This article is a preview of the Spring 2019 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
EL PASO, Texas – Ever since his near-miss Senate defeat to Ted Cruz, Beto O’Rourke’s political project has been on hiatus. “Have been stuck lately,” O’Rourke wrote in a post on Medium somewhere between Kansas and New Mexico. “In and out of a funk.” But here he is, across the street from where President Donald Trump is rallying supporters, at a baseball field on a cool February evening, getting the band back together. Annie Leibovitz is on stage, shooting photography for a much-discussed Vanity Fair profile. Dave Eggers is in the crowd, writing for The Guardian. And so are a few thousand El Pasoans.
The once and future candidate is on stage, waxing eloquent about “the best traditions and values of this country.” It’s the O’Rourke whom Democrats and the media fell in love with during the 2018 campaign: the crusader, the progressive, the man against the world. It’s the man running for president after three relatively undistinguished terms in the House and a Senate loss, primarily on his ability to inspire and uplift.
The crowd starts chanting—Beto, Beto, Beto. “This is where we make our stance, there is no other place I would rather be,” O’Rourke exhorts, foregrounding his birthplace at the center of his story. “I love you El Paso, the country’s counting on us.”
The morning after, David Romo is spray-painting folding chairs on a dead-end street south of downtown El Paso. Locals call this place Duranguito. The city, which is trying to level the area to build a sports arena, calls it Union Plaza. It is one of El Paso’s oldest neighborhoods, where the whole history of the city can be told by walking block to block—Pancho Villa’s stash house sits a short distance away from an elegant brick mansion that served as a Wild West–era brothel. More recently, this place was home to the poor, elderly, and undocumented, who owned homes here, or could only afford to live in the low-rise tenements that dot the area.
Almost the whole neighborhood has been fenced off by the city and made derelict, with the exception of one tenement that houses two women in their nineties off Chihuahua Street, who refuse to leave while a series of byzantine lawsuits over the arena wind their way through court. Romo, a local historian, helps keep watch over them. Today, he’s trying to make the dead street around the tenement a little cheerier.
People walk past businesses on El Paso Street at Father Rahm Drive in the Segundo Barrio of El Paso.
Romo opposed O’Rourke in the most important fight of his early political career, and no love is lost between them. “O’Rourke is a big piece of this machine,” Romo says, referring to the machine that runs El Paso, and a “masterful politician... It’s all fluff, it’s all style, it’s all looks.”
The battle over Duranguito is part of a larger war that’s taken place in the south side of El Paso over the last 13 years, one that has consumed Romo’s life. It is arguably the episode in O’Rourke’s past in which his character was most tested. While representing a gerrymandered city council district that contained some of the city’s richest residents at one end and some of the country’s poorest at the other, O’Rourke championed a plan by the well-heeled to appropriate large parts of the city’s historic barrios for redevelopment. It was bitterly opposed by many of his constituents in the affected areas, but supported fervently by his father-in-law Bill Sanders, one of the richest and most powerful men in town.
This is the paradox of Beto O’Rourke, someone whom the nation is just getting to know, a relatively blank slate received by many with brimming anticipation and others with skepticism. He can be a loud and distinctive progressive voice on national issues and an avatar for the wealthy and powerful, sometimes simultaneously. He’s the House primary challenger who took on Silvestre Reyes in 2012, running to Reyes’s left on legalizing marijuana, and to his right on increasing the Social Security retirement age. He’s the rock-star Democrat who wouldn’t support a fellow House candidate over a Republican he considered his friend. And he’s the city councilmember who tried to be everything to everyone in El Paso—except for the people of south El Paso.
LOCATED IN THE FAR western corner of Texas, El Paso is not much used to being seen, and its essential remoteness was a key part of O’Rourke’s success in 2018. There’s a set of worn clichés to describe that distance—El Paso is closer to San Diego than Houston, say—but they usually undersell it. With Ciudad Juárez, El Paso forms a single sprawling city with a population greater than that of Phoenix, but there’s little else around. There’s seven hours of nothing to the east, a four-hour drive to Albuquerque to the north, five hours to Tucson to the west, and four hours to Chihuahua to the south. Within Texas, El Paso is a world away and mostly out of mind—and out of time at that, an hour behind the rest of the state.
