Sunday morning, before leaving the Rio Grande Valley, U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, tightened the laces of his worn-down blue running shoes and began jogging with a crowd of roughly 20 people at Fireman’s Park in McAllen.
It was 8 a.m. and he had another town hall scheduled in Falfurrias at 11 a.m.
“It’s okay, because we don’t have to run to Falfurrias,” he assured the crowd.
Seemingly unfazed by his lack of breath, he answered questions and engaged in dialogue with the pack of runners.
O’Rourke started his weekend with a town hall in San Benito on Saturday morning. Moving west, he managed to squeeze in two more town halls in Weslaco and Mission, and a trip to the National Butterfly Center (NBC) all in one day.
He spoke to community members, visited the levee where the Border Wall is planned to be built, and shared a rosca with supporters, as he was lucky enough to visit on Dia De Los Reyes. But if you’re one of the roughly 10,000 viewers of his Facebook livestreams, you already knew that.
Whether it was in running shoes, a John Deere Gator utility vehicle at the NBC or his maroon Dodge Caravan, O’Rourke sure covered a lot of ground, and he doesn’t plan on stopping soon.
ON BORDER ISSUES
The El Paso native said he felt welcomed by his fellow “fronterizos” in the Valley. That was especially evident in dialogue about border issues and immigration.
O'Rourke insists there could not be a more important time to be from the border. Especially in an era where the Right has often branded as having disdain for Hispanic and immigrant communities.
“Sometimes I think it’s as simple as just bringing them (conservative legislators) to the border,” he said. “If you never visited it, and you just think it’s a wasteland or a militarized zone, it’s easy to say ‘I should spend $18 billion on a wall, that’ll keep the Mexicans out.’ But when you come and actually see that the border is a community, that people live here, and it’s flourishing and thriving, you might think differently. To wall it up and to militarize it is to take away a lot of what makes it so special.”
But as for the Border Wall, the issues go much further than just its social and economic implications.
Meri Gomez, a Mission native who attended the town hall, told O’Rourke that when the border fence was built in 2008, her home in Cimarron--a neighborhood in Mission, south of the expressway--became infested with fauna that had no way to travel South of the fence or north of the expressway.
“Lizards, snakes, spiders: they’re all trapped down there,” she said, adding that she moved homes as a result of the issue. “The environment is the biggest indicator of our well being and we need to take care of it.”
“Wildlife doesn’t respect man-made borders,” Beto responded, adding that when he visited the NBC (about an hour earlier) he learned that as a river-delta, the area near the river is prone to flooding. If a wall were built, native animals would have nowhere to escape when the waters rise.
Preliminary planning for the construction of the Border Wall has already started. It is expected to begin in Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and continue along the levee, leaving the structure several miles inland in some areas.
The NBC--which is privately owned by the North American Butterfly Association--saw government employees clearing and surveying land without notice in July. A notice of intent has been filed; if there is no response they plan on suing.
The projected $18 billion that will be needed to construct the wall has yet to be allocated. Republicans have proposed legislation that would provide a resolution for the DREAMers in exchange for funding for the wall. Though O’Rourke often talks about the need for bipartisanship in the legislature, this isn’t an issue he’s willing to settle for.
“We’re going to stop this effort to condition the legalization of DREAMers on paying for a Border Wall,” he said. “Not just DREAMers--but the original dreamers, their parents. It’s got to be everyone who can contribute to the success of this country, and that’s a lot of people.”
TURNING TEXAS BLUE
As far as Texas goes, the Valley is about as blue as it gets. Ted Cruz (O’Rourke’s opponent) lost the region in 2012, and has been met with protests in his last two visits. The last four times O’Rourke came he drew massive crowds.
This begs the question: why would O’Rourke spend so much time and resources in the Valley if he is almost surely going to win this region?
“I don’t want anybody to be taken for granted,” he responded. “Sometimes Democrats assume just because somebody has voted Democratic in the past that they’ll vote democrat again and I’ll never make that assumption. I’ll always do my best to listen to those that I want to serve.”
O’Rourke doesn’t have any pollsters, so it’s through the town halls that he gets information on what issues are concerning Texans. Since July the Congressman been hosting events in every corner of the state, and has been livestreaming just about every moment of it. Almost always, the rooms are full.
But electing a progressive Democrat in Texas isn’t going to be easy. Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in 24 years, and hasn’t elected a Democratic senator in 30 years.
The recent election of Doug Jones, D-Alabama, has O’Rourke hopeful. In a campaign email the night of that election he wrote: “Donald Trump won Alabama by 28 points in 2016. He won Texas by 9. If you weren't sure if our campaign to take on Ted Cruz was possible, you have to know it is now.”
In Alabama, what helped Jones win was a bigger-than-usual voter turnout, particularly among the minority vote. O’Rourke hopes that’s the case for him come this November.
“It’s going to be hard if people don’t turn out at a greater rate than they have historically,” he said.
He’s is known for his eagerness to work with Republicans to find a middle ground. Though, it is not clear what that might look like in practice. Take healthcare for example.
“We can come to a solution that probably won’t be my perfect, it won’t be theirs either, but it’ll move the country forward and make the country a lot better,” he said.
‘THE IMPORTANCE OF VOTING’
Before going up to speak at the town hall in Mission, he was introduced by Mission city councilman Dr. Armando O’Caña, who concluded with his endorsement of O’Rourke.
He gave an opening speech, answered questions, engaged in dialogue and posed for pictures with the attendees. The sun was setting, and another town hall was in the bag.
After a healthy serving of rosca, O’Rourke was exiting the area to speak with press. Before he got away, he was approached by Margot Ochoa, a young volunteer for his campaign who helped organize the event.
“In my dad’s law office there’s a framed picture of my abuela Gloria’s poll tax receipt,” she said. “When I was young [my dad] would tell me about the poll tax receipt, and I would ask ‘Papa, why does it say ‘colored?’Why does it say ‘naturalized?’’ You know, things you grow up hearing in the ‘RGV.’ He told me that the reason it was history was because people like him went out to vote… that’s when I learned the importance of voting.”
Ochoa was referring to a time in South Texas history when Hispanics were discriminated against at the ballot. The congressman looked at her, visibly taken away by the anecdote. He asked her to email him a photo of the framed poll tax receipt so he could share her story.
“That’s powerful,” O’Rourke said. “I would not have known that if I had not come down here and heard from her. I get a lot out of coming down here.”