Beto O’Rourke’s chances of winning Ted Cruz’s seat in the U.S. Senate seemed faint when he announced his candidacy two years ago. But he waged a campaign like none other in Texas and caught the nation’s eye.
And when the votes were counted showing he had lost, it was actually a surprise to supporters who believed he couldn’t lose after a campaign like that and to everyone else because he came so close to a miracle.
Out of 8.3-million votes cast, O’Rourke took 48.3 percent.
“Putting politics aside, I don’t think anyone has put a more positive light on El Paso in the history of our community on a national basis,” said Josh Hunt, a well-known El Paso businessman whose family has done a lot for the city.
“For a community always fighting so many misconceptions, no one has more effectively communicated the true realities of living on the border and its benefits to the state and country,” Hunt said.
O'Rourke is the 2018 El Pasoan of the Year.
He is high in the standings as a possible presidential contender and many want him to go for it. But he’s also a three-term congressman who leaves office with a reputation for working hard and setting partisan politics aside.
He conducted 104 town hall meetings in six years, which is probably a record, and focused a lot of his attention on veterans struggling to make the Veterans Affairs work for them.
“He is an extraordinary public servant and an even more extraordinary candidate,” said his friend and successor Veronica Escobar. “He has raised the bar as an elected official and set a new standard for community engagement.”
Emma Schwartz, president of the Medical Center of the Americas Foundation and last year’s El Pasoan of the Year, credits his efforts in the approval of new clinics for veterans and recalls when he phoned to say he wanted to work with her.
“I said which one of your staffers should I be working with, and he said, ‘Me, I want to do the work on this,” she said. “I do believe it is through him being the squeaky wheel and putting together a very sound proposal that the VA responded with at least giving us three new clinics that are being developed in this region.”
Two years ago, O’Rourke announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in a state that hadn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1988. For a third-term representative in a safe district, it seemed foolish to many.
Then he promised to take only individual contributions – no PAC money – but managed to raise a record $80 million.
Along the way, at all those campaign rallies and in national TV appearances, not to mention millions of internet views, he talked about his hometown and why it’s special.
In becoming a political celebrity because of what he said and stood for, he shined a new kind of light on El Paso.
He was proud of El Paso – not something this city hears much – and it’s pretty safe to say El Paso is proud of him.
That’s why he’s our El Pasoan of the Year.
In a long telephone interview, O’Rourke addressed questions about almost everything, from a run for the presidency and the sacrifices it would mean, to the fame that surprised him and the speeding ticket he got from a state trooper who had just voted for him.
Q: After the huge splash you made running for the Senate, some – if not many – hope you’ll run for president. CNN had you as the No. 2 prospect recently. Knowing what you know about the campaign trail and the sacrifices, could you do it again?
I don’t know. What’s really central to us making that decision is can Amy, can I and can the O’Rourkes as a family? Could we do something like that? Are we the right people for it? Are we what the country needs right now? Would I be the best person to be in that position? I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s the best thing for our family.
I’m hoping that over time in the next couple of months that the answer and the way forward becomes obvious to me and to Amy and to our family. I lucked out with Amy and with our kiddos. Whatever we do as long as we can do it together I’m okay with.
Q: How did it feel to have come so close to defeating Ted Cruz on election night, and how does it feel now?
There were two primary feelings. One was just extraordinary, immense gratitude for all of the people who were part of this campaign, thousands upon thousands, many of them in El Paso but all over the state. So many people have donated time and money and their homes, these pop-up offices all over the state of Texas.
On a very personal level, this campaign and everyone who was part of it really changed our lives and made us better people. Here we were at the end of this campaign and I was just feeling waves of gratitude.
Of course, the pain and the bitterness of defeat. I still feel both of those things. I still feel like I am the luckiest person in the world to have been part of that campaign and to have had the opportunity to have spent so much time with so many great people all over Texas and to have had the chance for this position of trust, and then we lost. We came up short. Overall, I feel lucky and very fortunate to have been able to do that.
Q: When did you realize that your race was becoming a lot bigger than a regular Senate election and that you were a sudden celebrity, getting invitations from Ellen DeGeneres and the talk shows?
I don’t know. I knew from the very beginning in early 2017 that there was this opportunity and that we could do this. I wouldn’t have done it unless I knew that there was a chance to win.
At first, it wasn’t evident to a lot of other people because of small attendance at our events. Most people didn’t know who I was. But by summer of 2018, that had changed. We were seeing really big turnouts no matter where we were in the state, no matter how red or blue the communities were.
