In San Francisco, Beto O'Rourke Sets a Unifying Tone

1 min
Former Texas Rep. Beto Rourke brought his presidential campaign to California in April 2019 for a four-day driving tour.  (Paul Ratje/Getty Images)

Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, whose closer-than-expected but losing race for the U.S. Senate in Texas last year fueled hopes for a nationwide White House run, brought his brand of energetic retail politics to a community center in San Francisco Sunday.

Apologizing for being a few minutes late, O'Rourke joked that "while my plane was sitting on the tarmac all I could think about was high-speed rail."

Wearing a light-blue button-down shirt and gray slacks, O'Rourke spoke for about an hour, largely in generalities, touching on issues ranging from the need for universal health care to immigration to what he called "the mother of all challenges, climate change."

Ticking off a list of criticisms of Trump policies and statements — without ever mentioning the president by name — the 46-year-old O'Rourke asked the crowd: "How in the world did we come to this point?"

Avoiding the kind of inflammatory rhetoric favored by some Democrats running for president, O'Rourke struck a more unifying tone.

"Let's call forth the genius of our fellow Americans, not as Democrats or Republicans or folks from big cities or small towns," O'Rourke said. "I don’t care who you pray to or how many generations you’ve been here or whether you just got there today. We’re all Americans."

Emphasizing his El Paso roots, O'Rourke transitioned easily between English and Spanish, winning approving applause from the crowd.

Before taking questions, he touched on the excessive amount of money in politics, gerrymandered voting districts, gun violence and income inequality and lack of affordable health care.

"The answer to this is democracy that works for all of us, and by democracy I mean not just limited to political democracy but true economic democracy," O'Rourke said.

John Cook, 18, came to the rally with friends from the East Bay city of Clayton. He said he’s “getting there,” but has “pretty much made up my mind” to support O’Rourke.

Asked what he likes about him, Cook said, “He’s a really respectful person. Just the way he talks. He really would appeal to Republicans, he’s moderate, whereas a lot of the other Democrats are really far to the left.”

Ned Jeter, a 64-year-old retired postman from Pleasant Hill, arrived early enough to get a seat on the edge of the stage. "I’m concerned about the country,” Jeter said. “We’ve got to make a change. I’m here to listen and take it from there.”

Lizette Golindo of San Francisco said she supports O’Rourke because when he ran for the Senate in Texas, “he was including me. Other candidates run against blacks to get the white vote. I feel like he’s on my side,” Golindo said.

O'Rourke was introduced by North Bay Rep. Jared Huffman, who noted that not only did he room with O'Rourke in Washington, D.C., but "he was my landlord."

"I have seen Beto O'Rourke in many quiet moments with no cameras, just him and me, a burrito and a beer," Huffman said. "I  am here to confirm that Beto O'Rourke in those quiet moments is the same guy you see being interviewed by Oprah or onstage with Willie Nelson."

Rep. Huffman described O'Rourke as "authentic, reflective, honest and kind to people from all walks of life."

Mer Ring of San Francisco brought her 12-year-old son, Kyle, to the rally. Both her parents came to the United States from Ireland, and she said she was excited to have O’Rourke visit the Irish Cultural Center.

This is the second presidential candidate she’s seen, the first since Robert F. Kennedy came to San Francisco in 1968, another Irish American to make a run for the White House. Ring said she approves of O’Rourke’s “positive message” of inclusion.

Mer Ring of San Francisco brought her 12-year-old son, Kyle, to see Beto O'Rourke at the Irish Cultural Center. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

O'Rourke chose the Irish Cultural Center as his first venue in San Francisco, perhaps as a nod to his Irish roots.

But Lisa Michelis, senior event manager at the cultural center, stressed the venue is open to anyone who wants to use it and that the organization is forbidden from endorsing candidates.

However, "speaking just for myself, it's always exciting when you have someone in the headlines quite a bit coming," Michelis said. She added that as far as she knows, this is the first presidential candidate to speak at the  center, "although we've had people like (former House Speaker) Tip O'Neill and Gavin Newsom here before."

Sunday's event was the second stop of a four-day driving tour through California for O'Rourke. Yesterday he began his visit with an outdoor rally at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, where he highlighted the importance of vocational training.

Monday he heads to Modesto for a tour of irrigation facilities at a junior college. He'll then hold a roundtable, presumably with students. He finishes his California swing Tuesday in San Diego, where he'll host another town hall meeting.

O'Rourke, who took Texas by storm in his just-short effort to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz last year, is finding it much harder so far in 2019 to break out of the pack and get the kind of viral attention he regularly received in 2018.


His initial campaign launch last month was criticized, especially by women, who found joking comments about the minimal role he plays compared with his wife, Amy, in raising their three young children and his "I'm just born to be in it" comments in a Vanity Fair profile to be evidence of male privilege.

His puppy-dog enthusiasm, epitomized by jumping on top of things to address crowds while wildly gesticulating, was mocked by President Trump and satirized on Twitter. These are either growing pains easily overcome or evidence that what worked in a Texas Senate race against a wildly unpopular Republican won't cut it in a primary contest with 20 Democrats, including several women senators and people of color.

In a recent Quinnipiac University Poll, O'Rourke's challenge in California was made clear. He was the choice of just 4% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters, far behind former Vice President Joe Biden (26%), Sen. Bernie Sanders (18%), Sen. Kamala Harris (17%). Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg each had 7%.


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