EL PASO, Texas — Blocks from the Mexican border, Beto O’Rourke on Saturday cast the United States as being on the brink of becoming a “democracy in name only” and his hometown as an example of the nation’s way forward.
“This extraordinary, unprecedented concentration of wealth and power and privilege must be broken apart, and opportunity must be shared with all,” he said Saturday morning in the first large rally of his presidential campaign.
Speaking Spanish, he said he would fight for a country in which gender, ethnicity and a family’s time in the United States are not barriers to voting and economic participation.
The former Texas congressman launched his bid for the 2020 Democratic nomination two weeks ago. Back in his home state after a tour of the early-voting states and the upper Midwest, O’Rourke held his first large public rallies Saturday — starting in El Paso, where police said a crowd of 1,000 to 2,000 had gathered, with thousands more expected in Houston and Austin later in the day.
Saturday’s first event was billed by his campaign as its official kickoff, with more than 1,000 launch parties planned across the country.
Its staging, at an intersection dotted by local businesses on El Paso Street, was designed to play up O’Rourke’s status as the only candidate in the 2020 Democratic field who hails from a border city.
In her introduction, Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar — who holds O’Rourke’s former seat in Congress — called El Paso “the capital of the border; the new Ellis Island.” O’Rourke’s wife Amy described him on their first date as “trying to change my life’s course and get me to give El Paso a shot.”
O’Rourke, who drew thousands to a march and rally to counter President Donald Trump’s visit to El Paso earlier this year, argued that the city’s success undercuts Trump’s rhetoric.
“We are safe because we are a city of immigrants and asylum-seekers. We have learned not to fear our differences, but to respect and embrace them,” O’Rourke said. “We see the languages spoken in this community — the traditions and cultures — as a strength for El Paso.”
O’Rourke pointed to the international bridge between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez just blocks down the street, where he had this week visited asylum-seekers being detained there.
“They are our fellow human beings and deserve to be treated like our fellow human beings,” he said.
Until now, O’Rourke had stuck to smaller events in coffee shops, bars and college quads — spending most of his time fielding questions from his audiences. On Saturday, transitioning between English and Spanish, he laid out his own vision.
He cast the United States as driven by “gross differences in opportunity and outcome” in education, economic advancement and criminal justice. He sought to set the terms of the 2020 presidential election as one in which voters must “free our institutions of our capture and corruption,” and told the crowd it didn’t matter who people had voted for in the previous election.
“For too long in this country, the powerful have maintained their privilege at the expense of the powerless. They have used fear and division in the same way that our current president uses fear and division — based on the differences between us of race, of ethnicity, of geography or religion, to keep us apart, to make us angry, to make us afraid of ourselves and one another,” O’Rourke said, without using Trump’s name.
“Unrestrained money and influence has warped the priorities of this country. It has corrupted our democracy. It has invited the cynicism and the distrust and the disengagement of millions of our fellow Americans,” he said.
O’Rourke said if elected, he would seek a “new Voting Rights Act” that would mandate automatic and same-day voter registration, end gerrymandering and “get big money out of our politics.”
He launched his campaign with the same pledge he made during the 2018 Texas Senate race, where he shattered fundraising records despite a narrow loss: He isn’t accepting money from political action committees. He said Saturday he is running “with people, not corporations and PACs, but people who come together.”
He also began laying out a series of policy proposals.
O’Rourke said he would seek to “free every single Dreamer of any fear of deportation,” referring to undocumented immigrants who were brought into the United States as children. “Let’s bring millions more out of the shadows,” he said.
O’Rourke said he backed an expansion of health coverage that would keep private insurers in place — a step short of other Democratic presidential contenders who have backed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer health plan — but allow anyone to buy into Medicare. Doing so, he said, would make “everyone able to see a doctor, everyone able to afford their prescription, everyone able to take their child to see a therapist.”
He argued for federally funded universal pre-kindergarten, increased teacher pay and free higher education.
“Let’s also insist that we will not continue to diminish the power of unions. We will strengthen unions in this country,” said O’Rourke, who has at times been criticized by unions, in part for his refusal to take money from their PACs.
He repeated his calls for the legalization of marijuana, expungement of the criminal records of those convicted for marijuana possession and an end to cash bail. He said the United States must confront “the legacy and the consequences of slavery and segregation.”