When O’Rourke came home from New York City in 1998, El Paso was at a crossroads. The towering smokestacks of the Asarco copper smelter, which had injected toxins into the city’s air and soil for more than a century, shut down shortly before the turn of the millennium. NAFTA was bringing new economic life, and the poverty of decades past had been greatly alleviated. But while other large Texas cities were experiencing explosive growth, El Paso was advancing more slowly, and many residents still had a kind of inferiority complex about the place.
Around then, Romo says, he met O’Rourke. “The first time that I met O’Rourke was at a Halloween party, and he was dressed as a nun,” Romo says. “To be honest with you, he struck me like a frat boy. ‘Punk rock,’ I don’t know.” Romo’s dislike of O’Rourke is visceral, but his deeper case is impersonal—he views O’Rourke as an emblem for the money that runs the city.
In 2005, O’Rourke was elected to represent a pinched, gerrymandered district that stretched from the poor, predominantly Hispanic areas south of downtown to the rich, whiter areas to the northwest around El Paso Country Club. He had run, along with other reform-minded candidates, on ending the council’s inveterate corruption and making El Paso a great city.
Later that year, O’Rourke married Amy Sanders, the daughter of Bill Sanders, the richest developer in town. Sanders was also the co-founder and leader of the Paso Del Norte Group (PDNG), a consortium of the mostly white business class in El Paso and the business class in Juárez, which held a kind of control over the combined city.
O’Rourke and friends spoke often about ending El Paso’s brain drain, making it a place where young people would want to remain—or return to, as O’Rourke had. These were the peak years of the theories of urbanist Richard Florida, who posited that a city’s economic potential correlated with the presence of “high bohemians,” or the “creative class.” Those groups were attracted by urban vibrancy, which El Paso sorely lacked. PDNG’s members, meanwhile, wanted to make money.
The intersection of those two goals could be found in El Paso’s south side. The neighborhoods of Duranguito, Chihuahuita, and the Segundo Barrio, which together form a bulge between the bridge to Juárez and El Paso’s stately, empty downtown, are low-density, walkable, and historically nonwhite neighborhoods with a poor but tightly knit residential base. Here was the obvious place to build the new El Paso.
A map of the redevelopment plan
In February 2006, a city councilmember showed Romo a map of a redevelopment plan generated by PDNG that hadn’t yet been made public. It envisioned the wholesale replacement of Duranguito and Chihuahuita by the kind of development that would draw the “creative class”—an arena, new entertainment and retail, an art walk from downtown to the river. There would be a big-box store near the international bridge to draw Mexican shoppers—Romo believes it would have been a Walmart—and its parking lot would sit in the space occupied by the Border Farmworkers Center, a nonprofit which provides a clinic, cafeteria, and safe haven for migrant workers.
A shocked Romo took the plan, attempted to spread the word, and then watched as it was announced by Sanders with great fanfare the next month at the Plaza Theatre, the same place O’Rourke would launch his Senate campaign exactly 11 years later. Nearly 2,000 predominantly poorer, older people would need to be displaced. But literature in support of it argued that local residents paid too little in property taxes, and promised that downtown El Paso would be filled by “offices, lofts, restaurants and outstanding new places to shop” if the city council would show the requisite courage.
O’Rourke voted for the plan, and then continued to support it through a growing backlash. Soon after, PDNG hired a marketing firm—one founded by Sanders’s father—to present a vision for El Paso’s future to the city council. The presentation depicted the El Paso the city wanted to move away from with a picture of an old Chevy pickup truck and an older Hispanic man in a cowboy hat, accompanied by the words “Dirty,” “Lazy,” “Speak Spanish,” and “Uneducated,” while the El Paso of the future was shown by pictures of a smart new SUV, Matthew McConaughey, and Penélope Cruz, accompanied by the words “Educated,” “Bi-lingual,” and “Enjoys entertainment.”
In a 2006 op-ed for the local alt-weekly Newspaper Tree, O’Rourke didn’t deny that the desperately poor would be the most affected; he leaned into it. “In the census tracts contained in the proposed redevelopment district, unemployment is nearly three times what it is in the rest of the city,” he wrote, adding that per capita income there was a mere $6,586 a year. Nevertheless, O’Rourke insisted the plan would “infuse capital, jobs and opportunity into a part of the world that badly needs it,” as if those poor and displaced people would be the beneficiaries.
O’Rourke’s constituents in south El Paso organized their opposition initially through Sacred Heart Church, a neighborhood Catholic parish. That evolved into an activist organization called Paso Del Sur, in opposition to Paso Del Norte. The network of residents attempted to harness popular anger at city council meetings and town halls, and kept the fight going long enough for the plan to lose momentum.
The full plan never came to fruition. It fell apart due to community opposition, new state laws about the use of eminent domain, and (mainly) the 2008 financial crash. Parts of it, like Duranguito’s proposed arena, persist. Today, the arena is on hold while a motley crew of residents, activists, lawyers, and historians contest its legality in Texas courts.
But the fight lasted years, while mostly older residents like Guadalupe Ochoa, now 76, attended meeting after meeting to try to save their homes. At one town hall, preserved on tape, Ochoa aggressively challenged O’Rourke in Spanish. “We’re treated like a stone on the road that needs to be moved out of the way,” she says.
He replies in Spanish: “There are a lot of people who are working very hard to frighten the people who live here.”
Ochoa: “It’s your own father-in-law.”
“No,” O’Rourke responds. “That’s just your opinion.”
Sanders himself was far more blunt in a meeting with barrio property owners: “You cannot have change without disruption.”
Ochoa is still angry with how powerful people in her city characterized her community. “We trusted in Beto, and he gave us away on a silver platter,” she said recently through a translator. She’s sitting in her small house in Segundo Barrio knitting lace dresses for stuffed animals to sell for Easter baskets. More than a decade after the fear of losing her home has subsided, she still breaks down in tears talking about it. “While he was at City Hall, he never did anything.”
STEVE ORTEGA, ONE OF O’Rourke’s friends on the council, has called Romo and his friends “malcontents trying to relive the battles of the 1960s Chicano movement.” If that sounds harsh, it should be made clear that Romo’s view of O’Rourke is a minority view. In El Paso, O’Rourke pulled down 86 percent of the vote in both the 2016 primary and general elections, and most people around town seem pleased with the national profile for him and the city. O’Rourke boasts of winning the votes of Segundo Barrio in his 2007 city council re-election campaign, which he views as validation of his support of the redevelopment plan, though whether it’s more a product of incumbency in a low-turnout race is up to the reader to judge.
Romo recognizes that the story of the redevelopment plan may not hurt O’Rourke. “If you’re an astute politician, the fact that you’re willing to side with Republican backers against working-class communities is kind of a signal that you’re willing to be bipartisan,” he said. He just wants it out there before the presidential campaign reclaims it and smoothes it over. It’s an important part of O’Rourke’s record, and Romo worries that Beto fans will ignore the pain of residents like Ochoa, and his work over the last decade.
How should we evaluate it? Romo and his supporters charge that O’Rourke was acting as a front for a business class that stood to make money on the deal—Sanders pledged he would take no profit from the redevelopment, but the organization he led was full of people who would—and would help secure Beto’s political career going forward. Indeed, PDNG’s member list constituted O’Rourke’s fundraising base when it came time to run for Congress, and a PAC that counted one of Sanders’s companies among its major donors spent $240,000 to oppose Silvestre Reyes, his primary opponent in 2012.
O’Rourke and his allies profess that their sincere interest was to bring life to a corner of the city that could have been put to better use. Accommodations would have been made for affected residents, they claim, had the plan come to bear.
Perhaps the more important question is: Did O’Rourke act forthrightly? Some observers think the answer is yes. Father Eddie Gros, formerly of Sacred Heart Church, credits O’Rourke’s willingness to speak to residents one on one and in groups, to try to assuage their anger and fear about the plan. “I think he tried. It was almost an impossible situation for him, because of his district,” Gros said. “He tried very hard to be open.”
Others question whether O’Rourke should have played any role in the redevelopment plan at all. The case that he should have recused himself from council votes is simple: An organization run by his father-in-law was pushing the city council to enact policy that materially benefitted his father-in-law’s friends. In his Senate campaign, O’Rourke became famous for his on-the-spot clarity about how power and justice work in America, and the corrupting influence of money in politics. When I first interviewed him in the summer of 2017, he spoke angrily about the culture of corruption in Washington, a way of doing business that he said would come to be considered as indecent as the selling of indulgences in the Middle Ages.
That’s not the O’Rourke who explained to reporter Sito Negron in April 2006 why he was declining to recuse himself. Bill Sanders had “decades of experience in developing and redeveloping, helping build up American cities, and he’s volunteering that expertise and his time to help make El Paso a better place,” O’Rourke said. And “then you’ve got me, a City Council representative who makes $18,000 a year,” and “we’re both working toward the same end to make this a leading American city. I just don’t see where the conflict is.” Recusing himself “might be the politically correct thing to do, it might look good and make some people feel good, but that’s not what I’m here for.”
Amid pressure, O’Rourke ultimately did begin recusing himself on votes relating to the city’s authority to carry out the plan, a few months into the fight. The reason he gave for doing so in dozens of affidavits was not Sanders’s involvement but his wife’s work for a charter school in the development footprint, which seems to be far less relevant. And he didn’t recuse himself on a critical vote in 2008, instead providing the deciding margin to kill a measure limiting the city’s ability to use eminent domain in the affected neighborhoods.
A marketing firm hired by the Paso Del Norte Group depicted longtime Latino residents as "dirty," "lazy," and "uneducated."
But apart from the specific issues raised in the course of the fight, there’s also the question of O’Rourke’s involvement in El Paso’s power games. To say that PDNG was influential in city politics is an understatement—some of its opponents charge that it constituted a kind of shadow government led by Sanders. Many veterans of the anti-development fight express suspicion that the real decisions were being made out of sight, and that PDNG’s members were getting a heads-up before the city announced its moves.
Stephanie Allala, an attorney and former journalist in El Paso, sued the city when she became aware that councilmembers were structuring meetings with developers to skirt Texas’s strict open-meetings law. O’Rourke, who cultivated an image on the city council as a reformer, “had a role to play in terms of standing up for democracy, open records, transparency, and he chose not to,” Allala says. She explained how older politicians engaged in illegal corruption—they would take cash from powerful men in town, $10,000 at a time. Some got caught by the FBI in a 2007 investigation. New members of the city government were friendly to the business class without needing envelopes full of cash.
Allala says O’Rourke entered a corrupt system and chose to become complicit in it. She voted for him in the Senate race, “but I’ll always remember when he had a chance to do something to promote good government and stop an actual incidence of corruption in his community.”
El Paso’s pervasive culture of influence-peddling, Allala added, flows in part from Sanders. “He’s just a street thug with a billion dollars, and he goes around getting everything he wants whenever he wants however he wants,” she said. “He gets lauded for being a patron and a philanthropist, but there aren’t a lot of people saying what a nice guy he is."
In 2003, Sanders founded Verde Realty, raising more than $800 million from real-estate giants and private-equity firms to purchase vast landholdings on both sides of the border, explicitly to dominate post-NAFTA trade. “Whether the country likes it or not, the manufacturing platform in the U.S. is going to be on the Mexican border, and that’s where the growth is going to take place,” Sanders told the Cornell Real Estate Review, a publication of his alma mater, in 2007. This shift ravaged El Paso’s garment manufacturing centers and facilitated a maquiladora empire on the Mexican side with a questionable labor and environmental record. A 2013 merger with Industrial Developments International made Verde one of the largest industrial and logistics facilities owners in North America. Sanders remains a top shareholder.
