OPINION — CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The number of Democratic hopefuls declaring, thinking about declaring or being pushed to declare their interest in the 2020 race is increasing so rapidly, it has already become a reliable punchline. But for voters looking to discover the person who offers sensible policies on the issues they care about while exuding the intangible “it” quality that could beat Donald Trump, it is serious business.
Forget about what magic the letter “B” might hold — think Bernie, Biden, Beto, Booker, Buttigieg and I know I’m forgetting someone, oh yes, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet — these voters are digging deeper on the candidates who will crowd a debate stage in Miami two nights in a row in June.
This past weekend, more officially entered the race, with South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg getting the lion’s share of coverage with his Midwest cred, that 37-year-old youthful glow, and his taking an optimistic, faith-based case directly to Christian conservatives such as Indiana’s own Vice President Mike Pence. But you also had New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker at home in Newark with his conciliatory message and California Rep. Eric Swalwell talking gun control, and did you know his early upbringing was in Iowa?
It’s not surprising that Beto O’Rourke, 46, the former Texas congressman who gave Republican Ted Cruz a scare in his 2018 Senate race, would spend the day in North Carolina, the purple state that could make the difference in a close 2020 presidential race. After a splashy rollout that included a Vanity Fair cover and comparisons to a Kennedy, he’s had to share the spotlight. With decent fundraising numbers, this Southern swing made sense.
North Carolina has been in the middle of political fights over voting rights and gerrymandering, and lately an election fraud case, and always gets face time from presidential candidates as election time nears. Plus, nearby South Carolina is an early primary state.
There is no shortage of curious North Carolina voters, such as the close to 300 who showed up in Charlotte on a sunny, chilly Monday morning on the lawn at Central Piedmont Community College to hear what O’Rourke was offering. A few carried signs or wore T-shirts with his name. But most were asking questions and taking notes on issues from immigration to a two-state solution in the Middle East.
For Andrea Miller, 44, a mother of five who is disabled, health care is important, including “not going bankrupt because you have medical issues” and “taking care of each other in our society.” She said she had followed O’Rourke’s Texas race and “really had hoped he’d win.” In him she sees some of the same qualities of a “young Obama, bringing that energy and kind of compassion.”
Nineteen-year-old Alexandra Domrongchai thought she would have a better chance to see O’Rourke up close in Charlotte than at his later stop planned for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she majors in political science and English. She said she is looking for someone “to combat things Trump has said and done,” particularly about immigration and social issues, and is worried about the erosion of equal rights for all Americans. “I like Cory Booker, too,” she said, and hopes he’ll stop by soon.
Her mother, Dana Domrongchai, also longs for a “more inclusive vibe” from the country’s leaders. As part of a multiracial family (her husband is of Thai descent), her high-school aged son faced classmates’ remarks that he would have to “go back to Mexico” after the 2016 election. She also wanted to hear candidates’ views on a range of issues, including the environment.
Many CPCC students stopped by, and were treated to an animated O’Rourke, wearing their school’s cap. Jade Porter, 19, a psychology major, said Joe Biden and Booker are also on her short list — for now. From what she heard, she said O’Rourke seemed like “a stand-up man,” and she also noticed a resemblance to Obama. She said it would be a great thing to have a woman as president, like “so many other countries,” but doubted it was possible in America because of “our misogynistic and racist ways, I’m not going to lie.”
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Her fellow student Anna Coopersmith, 19, said it was important for young people to become “active, excited and educated” about voting in 2020. Her interest in gun control is very real, she said, “because when I take my little brother to high school every day, I shouldn’t be afraid that something will happen.”
Republican-turned-Democrat Jason Bradley, 49, said he came to learn. The Southern Baptist-raised Bradley said it was difficult for him to reconcile the evangelicals’ embrace of the president with his views on immigration and health care, such as limiting Medicaid expansion. “I don’t get it,” he said. “I can’t equate what I was taught in Sunday school with what the Franklin Grahams of the world preach.” He also said he wished for an Obama-type figure, but admitted that he thought the two-term Democratic president was “one of a kind.”
O’Rourke had done his North Carolina research, giving a shoutout to Democrat Dan McCready, hoping to win the 9th District House seat still in play after election fraud charges triggered a new election, and urging calm in the resolution of a police shooting case in Charlotte as protests were expected after the release of a video of the incident.
O’Rourke answered questions, including one from a young woman with a sister, a Dreamer, whose legal status was in limbo. And he stood for all those who wanted a photo with him, which was almost everyone in the crowd, at least one with a dog in tow.
Before he headed to the next stop of Greensboro, I asked about his own place in the race, as a white man who has spoken candidly about his privilege in a diverse party whose members all expect their concerns to be considered.
“At a time when the president tries to focus the paranoia and the hatred not just on the border but communities of immigrants and communities of color and the Muslim American community,” he said, “I can show in El Paso one of the safest cities in the United States, not despite, but because of, our diversity, our ability not just to respect but to embrace our differences because they make us stronger, more successful and safer and more secure. I have a desire and a proven record of connecting everywhere regardless of geography or race or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation or faith. Everyone’s important to me. I’m going to show up for everyone.”
He’s certainly ready to share the ideas in his platform, while standing on one.
I later checked in with Dana Domrongchai, who said, “He touched on all of the topics we care about, and his values align with ours. I really felt his empathy for what’s going on at our border.” Next on her list is Kamala Harris, who’s scheduled to travel to Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, on Friday.
Domrongchai has signed up, and is ready to do her homework.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.