There was a little bit of heckling going on and people could kind of feel the tension.” Some, positioned near the front of the room, pressed him to sign the pledge, but O’Rourke was non-committal, moving on to the next audience question.
“It seemed like he was just trying to pander to the crowd,” Herndon says. “None of us were very satisfied with the answer he gave.”
Younger climate activists once energized by O’Rourke’s Senate candidacy had become disillusioned with the former congressman since December, when large donations he accepted from fossil fuel executives were publicized by Sludge. Jamie Margolin, the 17-year-old founder of the youth-led climate organization Zero Hour, was one of them. Margolin was part of a group of teens who sued Washington governor Jay Inslee (also now a 2020 candidate), in an effort to force the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She told Rolling Stone in April that for all her criticisms of Inslee, “I would have him over Beto O’Rourke any day.” She cited O’Rourke’s refusal to sign the fossil fuel pledge as specifically disqualifying.
Members of Sunrise Movement have been “bird-dogging” O’Rourke for months to sign the pledge at campaign events around the country, says Belesimo. More than half of the 2020 candidates had already done so, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Jay Inslee, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, Marianne Williamson, Wayne Messam, Eric Swalwell, and Seth Moulton. (Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Michael Bennet, Tim Ryan, Julian Castro, John Delaney, and John Hickenlooper have not.)
On Monday, hours after O’Rourke introduced a climate proposal he characterized as “the most ambitious” in our nation’s history, the organization swiftly and aggressively dismissed it as “out of step with science.” Sunrise walked back its criticism a bit on Wednesday afternoon, acknowledging that O’Rourke’s plan had positive points, but that his timeline — net-zero emissions by 2050, as opposed to 2030 — was too late. A few hours after Sunrise softened its position on O’Rourke’s climate plan, O’Rourke announced that he was going to sign the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.
Before he announced it on Twitter, O’Rourke called Herndon, Belesimo and two other students who had been at the Trinkle Hall rally — Kelsey Wright, 18, and Hannah Ferster, 22 — to tell them that they had changed his mind. “We were sitting on the floor of my dorm room,” Herndon says. “He said he wanted to tell us first that the urgency we expressed to him… that that’s what prompted him to sign the pledge.”
Belesimo says, “When we hung up the phone we all just screamed… We didn’t expect that he would take our thoughts to heart and act on them.”
In his video announcement, O’Rourke says that his campaign has also returned any donations that violated the pledge. The O’Rourke campaign declined to tell Rolling Stone the total dollar amount of donations they’ve returned. But a review of O’Rourke’s quarter-one FEC report shows $2,800 donations, the maximum individuals can give, from at least five fossil fuel executives: Miguel Loya, president of Vitol Inc.; Masous Ladjevardian, president of Earthstone; Antonio Sanchez, president of Sanchez Oil Company; as well as Sanchez vice president, Anna Lee Jacobs; and David Honeycutt, of the Texas American Resources Company.
In addition to those executives who maxed out gifts to O’Rourke’s campaign in the first quarter, Rolling Stone identified another $10,000 in donations from figures in the oil and gas industry whose donations may violate the spirit, if not the letter of the pledge, for a total of about $24,000 in donations. The O’Rourke campaign did not respond to an inquiry about these specific donations.
“No matter the candidate, we have to continue to keep politicians accountable for what they say they’re gonna do,” Belesimo says. “I don’t ever blindly trust a candidate, but I’m glad that he signed it and he’s gonna to be held accountable for his actions surrounding that.”
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