By Ken Stone
Beto O’Rourke recalls knocking on 16,000 doors in his first run for Congress in 2012. He’s tackled nearly every issue imaginable.
Then he came to San Diego.
“You have a lot on your plate,” said a native Californian named Raven at his town-hall meeting Tuesday. “I’d like to take a look at the things that we can do ourselves to free you up to do the things that are really important.”
But Raven, who said she lives in San Diego, cut to a wholly different chase. Talking about men taking advantage of women, she suggested “something like maybe Lorena Bobbitt … and free yourself forever.”
That 1993 reference to the Virginian who took a carving knife to her abusive husband left men in the 250-member Jacobs Center audience cringing and women giggling.
O’Rourke replied: “I gotta tell you — I didn’t see that coming. But I don’t think there’s much I should add to that. But thank you for your comments.”
Empathetic and charismatic, the former El Paso congressman who rocketed to national fame in his close loss to Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 was better prepared for nine other questions in the final public event of his first California swing as a Democratic presidential candidate.
He talked climate change — the subject of his $5 trillion proposal Monday — and homelessness, the Equal Rights Amendment and immigration, education and “structural racism,” health care and gun control.
He began in Spanish — speaking fluently for 90 seconds — then switched to humor.
He said it’s only a 10 1/2 hour drive from El Paso to San Diego, which in Texas terms is “right around the corner.”
He recalled his dad taking the family to San Diego on vacation — making it in eight or nine hours by tucking behind an 18-wheeler and drafting.
He recounted a family crisis: “Our baby turtle Gus went missing last night. And it does not look good.” Maybe his 3-year-old dog ate Gus. But his wife, Amy, balked at getting another pet, bringing tears from their 10-year-old daughter Molly.
O’Rourke, 46, used that story to praise his wife for handling home-fire challenges in his absence — just as military spouses do during deployments.
“In San Diego, you are no stranger to service,” O’Rourke said of the Navy town. “That service never stops.”
He said he breakfasted Tuesday with Howard and Jean Somers of Coronado, whose son Daniel deployed to Iraq, came back with PTSD and took his own life after delays in getting mental care. (The couple advocate for veterans’ care.)
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He noted his six years on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, where he said he sought common ground among warring political parties.
But on a day new polls showed him consistently sixth out of 20 candidates, O’Rourke took the fight to President Trump without using his name.
“We do not need to hate one another,” he said. “We do not need to be complicit with the racism that comes from the highest positions of trust and power right now.”
Recalling how Trump had called asylum-seekers an infestation, O’Rourke said it was a claim you’d expect from “someone from the Third Reich.”
“An infestation is something to describe a cockroach, something that you want to kill,” he said. “That is not the way to describe a 3-year-old boy who just showed up in a cornfield outside of Brownsville, Texas — solo — with a phone number written on his shoe.”
The boy had been abandoned by a smuggler after his mother from Central America “did what she had to do given the circumstances,” he said. “If the only way to save the life of our 8-year-old son Henry was to send him on a 2,000-mile journey, you can believe that’s what Amy and I would do.”
O’Rourke used the Chabad of Poway tragedy to illustrate another trait he attributed to Trump.
After praising heroes of the incident, he said: “We must stand up against the hatred that we see in this country right now — a president who has described white supremacists and Nazis as very fine people.”
Meanwhile, he said, the government is complicit in the bloodshed of gun violence.
“More than 30,000 of our fellow Americans will lose their lives this year in synagogues, in churches, in mosques, in concerts, in schools,” O’Rourke said, voice rising. “Teachers [are] not paid enough” but are asked to put their lives in danger. “For what reason? I don’t know except the next election, those polls of the NRA or the political action committee.”
O’Rourke faced some sharp questioning in the second half-hour.
From an African-American woman: “How do you feel about a female running mate?”
“I feel pretty good about it,” he joked before going on to say it would be presumptuous of him to pick a veep 10 months before the first caucuses.
“But I tell you this: I will do everything in my power to … make sure our administration and our ticket looks like the country,” O’Rourke said. “Whoever the nominee is in the summer of 2020, whoever she or he may be, we will do everything in our power to make them successful.”
From “lifetime Republican” Milton Roa, 46, of Rancho San Diego: “What can you tell disillusioned Republicans, including myself, to be able to support your program?”
O’Rourke cited his six years as an El Paso councilman who “balanced the budget, made sure police and fire were valued” and held regular Town Hall meetings.
“I never asked if you’re a Republican or Democrat, just you’re an El Pasoan,” he said. “I represent you. I’m accountable to you. I serve you.”
He ticked off measures in Congress he advanced with Republican partners — expanding mental health care access for veterans, protecting public lands in El Paso, investing in ports of entry.
Then he boasted of his U.S. Senate campaign, where “we got more votes than any Democrat in the history of the state of Texas” — as many as GOP Gov. Greg Abbott.
“Young voter turnout was up 500%,” he said. “Never blew anyone off and never took anyone for granted. And the kicker — my mom, a lifetime Republican, voted for me in the 2018 election.”
From a woman in the morning’s first question: How can you repair ties with democratic allies nervous about your lack of foreign policy experience?
O’Rourke skipped straight to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which cost many lives and budget deficits with “no definition of victory.” He also decried the presence of U.S. forces in Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Libya.
“We will bring these wars to an end, and bring these service members back home to this country,” he vowed. “We need to work with other countries … to solve our challenges peacefully without firing a shot.”
He cited the Iran nuclear deal as an example: “It wasn’t perfect. … It didn’t settle every score, but it was sure better than the alternative.”
