Beto O’Rourke signed a pledge to turn away donations from fossil fuel industry executives Wednesday, moving to blunt criticism that has dogged his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
The former congressman from Texas rejected contributions from lobbyists and political action committees this year and during his 2018 Senate run. But he has faced persistent questions and criticism at campaign events – often from university students – about why he accepted donations from individual oil and gas industry executives.
“We returned any money we received over $200 from any fossil fuel company executives. We will not take that money going forward,” O’Rourke said Wednesday in a video recorded from his front porch in El Paso and posted to Twitter.
“And we continue to try to be the largest grass-roots campaign in this country – all human beings, all fellow Americans, all focused on the same goals, including confronting climate change before it is too late,” he said.
The pledge comes the same week O’Rourke rolled out a $5 trillion plan to combat climate change, with a goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
O’Rourke said he was signing the pledge because he had been urged to do so by students at the College of William & Mary in Virginia and at other universities.
Spokesman Chris Evans said he could not immediately say how many contributions had been returned or what their total value is.
The “No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge,” backed by progressive and climate organizations, requires that signers “adopt a policy to not knowingly accept any contributions over $200 from the PACs, executives, or front groups of fossil fuel companies.”
O’Rourke had signed the pledge at a campaign stop during his Senate run. However, he did so at an event where he was told in front of a crowd that it barred PAC and lobbyist money; there was no mention of individual executives.
The paper O’Rourke signed last year contained only the line “I pledge to not take contributions from the oil, gas, and coal industry and instead prioritize the health of our families, climate, and democracy over fossil fuel industry profits.” The congressman tacked on the words “or any other PAC, corporation or special interest!”
Still, O’Rourke was later accused of breaking his pledge and removed from the list of signers.
The controversy began late last year when David Sirota – a former journalist who now works for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign – found that O’Rourke had received the second-highest total of contributions from the oil and gas industry of all 2018 candidates.
Earlier this month in New Hampshire, O’Rourke was asked to sign the pledge again but he declined.
“I’m not going to write off an entire industry or group of people,” he said, while saying his goal was to “get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.”
“If we’re going to come together at this very divided, highly polarized moment, we’ve got to bring people together, see common cause and ensure that everyone is part of the solution,” he said then.
O’Rourke also had been pressed at the University of South Carolina in late March over those figures. He acknowledged the point but noted that his campaign – which shattered Senate fundraising records with an $80 million haul – was at or near the top of the list in contributions for nearly every industry.
“We were also the single largest recipient of hairdresser money and pharmacists’ money and doctors and schoolteachers and just about every profession,” O’Rourke said. “I serve people and people only, not PACs or corporations or special interests.”
O’Rourke said that during his Senate bid, he visited every Texas county and “did not allow oil and gas – any corporation, any special interest – to purchase access, to corrupt, to give the appearance of corruption.”