We started to see – uninvited by us – a lot more national news reporters showing up at our events. At the second debate with Cruz, there was Irish TV and Dutch TV and German TV. For a week or two, Japanese television was following us around. I just wondered why they cared about this race in Texas. While I couldn’t explain it, that’s when I knew it was probably something beyond a typical Senate race.
Q: What sparked it? Was it your answer to the question about taking a knee for the National Anthem being a perfectly American thing to do? That hit The Washington Post, The Guardian and was all over the internet Aug. 22.
That might have contributed to it as well. It was just a question that I had at a town hall meeting. A young man had asked about basketball players who were taking a knee. Nothing really came of that exchange until a volunteer in Houston put the clip online, and then it really took off.
Q: Were you surprised by all the attention it generated?
I really was because I am almost never satisfied with anything that I do or any answer that I give. Always afterwards, I think I could have done that better or differently.
I had never been asked that question before; it was off the top of my head. I was surprised at the response to that, and if it helps people talk about that issue, perhaps it did some good.
Q: The campaign must have been grueling, but was it fun?
Absolutely. It was both of those things. It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and there were so many moments where I thought, “I just can’t do this anymore. This is going to kill me.” The hours and the miles, the number of communities that we visited, the relentless pace, there was not any time off. It was always on all the time, but we knew that we had to run as hard as anyone had ever run or harder than anyone had ever run if we were going to have any chance of winning.
What would buck me up so often was seeing other members of our team work just as hard or harder than I was, and all of these volunteers who weren’t getting paid a dime were sacrificing so much.
It was grueling, but it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced. All these amazing people coming together. It was wonderful.
Q: What was a typical day on the campaign trail like?
Get up at the crack of dawn or before, and have breakfast. Review the day’s schedule together. Then, we would go to our first event, which might be at 8 a.m. at a coffee shop. Then, we would drive to the next county and go to the next event.
Some days we would visit eight or nine counties, go to eight or nine events in a day. The last event might be at 9 o’clock. You’d get to the hotel, pick up dinner on the way to the hotel, get to sleep and start it all over again.
Q: Funny moments?
I remember being in East Texas when I got pulled over for speeding by a sheriff’s deputy in Cooper, Texas, I believe, who gave me a ticket. He had also pulled over a car that was trailing us. He asked the person driving the other car, “Who was that I just pulled over? He looked familiar.” The person said, “That’s O’Rourke. He’s a candidate for Senate.”
This was during the primary. The deputy said, “That’s who that was! I voted for him.” He then followed me to a town hall I was holding in Cooper and attended it. I’ve got a picture – I put it up on our Instagram account — of him pulling me over. Somebody in the backseat took a picture of it.
Q: Was that the only time you got pulled over?
I was pulled over probably a few times more with warnings. That was the one time I was written a ticket.
Q: So, you were driving?
I did all the driving.
Q: What did you learn from the campaign?
I learned a lot. On the most basic, basic level, I learned that people are really good. We write people off or dismiss them based on their party affiliation or how rural or how urban their community.
It’s at our peril as a democracy or as people because no matter how Republican or conservative or how much a supporter someone is for Ted Cruz, people were so nice to me and kind and generous and open-minded and open-hearted, willing to listen to me, talk with me, engage with me, educate me. I can’t tell you how profoundly that changed me in just making me realize how good the people of this state are.
I also can’t tell you how many times a Cruz supporter would stop me in the airport or on the street and say, “Hey, I’m voting for Ted Cruz, but I just want to thank you for showing up to San Angelo because that’s where I’m from. No one ever visits there, and I love the way you’re running this campaign. I wish you luck.”
It would be the absolute rare exception for anyone to say an ugly thing or to be in any way mean on the campaign trail.
Q: Did that change your outlook?
We’re in some really tough times right now, and there are some open questions about whether democracy as we have known it is going to make it. Having met so many people over the course of this campaign, I am more hopeful, more optimistic than ever. I think we’re going to be okay.
Q: What did your kids think about it all?
It’s interesting. I think that, like all of us, they were really disappointed that we lost, and it was tough. They went through a lot, not seeing their dad for the better part of two years and with that level of scrutiny and attention.
I think there are some parts of it that were probably interesting to them, especially in the summers when they would travel with me.
One of the places that we loved was Amarillo. My youngest two kids, Molly and Henry, sang an a cappella version of George Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning” to a crowd of 300 people there. They’re never going to forget that. I’m never going to forget that.
Q: What’s next for you – short-term?
I’m going to go take a great backpack trip in the Gila Wilderness, which I’m really looking forward to. It’s something that I associate with my dad, who introduced me to hiking in the Gila. One of the places I’m going to is Little Bear Canyon, a place I remember from my dad. It’s a great way to find your head. You’re not connected to civilization anymore. Your cellphone doesn’t work. That’s something I’m really looking forward to.
And, spending Christmas with our kids and Amy’s family and my family, looking forward to that. As you can imagine, being gone for almost two years, there’s so much at our house that I need to do, look at and work on.
There are conversations that Amy and I need to have. I’m 46. She’s 37. Our kids are 12, 10 and 8. Here we are at this crossroads. What do we as a family want to do next? What can we do that’s good for El Paso? What can we do that’s good for Texas? For the country?
I’m going to just listen to people and enjoy being in El Paso. I’ll tell you this, traveling for the last two years, every time I came back to El Paso I realized that that’s where I always want to be. I love El Paso. It’s where I’m from. It feels so right every time I come home. It’s just the best feeling in the world.
Q: What do you think your candidacy did for El Paso?
I don’t know. You mentioned that perhaps it helped to give us a bigger place on the map. I hope that El Paso’s story has become a bigger part of the story of Texas and a bigger part of those things that we are proud of and are excited to share with the rest of the country and the rest of the world.
I hope that we helped to move El Paso’s case and story forward. This honor of being named El Pasoan of the Year by El Paso Inc.— I can’t tell you how much it means to me because so much of who I am is connected to El Paso. It means the world to me. It really does. I’m very, very grateful and really honored.
I know that a lot of people visited El Paso because of this campaign – from staff to volunteers to national and international media. Anecdotally, so many of them who sent me a text or called after the campaign said, “I’ve never been to El Paso before. It’s beautiful. It’s gorgeous.”
Or, they came to our event at the Chihuahuas’ ballpark and said that that ballpark is the nicest one in the country. They would take me up on my recommendation for the mechaca at Lucy’s and say, “You know what? You were right. This is the best I’ve ever had.”
I loved using El Paso as the example throughout the campaign. It’s so much of what’s right with the country and is what I want the rest of the country to see.
Web-only extended interview:
Q: What was it about growing up here that helped you?
There’s so many ways El Paso itself is the answer to this moment and the answer to the question the country is asking about itself: “Who are we?” When we talk about making America great again, what are we talking about?
When you look at El Paso, this city of immigrants from all over the world who by their very presence make us a stronger and a safer, more secure, more successful place. So many amazing stories start here in El Paso, and they lead to other places. This is where the United States and Mexico come together, where we are joined and not where we are separated.
If you have never been to the border, if you don’t know what it is, I can understand you being afraid of it because you’ve been conditioned to be afraid of it from the words politicians use to describe it. But if you live in El Paso or if you get to spend time in El Paso, you’ll understand it’s one of the most beautiful, extraordinary places on the planet. It’s a treasure. I think it holds so many lessons for us as a country.
Q: What does the rest of Texas think about El Paso?
Given the prominent role El Paso is playing in helping to define the future of this country, I think El Paso is held in increasingly high regard throughout the state.
I’ll tell you this from my perspective of serving with 434 other members of Congress who represent every part of the country, that’s nationally as well. Increasingly, colleagues of mine will talk to me or my office on these issues because they know that we live this and experience it and understand these issues perhaps better than anyone else and that we also want to lead on them.
There was a time in El Paso’s history where we just took what we were given on this stuff instead of leading and trying to define these things for the rest of the country. Our assertiveness and our leadership is really showing. To be clear, that’s not me. That’s lots of people in the city who are in public life, who are in private life. All of them are contributing to what I’m describing right now.
Q: Your father, Pat, was in politics for a long time as a county commissioner and county judge. Then he switched parties and ran for Congress as a Republican. Do you remember the first time you thought about going into politics?
It was not until after he died. I remember working on his campaigns, including his failed ’98 bid for county judge against Dolores Briones and just helping out, putting up signs and knocking on doors and doing whatever I could to be helpful. I was an adult at that point, and I wanted to help him because he was my dad. For me, running never held any interest.
Then, in 2003, a couple years after my dad died, I worked on a friend’s campaign and enjoyed doing that. In 2003, 2004, I really started to think about running and trying to serve in elected office. It was related in some part to what you do – journalism – because we had Stanton Street at the time. We started in ’98, and we had been covering city politics and county politics and arts and culture in El Paso and Juárez.
The more we wrote about it, the more we covered, the more reporting we did, the more exciting El Paso was to me. I made that decision in 2005 to run for the 8th District on City Council and then to run for re-election in ’07.
Q: El Paso is not the same city it was in 18 years ago when you, Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega ran for City Council and won, campaigning to make El Paso successful again, a place where UTEP grads could stay and find a well-paying job instead of leaving. As you look at the city, what differences do you see compared with when you all served on City Council?
I really feel El Paso more than ever is coming into its own and hitting this stride. It’s becoming more and more of an obvious decision if you moved away to think about moving back.
There’s all this opportunity, whether you measure that in business opportunity, in civic life or in the kinds of investments that we’re making in ourselves. That could be the ballpark. That could be new subdivisions and neighborhoods. That could be quality of life amenities. I like what I’ve seen.
I’ve got a unique perspective having spent the better part of these last two years crisscrossing the state. El Paso’s reputation is very strong.
People know that we are at the center of some of the most important conversations, whether it’s immigration, border security, relations with Mexico or the United States military with Fort Bliss with 32,000 active duty service members and the future of the VA. El Paso is at the center of these conversations.
Q: Is U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar picking up where you’re leaving off? Are you working together, and do you think your priorities are similar?
In many ways, they are. In many ways, I hope and I know she will surpass what I’ve been able to do. I really think we’re sending our best to D.C. She is tenacious. She’s fearless. She’s so smart and so proud of this community and of a part of the country that’s been beaten up lately by a president who wants to build the wall and talks about immigrants as though they’re inherently threatening rapists and criminals.
I think you’re going to have someone in Veronica who’s going to very powerfully and effectively carry our story forward and make sure that policies that are made in Washington, D.C. reflect our values and our experiences in El Paso. I know she’s going to be a leader on those issues.
There’s no stopping Veronica. I’m so excited about her.
Q: What do you think about President Trump and his presidency?
I’ll say this: I want him to be successful because his success is this country’s success. I want him to be successful in all the things that he’s engaged in, whether it’s trying to hold China accountable for unfair trade practices, whether he’s trying to negotiate peace on the Korean peninsula, whether he’s trying to make sure that more people have worked in an economy that’s humming but that isn’t humming for everyone.
As you may know, I’ve worked with his administration on issues when we have found common ground. The VA is the most obvious example but also on some armed services and Defense Department-related issues.
Having said that, his attacks on just the decency and dignity of the office that he currently holds, on institutions, on norms, on the civility that should distinguish our dialogue in what is supposed to be the world’s greatest democracy. I think that poses a real danger to this country and to our ability 242 years into the experiment to continue to make sure that we can meet the promise and potential that we’ve always held out to ourselves and to the world.
So describing Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, talking about neo-Nazis and white supremacists as very fine people, the indignities that he’s visited on so many different people needlessly, we don’t have to do that.
We can disagree without being vile and without making it personal. I think the best way to confront that is to offer the alternative – to continue to work on a bipartisan basis, to continue to believe in the future of this country and not be afraid of it, to not want walls, not want Muslim bans, not want to describe the press as the enemy of the people but to fully embrace who we are and the future of this country and the future of the world and ensure that we lead in the world. That’s our rightful place.
Q: Your press secretary, Chris Evans, said that he is amazed when he walks with you through the halls of Congress and down the floor because you get greetings and handshakes from so many Republicans as well as Democrats. It seems that you’re doing something different.
I just made dinner for some of my colleagues the night before last. Amy had flown up with me to D.C., which is really rare. She does that twice a year. I wanted to invite colleagues over. Amy and I made dinner for them.
Amongst many other friends, we invited Will Hurd, who happens to be a Republican, but someone who I’ve developed a friendship with and who we’ve been able to work with on some of the issues. I’ve also had the extraordinary good fortune to serve on the last two truly bipartisan committees in Congress: the House Armed Services Committee and the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. All of those colleagues on both sides of aisle have become really good friends because I’ve been able to work with them to get things done.
Being able to do that, especially as a member of the minority party, you have to have very strong relationships of trust. You also have to be willing to compromise a little bit because if you don’t, you’re not going to get anything done. You can be right or righteous and be ineffective, or you can concede a little bit and get something better than what you have already.
Bringing that attitude is something that I take from El Paso. That’s something that El Paso taught me, especially during my time on the City Council where if you’re going to get a budget passed, if you’re going to get an economic development plan passed, if you’re going to rewrite the subdivision code, you’re going to have to work with those seven other colleagues of yours and see them as fellow El Pasoans, not as political enemies.
Even though I had my disagreements with colleagues from time to time, we always treated each other with respect. I can’t think of someone with whom I served on the City Council that I don’t consider a friend. It never got bitter.
I try to carry what I learned from that to Congress. That’s a part of it. I just don’t see things that end on a party basis. I can’t operate that way. Some people do. I don’t.