EL PASO, Texas (CN) – Standing blocks away from the Texas-Mexico border and surrounded by his family and a sea of supporters, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke made it official on Saturday: He’s running for president in a campaign that he promises will be “for everyone in America.”
“This is a campaign for America; for everyone in America. This is our moment of truth, and we cannot be found wanting,” O’Rourke said from a stage at a blocked off intersection in downtown El Paso, where crowds clutching signs and flags would occasional breakout in chants of, “Beto! Beto!”
O’Rourke’s homecoming to El Paso represents a remarkable journey in the one-time punk rocker’s political rise from a little-known border congressman, to a top-tier candidate for president. A former city councilman, O’Rourke shot to Democratic stardom in his strong but unsuccessful bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz last fall, where he gained an enthusiastic following of supporters and pulled in over $80 million in donations.
His Saturday three-city blitz of Texas, billed as the official launch of his 2020 campaign for president, comes just over two weeks after O’Rourke announced in a video that he would seek the Democratic nomination. After the El Paso event, O’Rourke continued his rallies at the historically black Texas Southern University in Houston before ending the day against the backdrop of the Texas Capitol in Austin.
In his remarks, O’Rourke, a fourth-generation Irish American who grew up along the border and is bilingual, emphasized a progressive agenda: the need for climate change, immigration reform, income equality and voting rights that would include same-day voter registration. He also called for the legalization of marijuana and promised to bring an end to the on-going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But O’Rourke seized the opportunity before a national audience to rip into the Trump administration’s immigration policies, and for the way he interacts with foreign leaders on the world stage.
“Let’s end these love affairs with dictators and strong men all over the world,” he said. “Let’s earn the respect of the people around the world, not just how we treat those in other countries, but how we treat those within our country and how we treat those at the border of our country.”
Hailed as a “son of the border” by Rep. Veronica Escobar, who won election to O’Rourke’s congressional seat in November, the event was as much about El Paso, which he called a “city of asylum seekers and immigrants” as it was about himself. He vowed to help Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival recipients and accused President Donald Trump of spreading “fear and division.”
Trump on Friday threatened to shut down the border with Mexico next week amid an influx of asylum seekers. O’Rourke also on Friday visited the international bridge in El Paso, where immigration officials have begun housing migrant families.
“We will find security not through walls, not through militarization. We will find security by focusing on our ports of entry that connects us to the rest of the world,” he told the crowd of about 6,000 people.
O’Rourke, who became the second Texas Democrat to announce a run for the White House alongside former Obama cabinet official Julian Castro, was optimistic that his closer-than-expected loss to Cruz was proof that the state is slowly shifting to the Democratic column.
“This state and its 38 electoral votes count like they’ve never counted before,” he said. “All of us have a seat at the table, all of us matter.”
The atmosphere Saturday morning took on a celebratory mood; supporters ate breakfast tacos and donned campaign buttons and t-shirts with phrases like “Beto days are coming,” and “Viva Beto.” Included in the crowd were supporters from Washington State, New Mexico and Michigan.
“I thought it was amazing,” said El Paso resident Elaine Gordon. “It wasn’t just a great event, but it was a moment in history and we got to witness a moment in history.”
A Republican rally set up about a block away from O’Rourke’s stage brought out plenty of Trump backers, most of them wearing red MAGA hats, but did not disrupt the former congressman’s presidential launch. Some trickled over to O’Rourke’s rally to sneak a peek, before walking back to the counter event.
“We think he’s the guy,” said Jose Antonio Caballero, an El Paso resident and former political worker who brought his family to see O’Rourke and was one of the first attendees. “The name Beto and the idea that he can circumvent normal political procedures – speak in Spanish, be bilingual – that is totally a new concept for American politics…you just don’t have any candidates that are bilingual. I don’t remember any,” he said.
O’Rourke is polling among the top three Democratic presidential candidates, alongside former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. He will travel to Washington, D.C. and New York City on Monday for a series of national conventions before returning to Iowa on Wednesday for a four-day, 10-county tour. The trip to Iowa marks his second visit to the pivotal early primary state since announcing his run on March 14.
O’Rourke capped his speech in El Paso with remarks in Spanish, which prompted the crowd to erupt in, “Si se puede! Si se puede!”
“I am so grateful to be able to run to serve you as the next president of the United States of America,” he said. “Together we can make sure that America fulfills its promise for ourselves, for each other, and for every generation that succeeds us.”