Sanders even managed to escape the redevelopment disaster on his feet. He formed Borderplex Community Trust, which was supposed to be a holding place for downtown property. When the redevelopment plan faltered, Borderplex shifted to scooping up an $82 million portfolio of El Paso office towers and commercial buildings. Though he promised to not financially benefit from the plan, as of 2015 Sanders owned 1.7 percent of Borderplex.
While the marketing firm portrayed Latino residents in a negative light, it presented images of Matthew McConaughey and Penélope Cruz as embodying El Paso's future, accompanied by the words “Educated,” “Bi-lingual,” and “Enjoys entertainment.”
Eileen Welsome, a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist who spent years digging into cross-border development issues in El Paso, wrote in a sprawling piece in 2007 that Sanders “builds complex rings of business entities, nested inside each other like Russian dolls, which give him flexibility, as well as protection from legal and financial liability.” In the same piece, she quoted Mexican journalist Julian Cardona: “Bill Sanders and the rich people in El Paso are as immoral as the people in Juárez … They have created the social conditions that create rampant crime and violence that is exploding every day on Juárez streets.”
A FEW DAYS AFTER his rally, O’Rourke has me over for coffee. Asks his communications director Chris Evans: “Who wouldn’t want to spend part of their Valentine’s Day with Beto?!”
O’Rourke and his family live in a historic mansion in Sunset Heights; Pancho Villa and General Hugh Scott had a sit-down in the living room in 1915. He makes a bowl of oatmeal in a T-shirt, cardigan, and Vans. There’s a tomahawk on the kitchen counter from his Taos visit, as recorded on Medium, and in the main room, an extensive library and sizable collection of vinyl. As I’m struggling to remember my list of questions, O’Rourke’s beautiful black dog, Artemis, keeps putting her paw on my knee, and I briefly wonder if she’s been trained to do that with journalists.
Asked what he’s most proud about from his time on the council, O’Rourke mentions overhauled zoning codes to help cut down on sprawl, expanded open-space requirements, and a reformed Sun Metro, the local transit system. In 2009, the council extended domestic-partner benefits to city employees, and defended the decision from both attack by local Christians and a recall attempt.
The council and O’Rourke advocated for immigrants, and better relations with Juárez at the height of the drug wars. It fought the domineering local police union. In 2009, he and Susie Byrd, another city representative, tried to advance a resolution calling for a national debate on drug legalization, in order to lessen cartel violence in Juárez. The congressman for the area, Silvestre Reyes, got it killed. At the time, Reyes, a former Border Patrol chief, compared the drug war in Juárez to the movie Last Man Standing, and suggested Americans should let the bad guys shoot it out. (Reyes would later premise a large part of his unsuccessful campaign against O’Rourke on the principle that O’Rourke wanted to “legalize drugs.”)
O’Rourke and Byrd wrote a book about the battle called Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico. “It was seven-year-old boys getting shot in the back of the head,” he told me. “It was young women lit on fire with their mouths duct-taped and their hands tied behind their back. We are in part culpable. It’s not our fault, but we are in part at fault. What do we do about that?”
Endorsing full marijuana legalization may seem tame today, but ten years ago it was a radical proposition. The idea that the well-being of Mexicans should be a priority in American policymaking, even when it requires adopting politically difficult stances, was downright revolutionary. But El Paso and Juárez are two halves of one city, something that is not self-evident to the rest of America. On this issue, O’Rourke’s sincerity has been demonstrated repeatedly, and his experience as a borderland lawmaker in a time of cartoonish border panic is one of the biggest assets he brings to a presidential campaign.
On the matter of the downtown redevelopment plan, O’Rourke’s camp has made plain their frustration with Romo, whom they view as somewhat of a crank. But O’Rourke himself is relatively diplomatic. The lesson he learned, he said, is that “even if someone hates my guts, and thinks everything I’m doing is wrong, and has made it their mission to share that with everyone, they may still be bringing up legitimate, good points that I should listen to.” In hindsight, he said, “I think I did initially a really poor job of listening to that criticism and listening to those suggestions, and dismissing it as ‘These people are against progress, these folks don’t want to see the city move forward.’”
