Pouring rain didn’t deter the line of people waiting outside to see Congressman Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke speak in a Missouri City courtroom on Saturday. From the front door to the judge’s bench in the back, the room was packed with approximately 300 citizens, grandmothers, parents, children, activists, and curious onlookers waiting to hear from man aiming to unseat Ted Cruz in November.
O’Rourke waited in the courtroom aisle, rolling up his sleeves as Judge Joel Clouser, Sr. delivered a long introduction which included O’Rourke’s El Paso birthplace, his Irish-American heritage, and the origin of his moniker, a Spanish nickname for a man named Roberto.
The judge told the crowd that O’Rourke has began his political career in 2005 on the El Paso City Council, and he highlighted O’Rourke’s opposition to the war on drugs. He stopped himself after calling O’Rourke a politician, opting instead for the term statesman.
When O’Rourke took the stage, very seldom did he utter a sentence that didn’t mention Texas in some way or another. When he wasn’t regaling the audience with a tale about an encounter he’s had with a constituent in one of the 206 counties he’s visited since hitting the campaign trail, he was describing his liberal campaign platform.
Like a well practiced piano student at a school recital, he hit all the right notes to make his audience cheer. Climate change is bad. Clean energy is good. Marijuana should be legal. Trump’s border wall is a waste of resources. Bipartisanship is essential.
From Saturday afternoon to Sunday night O’Rourke bounced around Houston, meeting with constituents in conventional places like a union hub and less conventional venues, like a doughnut shop. He even held a “moving town hall” in Memorial Park, where he fielded questions while running among a group of approximately 50 people at 6 a.m. CST, shortly after kicking off a 24-hour Facebook Live stream that began at 5:15 a.m. CST.
The 45-year-old has become a media darling. The New York Times likened him to Madonna and Cher. The Washington Post called attention to his “hipster credentials.” Texas Monthly said he “overwhelms you with a sense of his vigorousness.”
“Are you up for the work!?” he bellowed into a mic. His call was met with rapacious applause from a standing-room-only crowd at the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce in Sugar Land.
O’Rourke’s grassroots campaign reads from the populist playbook, a point he mentioned countless times over the course of the weekend. “We are not taking any PAC money. Not a dime of political action committee contributions. No corporations. No special interests. Just real live human beings and people,” he told the group in Sugar Land.
He praised the crowd for helping him surpass his Republican challenger whose campaign has received millions of dollars from PACs. “Thanks to your commitment and what you all have done, we have out raised Ted Cruz by hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said O’Rourke.
Cruz played both the part of opponent and colleague in O’Rourke’s speeches. In spite of his insistance that “it is the exception if I ever mention Ted Cruz” at town halls, he repeatedly brought up the bit about campaign funds over the course of his time in Houston. But he also commended Cruz at points, like when said, “I want to tip my hat to Ted Cruz, who co-sponsored a bill with [Senator] Kristen Gillbrand of New York to ensure greater accountability and training for members of congress.”
“[I am] not running against Ted Cruz. [I am] running for this state. [I am] running to do something great for our country with great people who live here,” O’Rourke told Free Press Houston. The politician insisted that his goal is to motivate voters with a proactive campaign.
“People have to be for something. If they are apathetic today, if they feel like their vote doesn’t count, it can’t be that compelling to try to stop somebody or vote against someone. It has to be for something, for someone who can help do something that otherwise all of us on our own would be unable to do.”
O’Rourke is aware that motivating voters to show up at the polls will be one of his biggest obstacles in the election.
“If someone tries to tell you — as they may — that we are a red state, or even promise you that someday we will be a blue state, you tell them that today we are a non-voting state,” he told the crowd in Missouri City. The next day he talked with a group of voter deputy registrars about the fact that people ages 18 to 35 are the least likely to vote.
But if there is one thing that O’Rourke and his team of social media gurus, logistics coordinators and photographers are working on, it’s getting facetime with as many people as possible. The question is whether or not he’s attending to the voters who need convincing.
