“America was great already.”
So said the congressman from El Paso, speaking to a packed house at the Historic Cine El Rey in McAllen on August 18.
Rebuking a phrase famously emblazoned on red hats, Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, a two-term Congressman and former City Councilman from El Paso, finds himself in a tight race for the U.S. Senate against Conservative household name, Ted Cruz.
Cruz trailed second behind Donald Trump for the Republican Presidential nomination, although Trump won handily with nearly three times more delegates than the Senator from Texas.
The downtown setting of 17th St. was filled with vehicles, extending several blocks to and from the entrance. Accompanied by top state Democratic candidates for office, like former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, Valley residents and out of town supporters lined up to see what Texas Democrats hope is the first step in “turning Texas blue.”
Standing tall in a white, long-sleeve shirt and dark-blue, denim jeans, O’Rourke took questions from media reporters outside the historic theatre.
It was difficult to get near O’Rourke and ask a question. Reporters, photographers, and supporters surrounded him, people elbowing their way through to try and catch a glimpse of the politician who was recently compared to Bobby Kennedy and Barack Obama.
O’Rourke was led inside by his campaign staff after a TV interview and a few handshakes with supporters. He was introduced by comedian, actress, and San Juan native, Cristela Alonzo. Alonzo has a Netflix special, and, in 2013, she became the first Latina to create, produce, write, and star in her own comedy series for ABC.
Reporters followed the congressman into a corridor on the north side of the building where he continued taking questions.
I had a chance to follow up on a comment he made in the Valley last February. In a town hall at the Echo Hotel in Edinburg, O’Rourke explained why he voted for a spending bill that did not include protections for DREAMers living in the U.S.
Immigration activists and advocates pressured members of Congress early this year to vote against spending bills that did not include protections for the over 800,000 DACA recipients in the U.S.
At the time, he cited vital services to the military and veterans as his primary motivation in voting for the spending bill. He claimed to have been visited personally by Secretary of Defense James Mattis in Washington, D.C., where he represents Texas’ 16th congressional district. O’Rourke sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee and House Armed Services Committee.
As many Valley residents resist and fight back against attempts to further militarize the border, as Neta has reported, I asked O’Rourke what assurances he could give voters that he would not be asked again by the Secretary of Defense to approve spending bills that fund border militarization.
“I don’t know if he will,” said the El Paso native. “But on the House Armed Services committee, I stood up against any further militarization of the border, any use of taxpayer funds to make walls.”
I asked the congressman if this was after the $1.6 billion had already been approved for border walls in a March Omnibus bill, for which he voted. He acknowledged this and was escorted away once more, as his moment drew near.
Sliding through those around him to ask a quick yes-or-no question before going on stage: “Should ICE be abolished?”
“No. It’s not a yes or no question,” said the congressman,” but he wished to be “transparent.”
“Abolishing ICE is not going to save the hundreds of lives lost at the border every single year,” he said. “Human beings who are dead right now. Whose skeletal remains we are just discovering. It’s not ICE.”
Abolishing ICE would not ensure that the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee resettlement would connect those hundreds of kids who still do not know when or if they are going to see their parents, some of whom they have not seen in months as a result of the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, O’Rourke argued.
He added that abolishing ICE would not stop border patrol agents, who are not members of ICE, “from apprehending and separating those families in the first place.”
“Every single part of the Department of Homeland Security needs to be changed.”
Of DHS, O’Rourke ended by saying “we” need to make sure that it is humane, enforces “our laws,” but that it is also “responsive to our common humanity and the best traditions of this country, and the laws that we already have on the books– asylum laws that are being broken right now.”
We reached out to the campaign for follow-up, but they did not return our calls.
Applause, cheers, and music filled the auditorium as “your next Democratic senator of Texas,” as Alonzo declared, made his way to the stage.
“McAllen, thank you all for coming out. How do you all feel right now!” Bursts of yells and applause followed. “I love you, Beto!,” one supporter yelled from the audience. “I love you too!” O’Rourke responded.
“This is our sixth visit to McAllen. We’ve been to the Valley many more times,” O’Rourke told his supporters. He expressed solidarity for the Rio Grande Valley border community, as he identified through his experience growing up in the El Paso border community.
He discoursed on the “low expectations” that others have of border communities, in contrast, he said, to the “embarrassment of riches” that he discovered later in life.
After a thirty minute speech, touching on key campaign issues, like “achieving universal health coverage,” a “living wage,” and ending “family separations,” the Senate hopeful made his way out through a back entrance over to Suerte Bar & Grill where he met supporters who were redirected there as overflow when Cine el Rey reached capacity.
In the outdoor section of Suerte, O’Rourke took selfies with dozens of excited voters, not just from the Valley, but even supporters who came down as far as Houston. However, many more were not able to get their photo, as the establishment closed the back doors at about 3 PM.
After pictures, I asked him about his vote for the March omnibus that appropriated funds to build additional border walls. Some of these funds have been allocated to build a levee border wall through Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park, which would in all likelihood render it inoperable.
“I think there’s still an opportunity, in much the same way the community— together— was able to spare the Santa Ana wildlife refuge from being cut off from the community by a wall,” said O’Rourke.
Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge was banned from border wall funding in the 2018 Omnibus. This exemption came in response to vast public pressure and grassroots organizing.
“We can still do the same thing for Bentsen, for the Butterfly Center, and for other parts of this heritage corridor,” said the congressman, holding out hope to “save” Bentsen State Park in Mission.
He explained that in speaking with a local school board trustee he disclosed working with appropriators from the House Appropriations Committee and “colleagues on both sides of the aisle.”
“We are going to do everything in our power to stop that from being constructed. I think even though it’s appropriated, there’s still the opportunity to do it.”
Incumbent Cruz supports the border wall and has been supported by the President of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents thousands of border agents, although both Cruz and O’Rourke voted for the spending bill that allocated funds for new border walls set to be built in Hidalgo, Starr, and Cameron County.
Cruz has also spoken against universal health coverage and increasing the minimum wage.
Cruz visited the Rio Grande Valley, most recently, to speak with border patrol officials. In February, he accompanied Vice President Mike Pence who also met with Customs and Border Protection officials.
According to the most recent polling, O’Rourke trails Cruz by four points. If elected, O’Rourke would be the first Democratic U.S. Senator from Texas since Lloyd Bentsen.