There’s no denying that Beto O’Rourke has something that draws people in — though what it is and whether it’s sustainable for another two years on a national stage is anybody’s guess. His is not an obvious charisma like Barack Obama’s, who is such an assured public speaker that he outdid the comedian booked to emcee his last White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Nor is he blessed with pin-up model good looks like Justin “Canadaddy” Trudeau who charms everyone from Angela Merkel to Bono.
O’Rourke’s appeal, ironically, lies in his ordinary nature. If you had seen Beto O’Rourke in the airport before he was famous, you might imagine him to be a junior law partner or management consultant, the kind who tends to wait just a little too long in between haircuts for the comfort of the senior partners. On first sight, he’s a gangly, average-looking white guy in the classic corporate uniform of a blue, wrinkle-free, button-down shirt (worn a little too baggy), dark polyester suit pants (khakis if it’s casual Friday), and leather loafers. Yes, he bears somewhat of a resemblance to the Kennedy family, but more the later model Kennedys who are not so debonair as their forefathers.
Externally speaking, there’s nothing extraordinary there, despite the myriad crushes everyone on the internet professes to harbor for him in the wake of his 2018 midterm defeat against Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
The thing is, though, despite his average white guy-ness, the first time I encountered Beto O’Rourke — before he was famous — I didn’t have a ‘meh’ reaction to him. I really noticed him, and I told everybody I know about him. Which is, of course, how you win elections. It’s how Beto built a constituency, person by person—albeit not quite a large enough one to win a statewide office in Texas.
In February of 2017 — one month after Donald Trump took over the Oval Office after winning the presidency largely on a platform that consisted of calling Mexicans rapists and drug traffickers, and promising to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico – I went home to Brownsville, Texas to enjoy the city’s annual Charro Days Fiesta, a week-long festival to celebrate the friendship between our city and its sister across the border, Matamoros, Mexico.
The mayors of the two cities come together at the Hands Across the Border event, meeting on the International Gateway Bridge in a symbolic affirmation of the close-knit, binational community the cities have formed together for over 150 years.
As a fifth generation Tejana from the border, I had long ago tired of politicians from Austin to Washington D.C. exploiting the region for their own political gain, lying to the American people about how dangerous it is so that they can paint themselves as saviors. All the while ignoring the local people’s real needs — like health insurance, educational attainment and economic opportunity. Trump sliding into the White House on a wave of anti-Mexican rhetoric was just the latest indignity to our community and the Hands Across the Border event seemed like just what I needed to set things right in my mind. If only for a little while.
By 2017, the militarization of the border was at a new high and, as I approached the bridge I used to cross without showing so much as a driver’s license, I encountered dozens of intimidatingly large men dressed head-to-toe in paramilitary and tactical gear. Just feet away were the local dignitaries and school children from both communities waiting for the ceremony to begin.
Among the dozen or so politicians in attendance that day were Rep. Filemon Vela from Brownsville, Rep. Vicente Gonzalez from McAllen, and O’Rourke. I can’t say for sure what it was that made him stand out over the others. Maybe it was the fact that he spoke to the crowd exclusively in Spanish, when everyone else tried to strike a more bilingual tone.
Or maybe it was the words he spoke, which translate to “In Congress, we have colleagues who say we need to secure the border. This is the security we need at the border. This is the example.”
It was tremendously gratifying to hear someone who wasn’t from Brownsville express the sentiments that we all believe: Making friends with your neighbors provides more security than dozens of men with guns and bulletproof vests. It was reassuring to know he wasn’t just saying what he thought some of us wanted to hear, either. Let alone in the language he might have thought we wanted to hear it in.
A month later, O’Rourke announced he would run against Cruz for U.S. Senator. I was pretty sure he’d never win, and I didn’t even expect him to get close. After all, he’s from the border. The part of the state that’s seen as more of a buffer from Mexico than a part of Texas.
To my amazement, as the months wore on, Betomania began to spread, not just across Texas, but across the U.S. When I heard the east coast media critic and NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway say he thought O’Rourke could be president because, “Even the way he sweats is kind of dreamy,” I realized just how far from the border his appeal had spread.
Local supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz during the race were fond of saying that O’Rourke stood no chance of winning because most of O’Rourke’s supporters were celebrities living outside Texas. Now that he is rumored to be considering a run for U.S. president, those detractors may just be wishing he had won the senate race after all. If O’Rourke decides to go for the White House in 2020, the combined star power of support behind him reads like a marketer’s wish list of celebrity endorsers: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ellen Degeneres, Beyoncé and LeBron James are just a few of the world-class influencers who expressed their public support of O’Rourke during a political race that took place in a state where only one of them has ever lived.
There are those who say that it’s too early to have a conversation about who the Democratic party should nominate for the 2020 election but, if we use the Trump timeline as a model, that’s simply untrue. The president officially announced his candidacy for the 2016 race in June of 2015. By that math, Democratic hopefuls for 2020 need to make their intentions officially known just six months from now.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump hasn’t stopped running for re-election since he won: In the 109 weeks since the 2016 election, he’s held more than 30 rallies. If Democrats want to stand a chance against that non-stop roadshow, now is absolutely the time to be having the conversation.
And, don’t ask me to explain how or why, but if you’re looking for a candidate that is marketable and electable, you could do a lot worse than to bet on Beto.