On Saturday he spoke at the Houston Climate Forum, an event organized by liberal activist groups for voters in the seventh congressional district. The room was full of millennials sporting shirts emblazoned with liberal candidates’ names in block letters and people holding black and white campaign signs that read BETO in all caps.
Residents of the mostly white, middle and upper middle class district caused a political upset when the typically right-leaning base voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Politico dubbed the seventh district one of the “top ten House races to watch in 2018.”
All seven candidates running to become the Democratic nominee for the seventh district congressional race in the February 6 primary election attended at the event to share their platform on climate issues and answer constituents’ questions.
Republican incumbent John Culberson was not present, though he was invited, according to event organizers.
The day after the Houston Climate Forum, O’Rourke and his wife, Amy Hoover Sanders O’Rourke, visited Glazed, a locally owned doughnut shop where they decorated confections before discussing the challenges of small business with a group of entrepreneurs.
Everyone at the table nodded when O’Rourke said he knew the difficulty business owners face in “being able to get the financing, either an investor or a loan.”
O’Rourke shared his story about being unable to get a loan when he started an internet business that he went on to run for about fifteen years. He had to get his father to take out a $20,000 loan, he told the group. He did not mention that his dad was a former county judge, for whom the loan was probably not as massive an undertaking as it would be for the majority of American parents.
Less than two hours later, the husband and wife slipped on yet another pair of food service gloves. But instead of dipping doughnuts in frosting, they ladled canned peas onto serving trays for clients at The Beacon, a non-profit that feeds about 300 homeless people a day in downtown Houston. “New American Gothic,” joked O’Rourke as the couple posed for pictures in hair nets and aprons.
While the politician asked could-be voters if they would prefer Thousand Island dressing or vinaigrette, a group of guys idled in the gated courtyard outside, listening to the sound of one man singing along to a rhythm he beat on a bucket drum.
Nicholas Holmes was among them. He’d never heard of Beto O’Rourke.
The 31-year-old said he wanted a job and a place to live, but he doesn’t have much faith in politicians’ ability to make that happen. He didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election and he probably won’t vote this year. “I don’t feel like it’s helping,” he said.
Not all young voters feel that political participation is futile. Miranda Staloch, one of many who attended O’Rourke’s “post-Harvey town hall,” is passionate about political involvement. The 28-year-old Houstonian stays current on the issues and participates in local politics to try to shift Texas out of the red zone.
“When I realized how many people just weren’t voting because they didn’t know about the candidates or because there wasn’t anybody they liked, that was shocking to me,” Staloch said, “As a Texan it’s really hard because it does feel like it doesn’t matter because we are in a quote-unquote ‘red state.’ But it’s never going to change if we don’t continually work toward it.”
Staloch was in the crowd when O’Rourke chided state officials for not getting Harvey relief funds out quicker. “You all won the rainy day fund lottery,” he said, “and I know that’s not something you want to win…we should convene a special session legislature and figure out how we get these resources to the people in greatest need.”
Then O’Rourke shifted his attention to answer a constituent’s question about his stance on the pathway to citizenship for Dreamers. “An unmitigated disaster,” is the phrase he used to describe the potential deportation of more than 800 thousand people “who are American in any way that is meaningful or that matters.”
His message hits home with 17-year-old Steven Garza, a campaign intern. Politics are deeply personal for the Mayde Creek High student. His sister-in-law is enrolled in DACA, and the program’s precariousness threatens to upend his family.
Garza spent Sunday night outside the Mucky Duck, where a Bands for Beto fundraiser was held, working a campaign table. It was the 22nd campaign event he’d worked.
Though the current political climate spells a dark forecast for many, the soon-to-be voter is optimistic. “The country will not let that happen,” he said.
The midterm elections will take place on Nov. 6, 2018. Garza will turn 18 on November 5. He called the ability to vote “the best birthday present.”
A lot of Garza’s classmates feel like politicians do nothing for them, he said. But that doesn’t stop him from pushing disbelievers to vote. “To the people who feel they can’t make a difference, or that they don’t have a seat at the table: Put a seat at the table,” he said.