Beto O'Rourke kicks off presidential campaign in Texas

Texas Tribune News

Presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, along with wife Amy and children Ulysses, Molly and Henry, officially launch the 2020 campaign in El Paso on March 30, 2019.
Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, along with wife Amy and children Ulysses, Molly and Henry, officially launch the 2020 campaign in El Paso on March 30, 2019.
Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

EL PASO — Beto O’Rourke launched his presidential campaign in Texas on Saturday, starting with a rally in his El Paso hometown, where he embraced his roots in the U.S.-Mexico border and vowed to run an inclusive campaign like his blockbuster U.S. Senate bid last year.

“This is a campaign for America — for everyone in America,” O’Rourke said “This is our moment of truth, and we cannot be found wanting.”

The El Paso event was one of three launch rallies that O’Rourke was set to hold across Texas on Saturday, 16 days after announcing he was running. He used the first 11 days of his candidacy to storm eight states outside Texas, making for a highly anticipated return Saturday to his home state, where he remains a political celebrity after his closer-than-expected loss to Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in November.

However, O’Rourke will not have Texas to himself this time. Another Democrat from the state, Julián Castro, is also running, and some other candidates have already started paying serious attention to Texas, which will hold its delegate-rich 2020 primary on March 3 — Super Tuesday — along with another massive state, California.

After his rallies Saturday, O’Rourke will visit Washington, D.C., on Monday and New York on Wednesday to participate in conferences that are drawing other 2020 candidates, including Castro. Then, later Wednesday, O’Rourke will return to Iowa — this second trip there as a candidate — and make a four-day swing that will include almost two dozen events.

In his El Paso speech, O’Rourke emphasized many of the same themes that animated his Senate campaign, as well as the opening days of his White House bid. In some cases, he put a finer point on those themes to draw a contrast with the man he now hopes to unseat: President Donald Trump.

“For too long in this country, the powerful have maintained their privilege at the expense of the powerless,” O’Rourke said. “They have used fear and division in the same way that our current president uses fear and division.”

On foreign policy, O’Rourke called for an “end to these love affairs with dictators and strong men around the world.”

O’Rourke also used the speech to build on his case that while he narrowly lost the Senate race, he ran it the right way and helped other Democrats win down-ballot, potentially putting Texas in play for the 2020 election. The state’s 38 electoral votes, O’Rourke said, “count like they’ve never counted before.”

The El Paso rally was filled with memories of his Senate campaign as speakers recalled his travel to all 254 counties of the state and his positive attitude in the face of attacks. Even the rally soundtrack evoked 2018 — O’Rourke bounded onto the stage to The Clash’s “Clampdown,” a term he famously used during a debate with Cruz.

Still, El Paso — and the border — factored heavily into the event. One of the introductory speakers was O’Rourke’s successor in Congress, Veronica Escobar, who hailed his status as a son of the border.

“When the border sends America her people, we are sending them our best in Beto O’Rourke,” Escobar said, keying off Trump’s 2016 campaign announcement, in which he said Mexico wasn’t sending America its best people.

O’Rourke spoke — in English and Spanish — from the center of a street lined with local businesses in downtown El Paso, just blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border. The rally was also a short distance from the bridge under which hundreds of migrants have been held recently, an arrangement that has drawn outrage and concern from local leaders. O’Rourke referenced the situation in his speech, saying the migrants “are our fellow human beings and deserve to be treated” accordingly.

The rally’s heavy emphasis on the border left an impression with Bill and Gabrielle Monroe, who came from a neighboring border state — New Mexico — to see O’Rourke on Saturday morning. They said they are supporting O’Rourke in the Democratic primary, and that his El Paso roots have a lot to do with it.

“He’s on the border, so he knows it, he lives it and the way that he weaves that in his story — that’s what makes us great as a country — I think that he can take that message and he can go to Iowa, he can go to New Hampshire, he can go anywhere with that message, Gabrielle Monroe said. “It’s authentic.”

Some O’Rourke supporters expressed concern the field of Democrats could grow even larger, and that their candidate could end up coming up short in his bid for the nomination. But they said that at least for now, their hometown hero is at the top of their list.

“I am dead set on Beto O’ Rourke and if that doesn’t come to pass then there are a lot of other qualified candidates,” said attorney Carmen Perez. “I supported Beto when he ran for the U.S. Senate and I support his message.”

Jacqueline Jaime said she thinks O’Rourke can sustain the early momentum he’s gained over the past few weeks. But she admitted that so many candidates could dilute O’Rourke’s support.

“I think he’s the strongest candidate [as far as] popular opinion goes,”she said. “And I think he has the best chance to take Trump out of office. But we need to not be split and go with who is the most popular and sweep it up.”

About a block away, a small group of Republicans donning “Make America Great Again” hats and shirts let O’Rourke supporters know the president also has supporters in El Paso. Nora Bricker said she was there mainly to support the president, but wasted no time bashing O’Rourke.

“He has no chance, he has no substance and in six years in Congress he accomplished zero,” she said.

Some of O’Rourke’s supporters had to walk directly in front of the Trump voters on their way to the rally, and to ignore some of the shouts coming from the sidewalk.

Jaime said she wasn’t surprised – or offended.

“It’s kind of cool that you have to walk through there to get here,” she said. “It kind of reminds you why you should come out and support Beto.”

Scenes from presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke's rally in El Paso, on March 30, 2019, his first in Texas since announcing his bid on March 13.
Scenes from presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s rally in El Paso, on March 30, 2019, his first in Texas since announcing his bid on March 13.
Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune
Supporters of President Donald Trump hold a counter rally during Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke's official campaign launch in El Paso on March 30, 2019.
Supporters of President Donald Trump hold a counter rally during Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s official campaign launch in El Paso on March 30, 2019.
Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune
Presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks at a rally in El Paso on March 30, 2019, his first in Texas since announcing his bid on March 13.
Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke speaks at a rally in El Paso on March 30, 2019, his first in Texas since announcing his bid on March 13.
Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

Scenes from presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s rally in El Paso on March 30, 2019, his first in Texas since announcing his bid on March 13. From left: The crowd from above at the rally; supporters of president Donald Trump gather to stage a counter rally; O’Rourke gives his speech.

Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune