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With Texas Power Grid in Hot Seat, Beto O'Rourke Embarks on 'Keeping the Lights On' Tour

Texas Dems want Beto O'Rourke to take over the governor's mansion.
Texas Dems want Beto O'Rourke to take over the governor's mansion. Mike Brooks
While shivering Texans pray that the power grid survives this week’s winter weather, Beto O’Rourke is hopping in his truck and hitting the road. Meanwhile, Gov. Greg Abbott's team has already clapped back, accusing O'Rourke of exploiting last year's deadly storm.

On Friday, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate officially embarked on his latest tour: “Keeping the Lights On: A Statewide Drive for a Brighter Texas.” O’Rourke says his journey will take him through more than 20 cities and towns in 12 days. (His website currently lists nine dates and a dozen cities.)

Sunday afternoon, he’ll stop by Denton’s Quakertown Park.

O’Rourke’s 2,100-mile drive comes roughly a year after Winter Storm Uri claimed at least 246 lives, in addition to prompting rolling blackouts and boil-water notices throughout the state. At each stop, O’Rourke will relay the message: With him in charge, Texans wouldn’t have to worry about the grid.

During an interview posted to Twitter earlier this week, O’Rourke blasted Abbott’s response to last year's storm, which caused millions of Texans to lose power and heat. Many also faced frozen or burst pipes, amounting to billions in damages.

“None of this was an act of God or by force of Mother Nature,” O’Rourke said, “but had to do with decisions made by those in the highest positions of power who, for example, failed to weatherize the grid to protect against these kind of cold weather events.”
O’Rourke went on to note that ratepayers throughout the state have been stuck footing a spike in monthly utility bills, which he calls the “Abbott Tax.” This comes as Abbott’s campaign has received millions in contributions from the energy industry.

In another interview, O’Rourke said Abbott should have fixed the grid sooner. The governor was warned after grid failures in 2011 and 2014 but ignored the experts, O’Rourke said.

“That’s what Texans need right now: reliable leadership.” – Abhi Rahman, O'Rourke campaign spokesperson

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As governor, O’Rourke said he’d ensure that every aspect of the grid is fully weatherized and connected to the national grid for help during emergencies. And what of the Abbott Tax? “I’m going to send money back down to the ratepayer,” he said. “And I want to make sure that we have the resources to invest in weatherization, in energy efficiency, so that we lower utility bills and also improve total reliability of the grid.”
New polling shows that the grid is a major issue for Texas voters. When asked whether leadership should place higher priority on the grid or securing the border, 50% of respondents said the grid is more pressing, according to the survey by The Dallas Morning News/University of Texas at Tyler. (Another 41% went for border security.)

In addition, nearly half of Texans (47%) said they had “not too much” confidence or “no confidence” that the grid could withstand blackouts in their community this winter.

During his tour, O’Rourke hopes to hear from Texans hit by last year’s winter event, including how their communities came together in that time of need. Keeping the Lights On ends Feb. 15 in Houston to coincide with the blackout’s one-year anniversary.

Some political experts believe Abbott’s political future could hinge on whether the grid endures another cold snap this winter. In November, Abbott “guaranteed” Texans that the lights would stay on. Earlier this week, though, he backpedaled on that promise. Still, as of Thursday, the grid appears to be holding up.

In a news release, Abbott campaign spokesperson Renae Eze accused O’Rourke of attempting to use this year’s storm for political gain.

“Just when you think Beto O’Rourke couldn’t sink any lower, he comes along with his ‘Praying The Lights Go Out’ tour,” she said. “While Beto is traversing the state rooting for the pain and suffering of fellow Texans, Governor Abbott has been working to strengthen the grid with the PUC, ERCOT, and the Legislature to ensure Texas remains a national leader in energy.”

But speaking with the Observer, O’Rourke campaign spokesperson Abhi Rahman called that response “laughable.”

Last year during the winter storm, O’Rourke got in his truck and drove to help communities in need, Rahman said. “This isn’t a political game to us,” he said. “It is to them.”

It’s "ridiculous" that Texas is the only state in the country where residents have to worry about whether the lights will stay on, he added. (Editor's note: California's electricity supply also has had some trouble in recent years.)

Abbott shouldn’t be rewarded for doing the bare minimum, and last year's power crisis was “Exhibit A” of the problems he’s had leading the state, Rahman said. The governor consistently puts politics over managing Texas, which is why the past legislative session produced permitless carry for handguns and anti-abortion laws instead of fixing the grid.

The Keeping On the Lights tour will call out the incumbent’s grid failures and unveil O’Rourke’s own plan for brightening the state’s future, he said: “That’s what Texans need right now: reliable leadership.”
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter