Politics

What 39,000 Words in 15 Profiles Didn’t Tell You About Beto O’Rourke

El Paso politician has had a long rise to a position of national prominence

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, is getting a lot of press as he takes on Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. But much of the coverage misses some key points about his political rise. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

I’m pretty sure three new profiles of Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke have been published in the time it took me to write this lede. Yet the only thing more remarkable than the sheer volume of stories written about the congressman is that none of them put his 2012 House victory in proper context.

I read more than a dozen profiles, and they most often describe a young, sweaty candidate with Kennedy-esque looks and punk sensibilities as an accidental and almost reluctant challenger to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. But O’Rourke was never going to be content with being on the El Paso City Council or playing bass for the band Foss.

It’s true, of course, that he successfully challenged a 16-year incumbent in the 2012 Democratic primary in Texas’ 16th District. O’Rourke, who is of Irish descent, defeated Rep. Silvestre Reyes, the area’s first Latino representative in Congress.

Reyes had support from President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton, but O’Rourke didn’t win because of anti-establishment fervor. He was the preferred choice of an influential group of local elected officials.

Former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh and former El Paso Mayor Ray Caballero led a movement to elect more liberal Democrats to state and local office and created a powerful political machine. Defeating an old guard politician like Reyes was just a continuation of the plan, and O’Rourke was in place to do it.

O’Rourke was a popular El Paso city councilor with deep family roots in the district. His father was a former county commissioner and judge who switched parties to run for Congress as a Republican in 1992. He lost, but his son won in 2012 when he defeated Reyes by fewer than 3,000 votes.

While refusing PAC money is one of the largest planks in O’Rourke’s Senate campaign, he won his initial House race with help from a super PAC partially funded by his father-in-law. The Campaign for Primary Accountability spent $240,000 against Reyes.

O’Rourke has been regarded as a hard worker and gifted politician whose office is given high marks for constituent service, even before the national attention. But one of the biggest reasons why he hasn’t faced a serious primary is because many aspiring Latino candidates were also allies of Shapleigh.

For example, El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar, state Rep. Marisa Marquez, state Sen. José Rodríguez and others were mentioned as potential primary challengers in 2014, considering the 16th District has a Hispanic voting-age population of 79 percent. But none of them ran.

O’Rourke was unopposed in the primary that year. And in 2016, he defeated Ben Mendoza, who was coming off a failed run as an independent for the state House and didn’t raise or spend more than $5,000 in his primary bid.

Aspiring congressional candidates in the 16th District knew O’Rourke wouldn’t be in the seat for long. Not only is he co-chairman of the Congressional Term Limits Caucus and pledged to serve a maximum of four terms in the House, local politicos could see there was a plan for him for higher office, and they would have another chance in the near future.

When O’Rourke announced his challenge to Cruz, a handful of candidates (including Escobar) jumped at the open seat. Escobar won the primary, is the prohibitive favorite in November and will be one of the first Latinas elected to Congress from Texas.

None of this means O’Rourke can’t win in November. But the picture of O’Rourke as a punk bassist who fell into Congress and a run for the Senate isn’t quite right.

Here’s a list of the O’Rourke profiles I read:

Flashback: Will and Beto’s Excellent Adventure 

 

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