The Dallas Morning News

The roots of Democrats’ ris­ing star

O’Rourke’s fam­ily, friends il­lu­mi­nate back­story of sunny son of El Paso

- By ROBERT T. GAR­RETT Austin Bureau rt­gar­rett@dal­las­

EL PASO — Beto O’Rourke’s sud­den celebrity wor­ries his pals.

Mike Stevens, who be­came fast friends with O’Rourke the sum­mer af­ter ninth grade at Don Hask­ins’ bas­ket­ball camp, re­calls a flick­er­ing doubt.

“Hey, this can warp some­body,” said Stevens, who trav­eled from his home in Spring­field, Mo., to Hous­ton last month to check on the new rock star of na­tional Demo­cratic pol­i­tics. He re­ferred to fer­vent, surging crowds at ral­lies for O’Rourke, who is seek­ing to un­seat GOP Sen. Ted Cruz.

Driv­ing O’Rourke’s Toy­ota Tacoma pickup with the can­di­date and two aides to the next event, Stevens said, he got his an­swer.

“His phone rang and I saw it was Erin [one of

O’Rourke’s sis­ters] and he im­me­di­ately picked up ... and said, ‘Hi, Bear!’ — a fam­ily nick­name,” Stevens re­called.

Erin O’Rourke, 38, lives in a com­mu­nity of in­tel­lec­tu­ally im­paired adults in an­other state. Some long­time El Pa­soans credit O’Rourke’s fam­ily with al­ways proudly in­clud­ing Erin in all ac­tiv­i­ties.

Stevens said O’Rourke has in­structed aides that “un­less he’s in an in­ter­view,” he will stop what he is do­ing to take Erin’s calls, which are fre­quent.

“Hear­ing him talk to Erin — I’m still tear­ing up at the thought,” Stevens said, chok­ing with emo­tion. “I said to my­self, ‘He’s good. He hasn’t changed. This is the stuff that matters. This is the guy I know.’”

Many Tex­ans are just get­ting to know O’Rourke, a three­term El Paso con­gress­man. Over the past 18 months, his re­lent­less re­tail pol­i­tick­ing, prodi­gious fundrais­ing, savvy use of so­cial me­dia and quirky but en­gross­ing stump speeches have again filled cowed Texas Democrats with hope that their long ex­ile from power and rel­e­vance could soon end.

As Stevens’ story sug­gests, any ac­count of O’Rourke’s up­bring­ing and po­lit­i­cal rise dare not skip over three salient traits: He in­spires great loy­alty. He’s part of a gen­er­a­tional move­ment in El Paso pol­i­tics. And he’s the head of an up­per­mid­dle­class, white, Catholic fam­ily of mer­chants, busi­ness own­ers and pro­fes­sion­als who, if not uni­ver­sally revered, are widely liked in the only Texas me­trop­o­lis on Moun­tain time.

And there’s one other key data point: Though O’Rourke still looks young — he turned 46 on Wed­nes­day — he’s now in his 17th year as pa­ter­fa­mil­ias.

In July 2001, Beto’s father, for­mer El Paso County Judge Pat O’Rourke, died af­ter a car struck him while he bi­cy­cled on a re­mote stretch west of El Paso. Ac­cord­ing to friends, Pat in­stilled in his son a love of jog­ging, hik­ing and camp­ing.

Im­me­di­ately, ad­mir­ers and lo­cal politi­cos be­gan to spec­u­late about whether the younger O’Rourke would fol­low his father into pol­i­tics.

Beto O’Rourke, then 28, had sown his wild oats. He’d lived in New York City, trav­eled in a punk rock band, been ar­rested for bur­glary for sneak­ing un­der a fence at the Univer­sity of Texas at El Paso and — in a more trou­bling episode — been charged with drunken driv­ing af­ter a 1998 ac­ci­dent. He com­pleted a pre­trial court­ap­proved di­ver­sion pro­gram and had the charges dis­missed.

At the time, O’Rourke was work­ing with com­put­ers as an in­ven­tory tracker at his mother’s up­scale fur­ni­ture store, Char­lotte’s.

“He stuck it out for a year,” as promised, his mom, Melissa O’Rourke, re­counted. “But he was ab­so­lutely mis­er­able.”

Mary Polk, a neigh­bor and friend of the O’Rourke fam­ily for nearly two decades, said Beto O’Rourke “is just a mar­velous com­bi­na­tion of both of his par­ents.” He has his father’s mag­netism but also the quiet, open friend­li­ness of his mother, she said.

Pat O’Rourke suf­fered a se­ries of busi­ness re­ver­sals.

“He just couldn’t quite get over the hump,” said re­tired El Paso res­tau­ra­teur Jack Maxon, a close friend of Pat O’Rourke’s. “He had an en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit, like Beto does.” Ac­cord­ing to Kate Gannon, a for­mer

El Paso Times copy ed­i­tor, Beto O’Rourke “was in awe of his dad.” Though older, Gannon got to knowBeto O’Rourke when both were en­thu­si­asts for El Paso’s punk rock scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Through Beto O’Rourke’s youth, his home in the Rim Road sec­tion of cen­tral El Paso was stage for a charis­matic father. “It was one of those houses that was alive with peo­ple and great con­ver­sa­tions,” Gannon said.

“He was a fan­boy,” she said of the younger O’Rourke. “He re­ally be­lieved in he­roes. He felt he needed to live up to them.”

Asked by Texas Tri­bune ed­i­tor­inchief and chief ex­ec­u­tive Evan Smith at the 2017 TribFest about Pat O’Rourke, the can­di­date broke down. Close to sob­bing, he could not re­spond.

Stevens, the friend from bas­ket­ball camp, said, “Beto was much shyer than his dad, be­cause his dad took up so much oxy­gen.” The elder O’Rourke “was a very funny, charis­matic guy,” Stevens said. He also had a pen­chant for pro­fan­ity.

“That’s where Beto gets his blue streak from,” Stevens said.

From 1988 to 1991, O’Rourke was at Wood­berry For­est School, a board­ing school in Vir­ginia. He then en­tered Columbia Univer­sity, where he ma­jored in English and was on the row­ing team.

Back home in El Paso, he played bass gui­tar with Foss, de­scribed by Spin as “post­hardcore” and by Roll Call as “emo­pro­gres­sive.” Band­mate Cedric Bixler­Zavala, the drum­mer, went on to fame with the Mars Volta. But at least two band mem­bers, O’Rourke and Stevens, re­mained ob­scure.

Af­ter col­lege, O’Rourke stayed in New York, liv­ing with Stevens in a Brook­lyn loft and work­ing for his ma­ter­nal un­cle Brooks Wil­liams’ in­ter­net­ser­vice provider com­pany. The two young Tex­ans later worked for an art­haul­ing com­pany, Stevens re­called. Then O’Rourke worked for a pub­lisher of tech­ni­cal books.

In 1998, he re­turned to El Paso. A year later, he launched Stan­ton Street Tech­nol­ogy Group, pri­mar­ily a web­site-build­ing com­pany.

Gannon no­ticed a change.

“He came back and re­al­ized he was heir ap­par­ent to Pat — and not just that kid,” she re­counted.

‘The whole pic­ture’

Melissa O’Rourke’s par­ents were busi­ness own­ers and con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans.

She’s a de­vout Catholic but sup­ports abor­tion rights, as does her son.

“This is Mom speak­ing,” she ex­plained, “but who’s fol­low­ing in the steps — as these Chris­tians say — of Christ more than Beto? The way he wants to treat the im­mi­grants and peo­ple that aren’t like you, if they’re gay or a dif­fer­ent color or a refugee? If you look at the whole pic­ture, that to­tally out­weighs” di­ver­gence from the Catholic church on abor­tion, she said.

Pat O’Rourke had roots in lo­cal Demo­cratic pol­i­tics and had served on the lo­cal Planned Par­ent­hood board. As a Demo­crat, he won races for county com­mis­sioner in 1982 and county judge in 1986. He even was a big sup­porter of the Rev. Jesse Jack­son’s 1988 pres­i­den­tial bid, re­called for­mer Texas Agri­cul­ture Com­mis­sioner Jim Hightower, a Jack­son sur­ro­gate.

By 1992, though, Pat had switched to the GOP. Po­lit­i­cal bag­gage, some per­haps the work of en­e­mies, trailed him, said Bob Moore, for­mer ed­i­tor of the El Paso Times.

While he was a county com­mis­sioner in 1983, sher­iff’s deputies in­stalling a county ra­dio in the elder O’Rourke’s SUV sup­pos­edly dis­cov­ered an of­fwhite pow­dery sub­stance in a con­dom in the glove com­part­ment. A cap­tain or­dered them to flush it, a fact that didn’t be­come widely known un­til months later, when the cap­tain was in­dicted. Pat O’Rourke, out of town when the dis­cov­ery was made, con­tended the ma­te­ri­als had been planted to em­bar­rass him.

In 1996, while at­tempt­ing a come­back — as a Repub­li­can — he was charged with drunken driv­ing af­ter crash­ing his car. He lost that year’s race for county tax as­ses­sor­col­lec­tor.

Beto O’Rourke’s own car crash and DWI ar­rest, which some Cruz back­ers have high­lighted, came two years later.

Though the younger O’Rourke has drawn sup­port from lo­cal Repub­li­cans, he’s al­ways re­mained a Demo­crat. And he’s never lost a po­lit­i­cal race — two for City Coun­cil and three for the U.S. Hooeuse. His father, who also ran as a Repub­li­can for U.S. House in 1992 and county judge in 1998, lost his fi­nal three out­ings and ended up with a ca­reer win­loss record of 2­5.

On the same day that Pat died in 2001, Beto O’Rourke told an El Paso

re­porter that he ad­mired his father’s “fight­ing some bat­tles that were un­winnable.”

“I love him for tak­ing those risks,” the son said. He added, “I’m re­ally proud of him for al­ways think­ing big. [El Paso] Mayor Ray Ca­ballero is part of his legacy.”

A ‘whale-sized’ vi­sion

That was a clear sig­nal that the younger O’Rourke had cho­sen sides. In what would be­come a fes­ter­ing lo­cal po­lit­i­cal bat­tle, Ca­ballero clashed with for­mer County Judge Luther Jones, who had suc­ceeded Pat O’Rourke in the county’s top job in1990.

At stake was con­trol not just of City Hall and county gov­ern­ment but also of the two big­gest lo­cal school dis­tricts, re­counted Moore, the for­mer ed­i­tor.

Ca­ballero was a suc­cess­ful trial lawyer who’d just won the mayor’s race on a plat­form that called for lur­ing high­wage jobs and re­vi­tal­iz­ing down­town. Jones, the son of an early con­gres­sional aide to Lyn­don B. John­son, had been well­re­garded as a state law­maker and county judge, Moore said. But now he was seen as a king­maker, fund­ing and ad­vis­ing can­di­dates, hop­ing to con­trol lo­cal gov­ern­ment con­tracts, he said.

In 2011, Jones was con­victed on fed­eral con­spir­acy charges in a scheme to rig a con­tract to dig­i­tize county records.

Nearly a decade ear­lier, Beto O’Rourke had stepped up his own po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism. He’d added a jour­nal­ism com­po­nent to his com­pany — an on­line news out­let, stan­ton­ Af­ter a Jones­backed can­di­date de­feated Ca­ballero for mayor in 2003, “a lot of us were very de­spon­dent about the City Coun­cil’s di­rec­tion,” said Susie Byrd, a lo­cal pub­lish­ing house em­ployee who’d man­aged Ca­ballero’s 2001 race and been his eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment as­sis­tant.

O’Rourke wrote a trea­tise for a new po­lit­i­cal group, El Paso Now. It called for an end to the city’s pur­suit of low­wage in­dus­tries and a new strat­egy pinned to fi­nance, tech­nol­ogy and logistics, as well as spinoffs from the Army’s Fort Bliss and an en­vi­sioned Texas Tech Univer­sity med­i­cal school — since built.

With his trade­mark ex­u­ber­ance, he called in the doc­u­ment for cre­at­ing “a whale­sized in­ter­na­tional busi­ness and bank­ing cen­ter” and a uni­fied push “to take El Paso into greatness.”

Then­state Sen. Eliot Shap­leigh, a lib­eral Demo­crat and ally of Ca­ballero, told the youth­ful ac­tivists that “peo­ple need to run on the ba­sis that they’re for the peo­ple of El Paso and not for Luther Jones and who­ever might try to cor­rupt it,” Byrd re­called.

“Beto thought of run­ning for county judge, and then Ray and Eliot con­vinced him to go for City Coun­cil,” she said. O’Rourke then re­cruited Byrd and lawyer Steve Ortega to also run for coun­cil seats.

The 2005 city elec­tions launched a sort of pro­gres­sive Brat Pack. The next year, their ally Veron­ica Es­co­bar — who’s ex­pected to eas­ily win O’Rourke’s seat in Congress this fall — cap­tured a county com­mis­sioner post.

“We were fight­ing Luther’s crew,” Byrd re­counted. “We broke his con­trol of City Coun­cil.”

Con­flicts, over­laps

The Brat Pack changed the city’s tra­jec­tory, said Shap­leigh.

“This was a low­wage bor­der town with the low­est voter par­tic­i­pa­tion of any big city in the coun­try,” he said. “The city was on the brink. These guys were brave to run.”

A defin­ing is­sue was hel­ter­skel­ter de­vel­op­ment. To help dis­cour­age sprawl, de­vel­op­ers should pay higher im­pact fees if they build on the city’s fringes, O’Rourke and his al­lies said.

In 2005, O’Rourke chal­lenged a Jones­backed in­cum­bent city rep­re­sen­ta­tive, An­thony Co­bos of the South­West district. Co­bos com­plained that O’Rourke & Co. “are against builders and against new homes” and thus against home own­er­ship.

O’Rourke loved hav­ing an up­hill fight, re­called busi­ness­man Mario Por­ras, who at the time owned a down­town bar in the district.

“That is part of his in­spi­ra­tion — run­ning from be­hind and win­ning,” Por­ras said.

O’Rourke quickly es­tab­lished two ca­reer pat­terns. He holds reg­u­lar town halls. And he tries to learn from — and dis­arm — con­stituents who dis­agree.

“I’ve seen peo­ple blasting him and he sits there and he lis­tens and he re­sponds to what they’re say­ing,” Byrd re­called.

Ortega, the group’s third new coun­cil mem­ber, said men­tors Ca­ballero and Shap­leigh had told them that if a siz­able chunk of con­stituents weren’t mad at them, they weren’t push­ing hard enough for change.

“The suc­cess of El Paso’s down­town right now speaks for it­self,” Ortega said.

With a new mi­nor­league base­ball sta­dium, ren­o­va­tion of sev­eral his­toric build­ings, new of­fice space, a mer­cado built over an old flea mar­ket, new hous­ing and a street­car com­ing in later this year, down­town is no longer a ghost town at night, he and Byrd said.

Re­cent TV spots by Cruz and the Club for Growth su­per PAC have blis­tered O’Rourke as an un­eth­i­cal shill for his wealthy busi­ness­man father­in­law, Bill San­ders. To­gether, they and other rich El Pa­soans bull­dozed the neigh­bor­hoods of low­in­come His­pan­ics, the ads im­plied.

David Romo, a bor­der­lands his­to­rian and founder of the anti­gen­tri­fi­ca­tion group Paso del Sur, said O’Rourke “ba­si­cally was the pretty face for a very ugly plan” that threat­ens the poor.

“We’re ask­ing about his fun­ders [in City Coun­cil and U.S. House races]: The ma­jor­ity of them are con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans,” Romo said. “Why are they fund­ing this Demo­crat?”

Ortega, the O’Rourke ally, dis­missed the crit­i­cism. “I would de­scribe Romo and his group as mal­con­tents try­ing to re­live the bat­tles of the 1960s Chi­cano move­ment,” he said.

UTEP com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sor Richard Pineda, who sat on the City Ethics Com­mis­sion, said it looked at and dis­missed a busi­ness owner’s com­plaint filed against O’Rourke al­leg­ing con­flict of in­ter­est.

O’Rourke an­tic­i­pated the move and ob­tained a city at­tor­ney opin­ion say­ing he had no con­flict in vot­ing on down­town re­de­vel­op­ment matters, de­spite San­ders’ heavy in­volve­ment, Pineda said. O’Rourke went ahead and cast coun­cil votes on the plans.

“There never has been the end of a neigh­bor­hood be­cause of ac­tions by O’Rourke. Zero,” Pineda said.

Still, “if your father­in­law is a ma­jor in­flu­ence in the lo­cal econ­omy, there prob­a­bly is some over­lap” of the in­ter­ests of the city and his fam­ily, he said.

Pulled into clashes

In 2008­10, a surge in mur­ders caused by drug car­tels in nearby Juarez prompted O’Rourke and Byrd to be­gin pro­mot­ing le­gal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana. They even wrote a book about it.

Af­ter hear­ing a young man who is gay tell them he did not feel wel­come in El Paso, they and Ortega be­gan push­ing for the city to con­fer ben­e­fits on em­ploy­ees’ do­mes­tic part­ners. El Paso was among the first Texas cities to do so.

In­censed, a lo­cal pas­tor spear­headed at­tempts to re­call all three coun­cil rep­re­sen­ta­tives. The drive failed.

The ini­tia­tives, along with the down­town push, pulled O’Rourke into clashes, not just with left­lean­ing groups and Jones’ hand­picked can­di­dates but also with per­haps the most pow­er­ful lo­cal Demo­crat, U.S. Rep. Sil­vestre Reyes. A for­mer Bor­der Pa­trol sec­tor chief, Reyes won lo­cal renown in the 1990s when he or­ches­trated a show of force along the Rio Grande in Oper­a­tion Hold the Line. Elected in 1996, Reyes was chair­man of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee.

He quashed a res­o­lu­tion by O’Rourke and Byrd call­ing for a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion on le­gal­iz­ing drugs. Reyes said it could cost El Paso fed­eral stim­u­lus money.

It was a set­back for O’Rourke. But he would soon pay Reyes back.

Ca­ballero, who in re­tire­ment writes history books, said O’Rourke “is the most coura­geous politi­cian I have ever run across. It’s easy to say to­day, ‘Let’s go soft on reg­u­la­tion of mar­i­juana.’ Or ‘Let’s give rights to same­sex part­ners.’ But you go back 10 or 15 years, it’s not.”

Tal­ent and luck

With a thriv­ing med­i­cal com­plex, ex­pan­sion of Fort Bliss and the in­ner city’s reawak­en­ing, El Paso is on a bit of a roll. In this year’s cam­paign, O’Rourke speaks of his home­town with pride.

Pineda, the UTEP pro­fes­sor, said O’Rourke was part of sur­pris­ingly suc­cess­ful group push.

“This mo­ment doesn’t click if all these peo­ple aren’t there,” he said, tick­ing off Ca­ballero, Shap­leigh, Byrd, Es­co­bar, Ortega and O’Rourke. “All of those peo­ple clicked at the right time.”

Ortega, who ran un­suc­cess­fully for mayor in 2013, the year af­ter O’Rourke knocked off Reyes and went to Wash­ing­ton, is a bit rue­ful. O’Rourke’s emer­gence as pack leader in­volved both tal­ent and luck, he said.

Be­cause of a city char­ter re­vi­sion that phased in four­year terms for coun­cil rep­re­sen­ta­tives, the ones elected in 2005 drew straws for two­ or four­year terms, he said.

“I pulled out a ‘four’ but Beto pulled a ‘two,’ ” Ortega re­called.

Even­tu­ally, O’Rourke, Byrd and Ortega all won re­elec­tion to four­year sec­ond terms, de­spite re­call at­tempts over fringe ben­e­fits con­ferred on gays and les­bians.

Hap­pen­stance, though, put O’Rourke on a path to look for an­other race in 2011, two years ear­lier than his po­lit­i­cal mates. Tim­ing is ev­ery­thing in pol­i­tics, Ortega said.

With $240,000 of help from a PAC that San­ders, his father­in­law, helped fund, O’Rourke gunned for Mr. Hold the Line. He top­pled Reyes in a late May 2012 pri­mary, avoid­ing a runoff by 216 votes. A re­dis­trict­ing law­suit had de­layed the pri­mary. Iron­i­cally, while that let O’Rourke knock on more doors and un­seat the eight­term in­cum­bent, it also helped Cruz as he up­set then­GOP Lt. Gov. David De­whurst, Byrd ac­knowl­edged.

Reyes, said to still be seething, didn’t re­spond to Face­book mes­sages ask­ing for com­ment.

Es­co­bar, likely to soon cap­ture the 16th Con­gres­sional District, is reg­u­larly asked about O’Rourke.

“He has achieved rock­star sta­tus,” she said re­cently while lead­ing a “Beto Bor­der Surge” in Laredo. “Susie, Steve and I, we also feel it very much is our job to tease him and make sure he stays as grounded as pos­si­ble. … We find ways to give him a lit­tle hell.”

Stevens, the for­mer O’Rourke band­mate and room­mate, said each Brat Pack mem­ber has strengths. O’Rourke, though, is unique, he said. “He’s not lack­ing in con­fi­dence,” Stevens said. “He can talk on his feet, and can tell about a per­son, not just a num­ber.”

 ?? File Photo/El Paso Times ?? Tom Brown made a point to Beto O’Rourke dur­ing a meet­ing out­side El Paso City Hall on Aug. 4, 2009. O’Rourke pushed for the city to con­fer ben­e­fits on em­ploy­ees’ do­mes­tic part­ners.
File Photo/El Paso Times Tom Brown made a point to Beto O’Rourke dur­ing a meet­ing out­side El Paso City Hall on Aug. 4, 2009. O’Rourke pushed for the city to con­fer ben­e­fits on em­ploy­ees’ do­mes­tic part­ners.
 ??  ?? O’Rourke (cen­ter) posed for a fam­ily photo at his boy­hood home in cen­tral El Paso be­fore his father, Pat (right), died in 2001. In­cluded were O’Rourke’s mother, Melissa (left), and sis­ters Char­lotte and Erin.
O’Rourke (cen­ter) posed for a fam­ily photo at his boy­hood home in cen­tral El Paso be­fore his father, Pat (right), died in 2001. In­cluded were O’Rourke’s mother, Melissa (left), and sis­ters Char­lotte and Erin.

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