In the course of his 5-minute reply, he slammed Trump, “who has gotten as close as he can to every dictator and strongman and authoritarian government on the face of the planet. … We’ve turned our back on NATO, the European Union. This is our chance to get this right and get this back.”
He returned to immigration issues.
“How in the world do thousands of kids show up at our front door on the Texas-Mexico border and it’s a surprise to us – after they’ve traveled 2,000 miles?” He asked. “How in the world can the president not only cage those kids [and] deport their moms … but cut off $500 million in funding” to help the suffering northern triangle countries of Central America?
He said such foreign aid should be doubled for violence prevention – to “help those families to stay where they are, so they do not have to flee.”
O’Rourke, who shed his suit coat for the Q&A, also said:
On climate change: “All of this will become exponentially worse for our kids and the generations that follow unless we act now” through “conscientious capitalism. Move from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Plant more crops to take carbon dioxide out of the air.”
He inveighed against half-measures.
“We cannot do this with only half the country,” he said. “We can’t see each other as Republicans or Democrats or independents, big cities vs. small towns. … Instead, we must be known by our ambitions, our aspirations, the work, the service, the sacrifice that we employ in order to achieve them.”
On the Equal Rights Amendment (one state short of ratification):
“It is important for the next president to campaign on the ground, having Town Hall meetings like these, not writing anybody off, making the case and listening to people about legitimate concerns or questions that they have about this. We cannot dictate this. We cannot do it by executive order.”
On improving education:
After saying nearly half of teachers in Texas work a second or third job and “fully one-quarter” of South Carolina public-school educators leave the profession in the first year, he told a multi-ethnic crowd: “It’s really simple: We’re not paying them enough.”
On the “jailhouse to schoolhouse pipeline”: “I used to think it started in high school. It starts when the kid is 4 years old because of structural racism in this country. We have to acknowledge that.”
He backed free community college, apprenticeships without debt.
“All of this will require an investment,” he said. “It will not come cheap. But if we look at it as something that will pay dividends far above the initial cost, … Republicans and Democrats are willing to do that and make sure public education is excellent in this country.”
Having visited people who lived under a Houston bridge, O’Rourke said he “learned so much about where the problem originates and how we can solve it.”
“Starting with that roof, that home, health care for everybody without exception including mental health care is so fundamental,” he said in reply to a question from Catharine La Fond, a Hillcrest artist.
For California, he called for the “tough choices” needed to create housing units to meet demand. “It means inclusionary zoning so that poor people are going to have to live next to rich people…. The working poor are driving 2-3 hours to work for rich people … [and] need to be able to live where they work.”
White America has 10 times the wealth of black America today, he said, and “it’s not an accident. It is by design,” growing out of an inability to build wealth in homes, which can pass to the next generation.
“That has to be part of the conversation,” he said. “All of this is connected.”
Many in the audience wore Beto ballcaps ($20 from a tented booth in the wet weather outside). Some were fans. Others were curious.
In the latter camp was Ariel Hammond of Del Mar, who brought her 3-year-old son Rusty (and Legos to keep him occupied).
She said she came knowing Beto’s name, but not much about his policies.
“It was important to me to hear and see him in person, as I think he has a decent shot at being our next president,” she said, “and I walked away very impressed. He was more knowledgeable than I expected.”
Hammond, a 32-year-old librarian and graduate student, said O’Rourke was strongest on immigration and climate change, “two issues that are important to me.”
She said she had hoped to hear more specifics about universal healthcare as well as his views on the breakup of tech giants and on free college education.
“However, I was glad to hear his stance on gun control and military engagements,” she said. “I thought he was both eloquent, informed and funny, and I’m definitely more inclined to vote for him now.”
Also sold was Chris Pearson of Spring Valley, who called the El Paso native “a very likable down-to-earth wonk” who reminded him of a “tall RFK” — Robert Francis Kennedy. (Beto’s given name is Robert Francis O’Rourke.)
“If he doesn’t get the nomination, he deserves a spot in the next president’s Cabinet,” said Pearson, 64, a former San Diego City Council staffer. “Beto makes me proud to be an American. We are so much better than Trump. Beto is proof of that.”
The event’s last question — from a woman who moved to San Diego from El Paso — was about how to get young people involved in politics.
O’Rourke began by taking a swipe at social media as a way to win elections.
“It’s enticing to look at a screen or think that you can just email this in,” he said. “Or post it on Facebook, and it’s going to connect.”
But he insisted face-to-face meetings are more useful — healing in a time of divisions.
“It is almost transgressive to have somebody knock on your door — having an unscripted, real, sometimes awkward conversation,” he said. “And I know that it works.”
He recalled his 2012 primary victory over incumbent Rep. Silvestre Reyes, when he said he was outspent 5-to-1. With family and friends, they knocked on tens of thousands of doors, including one grandmother’s.
O’Rourke said he listened to the woman share pride in her Marine grandsons and schoolteacher daughter.
Three days later, 32 cousins were at her home having menudo, one of the cousins later related to O’Rourke, “and she made each of us promise to vote for you.”
Flash forward seven years. O’Rourke asked the modest crowd “if you are willing to be part of the largest grass-roots campaign in this country’s history, if you are willing to knock on people’s doors.”
He said such engagement is easy and “absolutely thrilling” as “the fundamental essence of our democracy.” Then he gave out his web address.
“No PAC money,” he said. “No corporations. All human beings.”
Updated at 10:10 a.m. May 8, 2019
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