EL PASO — Beto O’Rourke has long believed that the closer you get to the Mexican border, the less you fear it. So on a recent afternoon, the Democratic congressman who may challenge Ted Cruz for his U.S. Senate seat walked into Juarez for lunch.
The mere name of this Mexican city conjures images of bloodthirsty cartels or seedy red-light districts — the kind of place, some have argued, against which the United States should seal itself with a big, beautiful wall.
O’Rourke is strongly opposed to that plan. Among other things, it would make it harder to visit the bar he took his wife to on their first date.
“It was a little bit of a test, to see if she was up for an adventure,” he said, ducking into the dimly lit interior of the Kentucky Club.
She was. After drinks, he recalled, they bumped into a camera crew that tried to enlist the attractive couple to kiss on camera for a TV commercial — but O’Rourke begged off. “Es mi hermana,” he told them: She’s my sister. Ten months later, they were married.
O’Rourke isn’t naive about the violence that plagues parts of the city. Still, he maintains that crime is not the only story about the U.S.-Mexico border, nor even the most important one. He sees Juarez as a place where an open mind and a stomach for risk can lead to meaningful connections and long-term partnerships.
The question for the 44-year-old with statewide ambitions is: Can he get the people of Texas to see the same thing?
Inside the bar, where Elizabeth Taylor and Steve McQueen once partied and the margarita was supposedly invented, the congressman grabbed a table lined by photos of matadors and Mexican baseball players. He was greeted by an El Paso friend, Miguel Fernandez, whose telecommunications firm does work on both sides of the border.
Fernandez talked about his fear that President Trump will spark a trade war between the two countries. “At least tell me, where are you now on running for Senate?” Fernandez asked, taking a sip from his bottle of Sol. “More than 50-50?”
“I’m pretty close,” O’Rourke said. “I really want to do this.”
Democrats might look at O’Rourke — a small-business owner with hipster credentials, a Gen Xer who speaks fluent Spanish and looks more like a Kennedy than the Kennedys do — and see a candidate of thrilling national potential, marred only by where he happens to live. But then again, maybe it’s where he lives that makes him exciting.
With its growing Hispanic population, Democrats have long believed that Texas would eventually belong to them — just not imminently. But the 2016 election has scrambled the way people think about these things.
“I wouldn’t have said it last year, but I think he has a chance,” said Anne Caprara, of the Priorities USA super PAC, who is advising O’Rourke on his 2018 potential.
Naturally, others see opportunities as well. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a San Antonio Democrat deemed a rising star, is considering the race, too.
“You won’t have a problem raising money. Cruz will basically fundraise for you,” said Castro’s twin brother, Julián, the former housing and urban development secretary who recently ruled out a 2018 bid for governor of Texas.
The Cruz camp maintains that it isn’t worried about either but sees Castro as slightly more of a threat than O’Rourke. But while the Castros have the fundraising prowess and name recognition, their pragmatism and caution could keep both from seeking higher office so soon.
In El Paso, regarded by many as more Mexican than Texan, O’Rourke is far removed from the Democratic megadonors of Houston or Austin, and he has decided not to take PAC money if he runs. Still, he hopes to turn a necessity into a virtue with a Bernie Sanders-style approach — excite the grass roots and rake in smaller donations.
O’Rourke may be suffering from the bug that’s going around — the one causing mass delusions that the old rules of politics no longer apply. Can a Democrat really win in this deeply red state — against Cruz, who will be running one of the best-financed campaigns in the country? And can he do so on a positive message about Mexicans in an era when calling them rapists helped make a man president?
The timing might not be right for O’Rourke, but that hasn’t stopped him in the past.
Growing up in El Paso, Robert Francis O’Rourke (the childhood nickname that stuck is a diminutive of “Roberto”) wanted nothing more than to get out of town. The son of the county judge, he formed a punk band, Foss, with the hopes of traveling the world.
In 1994, Foss needed exposure, and someone suggested a local public-access show called “Get Real With Bill Lowrey.”
There was only one hitch. It was an evangelical broadcast. “We told them we were a new gospel band,” said O’Rourke.
