CHARLOTTE, N.C. (CN) – Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke made his first campaign stop in North Carolina on Monday, speaking to a crowd in Charlotte about issues that resonate with Tar Heel State voters such as gerrymandering and LGBT rights.
In a grassy plot on the Central Piedmont Community College campus in Charlotte, O’Rourke greeted a morning crowd of about 90 students and others with, “Buenos dias.”
The former congressman from El Paso, Texas, became a national figure last year during his campaign for U.S. Senate. The Democrat narrowly lost to incumbent Republican Ted Cruz, but announced his candidacy for president last month following the enthusiastic backing he received during the Senate race.
North Carolina State Senator Mujtaba Mohammed, D-Mecklenburg, kicked off the event Monday around 9 a.m. with a comeback story.
He said Democrats bounced back last year from the “hurt” caused by the outcome of the 2016 presidential election when 170 members of the party put their names on the ballot, Mohammed told attendees on Monday.
“For the first time ever, my party, the Democratic party, our party, successfully recruited legislative candidates in every single district across the state,” Mohammed said.
Of those candidates, he said, 65 were woman. Fifty-four were people of color and seven were members of the LGBTQ community.
The Tar Heel State wields significant power in the 2020 presidential race as a Super Tuesday primary state, Mohammed said.
“North Carolina is the road to the White House,” he added.
O’Rourke, on his modest platform on the community college green, told attendees that gerrymandering is a practice “where members of Congress choose their own voters instead of the other way around,” drawing the first large bout of applause from a crowd that voted in what were ruled politically gerrymandered districts last November.
He also slammed voter ID laws, saying they create additional barriers for citizens who want to vote and promising to back a new voting rights law “to make sure every single person is counted and can vote and is represented.”
O’Rourke then spoke about the LGBT rights issues that dominated public discourse about the state, including a law restricting the use of public restrooms by transgender people that caused some companies to pull their business from North Carolina for several years.
“I came here to learn from your example because a few years ago, what I knew about you was a very hateful bathroom bill that you exported to our state of Texas,” O’Rourke said of the law backed by former Republican Governor Pat McCrory. “For what purpose? To try to freak parents out about transgender children in their kids’ classrooms, though we know transgender kids are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of these attacks?”
“We sold this fear and this anxiety, and this paranoia and this hateful language for political gain to maintain a purchase on power at the expense of kids,” he said.
O’Rourke commended North Carolina voters for voting in Democrat Roy Cooper as governor, and attributed this win as a reason for Texas shunning a similar bathroom bill.
He continued his speech by condemning the presence of military-grade weapons in communities, schools and churches.
“Speaking of criminal justice,” he said, “it was hard to escape the news we saw today here in Charlotte that soon a video will be released of [the] shooting death of Danquirs Napoleon Franklin.”
O’Rourke expressed gratefulness to members of the news media and law enforcement for encouraging transparency over the death of Franklin, who was fatally shot by a police officer at a Burger King restaurant in Charlotte last month.
The video of the shooting was released shortly after O’Rourke’s speech, after a judge had ordered the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to do so by 2 p.m. Monday.
“As this state, this country learns the truth, we have to make sure we soberly and deliberately find how we can work together to improve equal justice for every single one of us, regardless of race, where we live, or our ability to access this criminal justice system that in so many ways today is not just,” O’Rourke said.
Nora Coffee, 17, said she has followed O’Rourke since his Senate run.
Coffee’s two friends who accompanied the Huntersville native to Monday’s rally joined in her enthusiasm for supporting O’Rourke, though they are open to other candidates.
“We are here, and we support him, because he is inclusive,” Coffee said. “And he wants to bring people together on different issues.”
Coffee and her friends will be eligible to vote in the 2020 election. She said she is dismayed at the political divisiveness she has witnessed since 2016.
After the speech in Charlotte, O’Rourke headed to his second event of the day in Greensboro at Natty Greene’s Pub and Brewing.
He ends his campaign trek through North Carolina in Chapel Hill later on Monday.