Beto O’Rourke found the power of democracy in Storm Lake

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Beto O’Rourke says one of the brightest moments of his shooting-star campaign came in Storm Lake where he held forth standing on a box at Better Day Café, taking questions and answering them for an hour in English and Spanish in April 2019. He wowed the crowd.

“When I could get past the media circus, the dynamic was the most beautiful thing. Here we were with 40 or 60 people, however many it was, people who are willing to publicly engage and talk and listen and challenge me, it was so powerful,” O’Rourke said when I called him last week to ask what he had learned from a year on the campaign trail.

“We can actually fix what’s wrong if we let local communities decide. They’re going to figure it out. We are the most ingenious people on Earth and we can do this if we don’t come in and tell people how it’s going to be and regulate the hell out of you.”

It wasn’t long after his Saturday morning visit for rolls at La Delicias bakery that he started to get written out of the presidential campaign narrative by a national press corps that didn’t take him seriously — a dashing former congressman from El Paso who hadn’t accomplished much in their view. He narrowly lost to Ted Cruz in 2018 for a Senate seat from Texas, which launched his national persona.

He became known for driving himself to places like Lubbock where nobody knew him and having honest conversations with nobodies. After his loss, he went to find himself in early 2019 by tracing his family tree through Nebraska and down to Texas. He drove through Tucumcari and up to Dodge City and over to New Mexico where he broke bread with Navajo people. He shared his diary entries online to an eager audience about what average people were thinking in Kansas, about faith and community life.

“It was strange. I had already become a de facto candidate,” O’Rourke said by phone last week. “I talked it over with Amy, and in hindsight it was crazy to think we could stand up a campaign in two weeks.”

The media made him a candidate and declared itself not that interested following his spring tour of Iowa. He said he made a mistake for disregarding the media during that swing. He pretended that he was still just visiting with voters without the cameras present. He swore off polls. He slid sideways through summer. Elizabeth Warren appeared to be on the rise. He had a tough first debate performance.

Then came the terror of Aug. 3 when a gunman with a hatred of immigrants drove 650 miles from Dallas to El Paso and shot 23 people dead at a Walmart store. He said he was targeting Mexicans. O’Rourke was campaigning in Las Vegas when he got the news. He dashed home. Really, that was the beginning of the end of his presidential bid.

“It changed me and this community in so many ways. I asked myself, ‘Should I be going to the Iowa State Fair to eat a corn dog for the photographers?’ Screw that. I want to be honest. My staff suggested that talking about gun laws was maybe not politically viable. And I said, ‘That’s not reason enough for me.’”

So he said, if elected President, would he come to take away your AK-47?

“Hell yes.”

By November he was out of the race. Out of money. Out of time to make a real mark. El Paso is where he needed to be, campaigning against terror waged on poor immigrants through guns and chains.

What lesson did he draw from a year of listening to real folks, actually, going back to 2017 when he ran against Cruz?

“That there is a fundamental strength to our democracy. That we can turn this around. Look, I have deep concerns about the viability of the Republic and the rule of law with the current Administration. But my faith was constantly renewed in those town meetings.

“There are fractures and fissures, a disconnect with the woman living in her car in Las Vegas who lost her job with four kids. But when I would get to my motel room the end of the day, I would think that there are just too many good people in this country for us now to make it, to help her get on her feet.

“People want to be asked. I’m raising money for food banks in Texas. We have raised $200,000 with 4,000 hours of volunteer time. People are deeply fulfilled by it because they see a purpose around what they’re doing. … They will dig in and do really big things. It’s happening everywhere now.”

O’Rourke, 47, is rumored as a potential Texas gubernatorial candidate in 2022. He is campaigning virtually for Joe Biden and is helping Lone Star State legislative candidates raise funds. He says he is trying to digest everything, how climate change is driving Guatemalans to our border, where they are held in COVID traps. “It’s worse than in Syria,” O’Rourke says of the camps south of the border. He thinks about the multi-ethnic strengths of El Paso and Storm Lake, and how an attack on that diversity brought him home.

“This is a moment of revelation for white guys like you and me,” he says.

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