Beto O’Rourke fires up supporters at LA rally to start California swing
LOS ANGELES — Beto O’Rourke is touring California for four days, aiming to inject energy into his drive toward the state’s newly important presidential primary.
And for at least one evening in Los Angeles, he did.
In a outdoor campaign rally at L.A. Trade-Technical College on Saturday, O’Rourke excited a crowd of about 2,000 with a unity message, blasts at the Trump administration’s immigration policies, and a call for tighter gun-purchase restrictions after Saturday’s shootings at a Jewish synagogue in Poway.
“Are you all ready to do this?” the Democrat from Texas shouted over cheers near the end of an 18-minute speech. “This is our moment of truth, and we cannot be found wanting!”
Occasionally breaking into Spanish in front of a youthful audience that didn’t quite fill Trade Tech’s grassy quad, O’Rourke voiced broad Democratic themes and spent most of his time on border issues familiar to the El Paso native.
“Security is purchased not with walls or cages or cruelty, but by treating our fellow human beings with the dignity and respect they deserve,” said O’Rourke, who opposes President Trump’s border wall project.
“Our (nation’s) strength is that people choose us,” he added. “And if immigration is a problem, it’s the best problem the United States of America could have right now.”
O’Rourke said Trump is dividing Americans and that his presidency has “exacerbated the borders we have within our country.”
O’Rourke, 46, a tech entrepreneur who represented the El Paso area for three terms in the U.S. House, shot to national fame in 2018 when he ran against Sen. Ted Cruz and came within 2.6 percentage points of defeating the Republican incumbent in conservative Texas.
Rich Levier, a card dealer from Culver City who was in the crowd in Los Angeles, said he was “genuinely moved” by O’Rourke’s speech.
“He talked about immigrants. He talked about the divisiveness in the nation; leaders who are pushing us apart. It’s all true,” Levier said.
California will hold its presidential primary March 3, 2020, three months earlier than usual. Officials hope the early spot in the primary cycle will increase the political clout of the state with the single biggest batch of delegates for both parties.
Of the 20 Democratic candidates vying for places on debate stages, more than a half-dozen have campaigned in Southern California already this year, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, former San Antonio Mayor and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
President Trump came April 5 for a border visit and L.A.-area fundraiser and private dinner with supporters.
O’Rourke plans campaign stops in San Francisco on Sunday, Modesto on Monday and San Diego on Tuesday.
The few polls taken in California this year have shown O’Rourke with the support of no more than 10% of the state’s Democratic voters. This month, a Quinnipiac University poll of 482 registered California Democrats found O’Rourke with 4%, placing him behind former Vice President Joe Biden, Sanders, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Warren and Buttigieg.
Some political observers say O’Rourke is long on speaking skills and short on policy.
“Beto O’Rourke is about inspiration and aspiration,” said Jack Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “His birth name is Robert Francis O’Rourke, and he aspires to inspire Democrats just as Robert Francis Kennedy did during the 1960s.
“RFK’s most memorable speech — indeed probably the greatest extemporaneous speech in American history — was his response to the assassination of Martin Luther King. O’Rourke became a viral sensation with his response to a question about NFL players taking a knee. Both were about racial healing and national unity.
“But he has some big problems,” Pitney added. “First, Kamala Harris has a home-court advantage in California. Second, Pete Buttigieg also has an inspirational message. Third, O’Rourke has yet to carve out a policy agenda that set him apart from the many other Democrats in the race.”
O’Rourke is for a $15 federal minimum wage, government-funded pre-school, a health care “public option” —but not Medicare for all — and legalization of marijuana nationally. He opposes the death penalty and a ban on transgender people in the military.
He began Saturday’s rally by sending “thoughts and prayers” to Poway shooting victims and their families and promising to “back that up with action,” repeating his support of universal background checks for gun buyers.
O’Rourke can overcome his low standing in early polls, Pitney said
“But O’Rourke is going to need more than an inspirational message that came during a 2018 race that he ended up losing,” PItney said.
Xiao and Ted Behlendorf, Studio City residents who attended the rally Saturday, liked what they heard.
Xiao Behlendorf, a community college librarian, said O’Rourke is her party’s “most electable” candidate based on what he showed in his Senate campaign, which brought the most votes ever for a Democrat in Texas.
Ted Behlendorf, a winemaker, said he’ll vote for either O’Rourke or Buttigieg.
“I’m just looking for the smartest guy,” he said. “We definitely need an injection of idealism.”