EL PASO, Texas — Beto O’Rourke, christening his presidential campaign at a boisterous rally in his hometown, cast himself on Saturday as a crusader against moneyed interests that he said have corrupted America’s democracy and a president he accused of capitalizing on politics of “fear and division.”
In what amounted to his maiden stump speech — delivered at the first large-scale, structured event of his nascent campaign — O’Rourke’s populist progressive framing evoked similar appeals from rivals Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
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“This extraordinary, unprecedented concentration of wealth and power and privilege must be broken apart,” the former Texas congressman said to cheers, “and opportunity must be shared with all.”
Lamenting economic inequality, a lack of universal health care and the scourge of climate change, O’Rourke called the challenges confronting America “the greatest of our lifetimes.” And he said that if elected, he would sign a new voting rights act, end gerrymandering and institute nationwide, automatic same-day voter registration.
“This is our moment of truth,” O’Rourke said, “and we cannot be found wanting.”
The address was billed as the first of three “kickoff” rallies in Texas, with events later Saturday in Houston and Austin. Though O’Rourke announced his candidacy earlier this month — climbing onto tables and café countertops in cramped venues as he sprinted across eight states — his appearance here was orchestrated to introduce O’Rourke to the Democratic electorate from a more presidential perch.
Speaking against the backdrop of an archway blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border, O’Rourke denounced a political system in which “unrestrained money and influence has warped the priorities of this country” and “corrupted our democracy.”
“For too long in this country, the powerful have maintained their privilege at the expense of the powerless,” O’Rourke said. “They have used fear and division in the same way that our current president uses fear and division, based on the differences between us of race, of ethnicity, of geography or religion to keep us apart, to make us angry, to make us afraid of ourselves and of one another.”
As a crowd chanted “Beto, Beto!” and waved black and white signs reading “Viva Beto” and “Beto for President,” O’Rourke said, “This is a campaign for America.”
The rally filled an intersection and part of one block of a historic thoroughfare in El Paso’s downtown. Local police officers unofficially estimated the crowd at about 1,000 to 2,000 people, while O’Rourke’s campaign put the number at more than 6,000.
While O’Rourke rarely mentioned President Donald Trump by name, he repeatedly invoked the policies and rhetoric of the Republican president, especially on immigration. Standing just blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border — where scores of asylum seekers were being held under an overpass — O’Rourke pointed to “those who are just three or four blocks from here, detained under the international bridge that connects us with Mexico behind chain-link fence and barbed wire … They are our fellow human beings.”
He called for an end to “these love affairs with dictators and strong men all around the world,” and urged the United States to re-focus its foreign policy to “reprioritize this hemisphere — those countries and people who are literally connected to us by land.”
“We can try to solve the problems of Central America here at our front door, at the Texas-Mexico border,” O’Rourke said. “Or we can invest in the opportunities to help the people of Central America where they are at home.”
The border — and the charged subject of immigration — has provided O’Rourke his clearest opening to confront Trump. The former Texas congressman hails from the heavily Democratic border city that shares a culture — and a skyline — with Juárez, Mexico.
Before announcing his presidential campaign, O’Rourke drew thousands of supporters to a February protest rally countering Trump’s visit to the city to call for funding for a border wall. And O’Rourke has gone further than many of his Democratic competitors on the issue, saying he would remove existing border barriers along the Rio Grande in El Paso.
But in a sweeping address on Saturday, O’Rourke also called broadly for expanding health care access, paying teachers more, strengthening labor unions, addressing climate change, banning workplace discrimination and enacting paid family leave. He called for decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the records of those arrested for possessing the drug. He called for expanding services for veterans and ending the country’s involvement in foreign wars.
“Whatever our differences — where you live, who you love, to whom you pray, for whom you voted in the last election, let those differences not define us or divide us at this moment,” O’Rourke said. “Let’s agree going forward, before we are anything else, we are Americans first.”
O’Rourke timed his Texas debut for one day before the end of the first fundraising quarter of the year, marrying his homecoming rally to a furious organizing effort online. The campaign coordinated more than 1,000 viewing parties throughout the United States, while warning supporters that despite the staggering $6.1 million O’Rourke raised in the first 24 hours of his campaign — surpassing every other candidate and O’Rourke’s advisers’ own expectations — he was still running from behind.
“Beto is playing catch up to other candidates with more campaign funds,” the campaign emailed supporters on Friday. “Some of our opponents started with millions of dollars from past campaigns. Plus Beto has had a lot less time to fundraise since we launched so recently. Still, we’ll be compared to other candidates for president in these reports.”
O’Rourke is beginning his campaign far behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders in early polls, now running about even with Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), according to the latest Morning Consult survey.
But unconstrained by any public office or other job, O’Rourke is campaigning at a frenetic pace. Following his Texas rallies, he plans to speak at the progressive We the People Membership Summit in Washington on Monday and at Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network conference the following day in New York. He will then return to Iowa for a second time, planning nearly two dozen events over four days next week in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
In El Paso — as in Houston and Austin — O’Rourke sought to reinvigorate Texas Democrats he first captivated in his closer-than-expected loss to Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas’ Senate race last year. O’Rourke is widely popular among Democrats in Texas but he has acknowledged he will have to compete hard here in 2020. The Democratic primary includes another Texan, Julián Castro, and Harris, among other contenders, has been seeking to make inroads in the Super Tuesday state.
O’Rourke has put El Paso, a West Texas city of about 680,000 people, at the center of his presidential campaign, routinely lacing his remarks with references to his experiences in this border city.
Speaking Saturday a short walk from his home here, O’Rourke found an audience who could finish his line when he said, as he has many times, “We are safe not despite the fact that we are a city of immigrants and asylum seekers. We are safe because we are a city of immigrants and asylum seekers.”
He added, “We have learned not to fear our differences, but to respect and embrace them.”