What role did his father-in-law play in his political career? Bill Sanders is “one of the very most important people in my life,” O’Rourke said, “someone that I continue to look up to, looked up to then, who’d had real success based on pursuing excellence and holding himself accountable to that and being very ambitious.” Sanders bucked the El Paso inferiority complex that O’Rourke felt in his youth. To O’Rourke, Sanders’s attitude was “Fuck that, this is a great community, and you have just as much a shot as anybody else.”
Sanders was also, O’Rourke said, a paternal figure at a time when he needed one. “I had lost my dad four years before [meeting Sanders], and here was a guy who could help me as I thought through decisions about my business,” and as he was thinking “about how you live your life. How you develop a work ethic to be able to achieve the things that you want to do.”
Steve Ortega and O'Rourke, both serving on the El Paso City Council at the time, pose in front of the city's downtown in 2005.
But there was a clear-cut separation between the familial relationship and the political one, O’Rourke said. “He was very respectful of my independence as a member of city council. He made it a rule that he religiously followed, never to talk politics. We really kept that separate from our relationship.” And the two never talked about Sanders’s business on the Mexican side of the line, O’Rourke maintains. “I never knew what he was doing, didn’t ask him about what he was doing,” he said. “He is the most private person, and I just never felt comfortable, nor was it my place, to ask him about what he was doing.”
THE 2020 DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY has been characterized so far by the “apology tour,” the extensive efforts by would-be nominees to atone for wrong views, wrong actions, and wrong positions. But with politicians, as with stocks, past results are no guarantee of future performance. It’s hard to know what a record is actually worth. O’Rourke is most comfortable on stage, crusading. He wants to be seen as upholding right. If the downtown plan was indeed a moment when O’Rourke acceded to power, is it notable that he seemed consistently uncomfortable doing so? And that in justifying himself, he wasn’t very good at it?
It was the right decision, politically speaking. O’Rourke fought for the redevelopment, and the redevelopers fought for him. When he challenged Reyes in the 2012 Democratic primary, he was more liberal than his opponent on social issues, and more conservative on economic issues. While Reyes ran bizarre ads featuring children fearful of O’Rourke’s radical takes on the drug war, O’Rourke talked up Reyes’s complicity in the size of the federal deficit and floated the idea of introducing means testing to entitlement programs.
At a November 2011 debate, O’Rourke blasted Reyes’s refusal to name parts of the federal budget where he would cut spending. “Those are the tough decisions that we sent him to D.C. to make,” he said. “We have to get our budget under control.” The first place O’Rourke said he’d look to cut is military spending: “We spend 43 percent of the world’s military budget.” That’s a bold position to take in El Paso, where much of the local economy depends on ballooning military bases. But a moment later, he turned to Social Security: “We need to look at things like means testing … We need to look at a later [retirement] age … This is precisely why the U.S. almost defaulted on its national debt.” (It wasn’t.)
Sanders and other El Paso businessmen dropped money into a PAC called the Campaign for Primary Accountability, which blasted Reyes with negative ads, and right-wing donors from around Texas followed suit. O’Rourke won the primary with the help of Republican crossover voters—without them, Reyes would have beat him. El Paso Republican and business owner Eileen Karlsruher told a local publication that she and others she knew voted for O’Rourke because his record had demonstrated that he was a “middle-of-the-road conservative Democrat” who had outspoken stands on a few key non-pocketbook issues that were easy to ignore. He was easy to swallow.
In truth, O’Rourke’s story bears a passing resemblance to that of the greatest Texas Democrat. Lyndon Johnson grew up under the thumb of a politician father, and married into a rich family. His father-in-law helped bankroll his first campaign, and in office he carefully tended to a small set of powerful Texas donors to ensure his elevation. He was a crook and a snake and wildly ambitious, but when he finally got power he unveiled his most tightly held secret—a piercing kind of moral clarity. He did things no one could have expected. O’Rourke is not Johnson, of course, for a hundred reasons—it’s just hard to say what he is.
This article has been updated.