“Oh yeah, they kind of pulled a fast one on me,” recalled Lowrey, the televangelist host. “But we enjoyed it. Mostly I can’t believe he grew up to be a functioning member of society.”
Foss toured the United States and Canada, but greater success would go to O’Rourke’s drummer, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who moved on to the cult-favorite bands At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta. O’Rourke, meanwhile, realized he couldn’t be a musician forever.
“I wasn’t that good at it,” he admitted. And his dad was pressuring him to grow up. “He won’t say it, but the expectation is: We didn’t take out loans for you to go to Columbia and then [play] in a punk band your whole life.”
With his Ivy League degree, O’Rourke moved back to El Paso and started a technology company and an online arts and culture magazine. Even in his 20s, O’Rourke found it easy to assume a leadership position in the community.
He ran for and won his first race for city council at 32, with a focus on downtown development and border issues, seeing the two as inextricably linked. He wrote a book about the drug war and offered legislation calling for an “honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics.”
In 2009 O’Rourke heard his congressman, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, at a Chamber of Commerce meeting described drug-related violence in Juarez like a stick-’em-up movie — full of cretins who were better off dead, as it sounded to O’Rourke. The councilman was troubled by what seemed like a lack of empathy for El Paso’s twin city. A fellow council member, Steve Ortega, urged him to challenge Reyes. And so, in 2012, he took on the 16-year House veteran in the Democratic primary.
Reyes, a former Border Patrol chief, had the support of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. O’Rourke had an arrest record: In 1995, he was arrested for breaking and entering, a prank gone awry, he says, when some friends bet each other they could get past a fence surrounding the local college. Then there was the 1998 drunken driving arrest, an incident he says was “stupid” and regrets.
Reyes used O’Rourke’s mug shot in attack ads and criticized him for supporting marijuana legalization. Few people thought O’Rourke had a chance. But with the help of an anti-incumbent sentiment — and an anti-incumbent super PAC that poured $240,000 into the race — he won.
Five years later, O’Rourke sees another opportunity to sneak himself in.
It cost 25 cents to walk across the Paso Del Norte bridge back into the United States after lunch at the Kentucky Club. A gaggle of shoppers marched in front of the congressman — women off to buy shoes, clothes and groceries that are cheaper in El Paso. A few weeks earlier, Border Patrol had allowed separated families to wade into the stagnant, ankle-deep water below and hug where the two countries meet.
“On the one hand, it’s really pitiful that this is what they had to do. . . just to see each other,” said O’Rourke. “In another way, it’s really amazing that El Paso and Juarez could figure out a way, and under President Trump no less, to at least do this for families.”
At a time when Democrats and Republicans alike talk about “securing the border,” O’Rourke maintains that the border has “never been more secure.” The number of immigrants living illegally in the United States has not increased in years. With 32 million documented border crossings a year, Mexicans are a crucial driver of the El Paso economy. And El Paso ranks as one of the safest cities in the country.
But while O’Rourke points to El Paso’s good health as proof that a semi-porous border works well for both sides, proponents of tougher border security argue that credit goes to the rigorous Border Patrol presence and extensive fencing between Juarez and El Paso.
That’s part of what O’Rourke was up against when he ran against Reyes, who once spearheaded an effort called “Operation Hold the Line.” If he runs for Senate, he’ll face Cruz, who promised in his 2016 presidential bid to “triple border security” and “build a wall that works” — a slogan that certainly worked for the man who won that race.
“I just wish more people could see what I see,” O’Rourke said.
To do that requires an early start.
That morning, he woke before dawn for a hike in the Franklin Mountains, leaving his wife and three children sleeping in their home that a century ago sat above a secret tunnel to Mexico.
With his old city council pal Ortega, he snaked up the trail under a full moon, passing the spiky silhouettes of cypress trees and clumps of greasewood plants that smell like tar when it rains. They perched on a rocky point near the summit where they peeled oranges and shared a thermos of coffee, looking out at the twin cities glittering in the dark.
It was nearly impossible to tell what was Mexico and what was Texas, and that, of course, was his point.