The Dallas Morning News
The roots of Democrats’ rising star
O’Rourke’s family, friends illuminate backstory of sunny son of El Paso
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, stantonstreet.com. 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.”
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.”