Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke holds roundtable, rally in Oakland


Hannah Heisler | Senior Staff Photographer

Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke visited Schenley Plaza on Wednesday to discuss marijuana, immigration and gun legislation.

By Jade Chang, For The Pitt News

A tall man quietly walked down the Schenley Plaza walkway Wednesday afternoon, which was lined with restaurants, kiosks and students enjoying their lunch outside. But then some of the people waiting under the Plaza’s tent realized it was the man they were waiting for — 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke. Cheers of “Beto! Beto! Beto!” began to emerge from the tent.

O’Rourke, a former U.S. representative, visited Oakland Wednesday as part of a campaign jaunt through Pennsylvania and Ohio. He is currently polling at 2% nationally, according to a late September poll by Quinnipiac University.

Roundtable in the William Pitt Union

O’Rourke began his visit in the William Pitt Union Wednesday morning, attending a roundtable of current and former employees of UPMC Presbyterian and the Western Psychiatric Institute who voiced concerns to him about their workplace and union status.

The group — comprised of food service attendants, nurses and a former student worker — sat in an open circle in front of cameras, with O’Rourke in the middle, who made a point to acknowledge each of them by name.

“We’re very interested in any solutions that you can pose and how we can reflect that in what we’re doing,” O’Rourke said.

James DeShields, who has worked at UPMC Presbyterian’s dietary department for three years, told O’Rourke that many employees at Presybyterian owe the hospital money from treatments for injuries incurred from working at the hospital. He himself was injured at work and was billed nearly $3,000 by Presybterian for his four-day hospitalization. 

“You work at Presby and they know how much you make. I make $14.69 an hour and I get a bill for $3,000,” DeShields said. “It’s nice that I can go there, but what is the possibility of me paying $3,000 back to Presby when I got hurt at Presby and I work for Presby? That’s the issue — we have people everyday who can’t afford to get the medical treatment that they need.”

O’Rourke replied that it didn’t make sense to him that the hospital would allow their workers to be in debt because of their services.

“It’s really hard to understand a provider of medical care and large employer whose employees … are unable to afford the medical care that’s being delivered,” O’Rourke said.

The other roundtable participants spoke about UPMC’s history of firing workers who joined unions, not providing enough staff for patients and overwhelming work hours. 

Grace Johnson, a member of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania and UPMC health care worker, said because her pay is so low at $11.25 an hour, she receives government assistance and works extra jobs to make ends meet.

“I still deal with government agencies, I’m still on welfare, I still deal with Section 8, I still go to food banks,” Johnson said. “I’ve never gotten overtime, I’ve never gotten holiday pay. I Uber and Lyft in my spare time, which takes away from the fact that I have two kids at home that also need me.”

O’Rourke closed the roundtable by saying he would work to expand protections for workers, whether or not he receives the Democratic nomination and is elected president. Under an O’Rourke administration, the Equal Rights Amendment would be ratified to prevent workplace discrimination.

“Therein lies the role of government — to acknowledge that mistake, to seek to repair it and to make it right going forward,” O’Rourke said.

Schenley Plaza rally

After attending a roundtable in the William Pitt Union, O’Rourke was met at Schenley Plaza with applause and cheers from about 100 community members, as well as Pitt students, staff and faculty.

He discussed a variety of topics from immigration to climate change to prison reform, condemning the Trump administration’s policies on all three issues and voicing his plans to implement new ones.

O’Rourke condemned President Donald Trump for his offensive labels for Latino immigrants and said most asylum seekers come to America defenseless with no other options.

“All that rhetoric about immigrants coming to invade our country, about the asylum seekers that the president calls animals, an infestation, predators and killers —- it’s bulls***,” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke also called for effective measures to combat climate change, warning that rising sea temperatures will cause storms and hurricanes worse than ever before.

“These 10 years — which is what scientists say is all we have left — must be used to maximum advantage to free ourselves forever from our dependence on fossil fuels and to embrace wind and solar and other renewable energies,” O’Rourke said.

Under an O’Rourke administration, people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes would be granted clemency.

“Our prison population is disportionately comprised of people of color, many of whom are there for a nonviolent drug crime like possession of marijuana,” O’Rourke said. “The war on drugs has become a war on people.”

Skylar Holley, a sophomore nursing major, praised O’Rourke for the broad set of issues that compose his agenda.

“I really like that he pushes for criminal justice reform and environmental reform to combat climate change,” Holley said. “But at the same time he seems to be recognizing things like veterans’ rights that will draw the majority of people in.”

Although many subscribe to his ideology, some Pitt students are still hesitant to support O’Rourke’s campaign. Sydney Grissom, a sophomore economics major, wishes that he would present a more comprehensive plan to enact his policies once in office.

“I think his platform lacks a plan for a lot of things — he has a lot of good soundbites and a lot of good things to say, but some of the things don’t seem to be backed up,” Grissom said. “He kind of just adopts what people want him to say.”

O’Rourke ended his time in Oakland with a rallying cry for unity and equality.

“All this water, these bridges and this fierce pride that exists in Pittsburgh — it’s just so beautiful,” he said. “It binds us together, the people of Pittsburgh and the people of El Paso. Our city is one perhaps not unlike how some feel about Pittsburgh, where you don’t know the real beauty and magic until you seek it in the community.”