It’s next to impossible to talk about Beto O’Rourke without talking about Ted Cruz. The sitting Republican senator is the reason O’Rourke’s candidacy has caught real fire. Left-leaning publications like Mother Jones have not been shy about anointing O’Rourke as the great Blue hope; more centrist publications, like Vanity Fair, have dared to use the K-word to describe him: “Kennedyesque.”
Meanwhile, as Rolling Stone gushes over O’Rourke’s punk rock roots, the magazine calls Cruz the Senate’s “most hated Republican.” That’s not just something lefties think, either. Republican New York Congressman Peter King famously threatened in 2016 to drink cyanide if Cruz had garnered the presidential nomination.
The fact that O’Rourke has more than once taken a seat away from popular incumbents is giving Democrats in Texas (and around the U.S.) hope for the first time in more than two decades that the Lone Star State’s delegation to the Senate could include a Democrat.
Which all prompts the question, just who is this Beto O’Rourke? Well, first off, Beto O’Rourke is actually Robert Francis O’Rourke, son of the late Patrick O’Rourke, once an El Paso County Judge and political associate to former Texas Gov. Mark White. The nickname Beto is a derivative of the Spanish Roberto, a language O’Rourke, now 45, speaks fluently, having grown up in El Paso.
O’Rourke’s punk rock era happened in the early 1990s. He was a singer and bassist for a band called Foss. The band released a 7-inch record in 1993, “The El Paso Pussycats,” though much of his music time was spent in New York. O’Rourke went to Columbia for his bachelor’s degree ‒‒ in English literature. He graduated in 1994.
A year later, O’Rourke was arrested on burglary charges in his hometown. The charges were dropped, and his defense has always been that he tripped an alarm while scaling a fence at UT-El Paso.
He worked for an internet company in New York before returning to El Paso for good in 1998. A year later, he co-founded an internet/software company called Stanton Street Technology, which he operates with his wife, Amy. The pair married in 2005, the same year O’Rourke unseated a two-term El Paso City Councilman named Anthony Cobos. His victory at 33 made him the youngest member of that council ever, and he won reelection by a landslide two years later.
But his time on the EPCC was not without its melodrama. Not even a year on the council, O’Rourke ran up against a border-patrolling militia group called The Minutemen, which O’Rourke wanted to disband, and survived a recall attempt (actually two) set in motion by a group of residents accusing him of an ethics violation. Stanton Street technology has been providing internet and software services for a development group called Paso El Norte, which was accused of making a land grab in El Paso County. The complaint was dismissed within a month, as was the second complaint, filed immediately after the initial dismissal.
O’Rourke made his biggest splash in 2009, when he stated for the record that he was in favor of legalized cannabis. His stance as an ardent opponent of the War on Drugs ‒‒ something he still calls a failure, especially in his home county, which neighbors the drug trafficking hot zone of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico ‒‒ and his open support for the LGBT community made him a popular name among some West Texans.
Popular enough, at least, for O’Rourke to upset eight-term Democrat U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes in the 2012 primary by a mere few hundred votes. By 2016, O’Rourke had won his third term in the U.S. House.
And, of course, less than a year later, O’Rourke officially set his sites on Ted Cruz. And while a Democrat (and quite a liberal one) winning a federal seat to serve Texas used to be a punchline, O’Rourke’s candidacy has been anything but dismissible for conservatives. Within three months of announcing his candidacy in March of 2017, O’Rourke had raised $2 million. By September, PolitFact reported that in polls, O’Rourke and Cruz were nearly even.
Part of O’Rourke’s appeal for the left seems to be his adamant dislike of President Donald Trump, perhaps the one thing left-leaning voters everywhere in the United States have in common. Another part of his appeal seems to do with his stance for tougher gun control and his willingness to air the discussion out. In the summer of 2016, O’Rourke, along with California Democrat Congressman Scott Peters transmitted images from a House meeting on gun control after Republicans ordered C-SPAN to stop broadcasting.
However, O’Rourke’s appeal to disgruntled Texans on the right might also have to do with his committee service in the House. He’s a member of the Committee on Armed Services and the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, and his first major legislation victory was a bill he sponsored to keep a tuition assistance program to veterans alive in 2013.
Legislatively, though, O’Rourke has been relatively quiet since 2013. As for his campaign tactics, O’Rourke’s been traveling Texas in what he’s presented as a meet-the-people-style tour.
His latest stops on this tour included visits to Rockwall, Greenville, Sulphur Springs and Emory on Jan. 3. O’Rourke concluded his day-long tour of Northeast Texas with events in Mineola and Tyler.
About 100 people attended the Greenville gathering, which featured a short speech by O’Rourke and concluded with a public forum. During the event, O’Rourke emphasized his stances on health care, immigration, education, crime and corrections, and border security.
“When health care is a fundamental human right that every single one of us can caount on, and not a function of wealth, or the lottery system, we will all do better as a state,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke emphasized his opinion that mental health systems in Texas are in need of reform.
“The county jails in Texas are the single largest provider of mental health care services in the state,” O’Rourke said. “How backwards, how expensive, how wrong, how immoral … It’s bad for us. We’re all county taxpayers and we’re paying for the care there on an emergency basis.”
O’Rourke also said that voter turnout would be key for whomever wins the race between himself and Cruz.
“If anyone tries to tell you that Hunt County is a red county or that Texas is a red state, you tell them it is a non-voting state,” O’Rourke said. “We don’t have the participation of most people who could vote … that is the work before us.”