by Brule Eagan
Here in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, the city of McAllen is the regional capital. It leads the area in business and investment. It is a surprisingly cosmopolitan city, with a blossoming Arts District, a huge new public library, great parks, a vibrant nightlife, and exceptional restaurants. Even the city’s hospitals have achieved national renown.
The city’s true melting pot is it’s most popular Mexican bakery. Rex Bakery and Restaurant has been a fixture of downtown McAllen since the ‘40s. It ain’t just where the elite meet; everybody goes there for a big Mexican breakfast, then grabs a bag of freshly-baked pan dulce on the way out. In a bygone age, this is where the compadres gathered for coffee three times a day, with politics the usual topic of conversation.
Just down 17th Street is an ancient theater, the Ciné El Rey. In a bygone age, this was where people saw the great stars of Mexican cinema: Pedro Infante. Cantinflas. María Félix. They frequently appeared in person. The El Rey is still in use today. It’s been refurbished somewhat. It was never a grand palace to begin with, and it isn’t now, but it’s quite presentable, and hosts live entertainment and the occasional independent movie.
On this Monday morning in August, the topic at every table at Rex was the visitor who packed the El Rey Saturday. He’s a congressman from El Paso who resembles Bobby Kennedy, is also named Robert Francis, and is also Irish. And he’s also a liberal Democrat.
The Mexican-American population likes Beto O’Rourke immensely. They appreciate that he didn’t appropriate his own nickname; he was called “Beto” before he was in kindergarten.
He’s fluent in Spanish, and, while on the El Paso City Council in 2009, he called for a critical revision of the War On Drugs along with legalizing marijuana. The murders of thousands across the river in Ciudad Juarez prompted his resolution, which, while vetoed by the mayor, had the unanimous support of his fellow council members.
In 2012, he ran for the House, toppling the eight-term incumbent in the primary, and crushing his Republican opponent in the general election. Two years later, O’Rourke was re-elected by an even bigger margin.
Now, he’s after the U-S Senate seat occupied by Rafael “Ted” Cruz.
O’Rourke is for things most of the El Rey crowd is for, and, polls indicate, most Texans are for:
— Marijuana reform, including expunging the arrest records of casual users
— Immigration reform, while protecting DREAMers
— Universal health coverage (single-payer)
— Gun control legislation
O’Rourke has something else in common with RFK: the ability to easily communicate his policies and his ideas with passion and sincerity. That is a very big deal for the breakfast crowd at Rex. They know the pain their parents and grandparents felt from the prejudice against them, and they’ve developed an instinct for knowing who’s a fraud and who has their best interests at heart.
O’Rourke has raised millions from across the country. He says he’s not taking any money from political action committees. Yard signs touting “Beto For Senate” are popping up throughout the state, even in some of the reddest enclaves. The polls have him within a point or two of the incumbent Ted Cruz, which has the GOP in a panic. They know they have an unlikable candidate, and they know their opponent has what Chris Matthews called “the sun in his face” (that’s how Matthews said you could spot the winner).
The former Dallas County sheriff Lupe Valdez, a woman who’s running for governor and is backing O’Rourke, has pointed out that Texas is really not a red state. “It’s a non-voting state. If we get out the votes, it won’t be a red state.”
And the crowds to see Beto in person continue to grow as he travels to every one of the 254 counties in Texas.
UPDATE: Since I wrote this in mid-September, the first of three debates between O’Rourke and Ted Cruz took place on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
It was a slugfest from start to finish, and ended with the moderators asking the combatants to say something nice about each other.
Beto went first, complimenting Cruz on sacrificing family obligations to serve his constituents and his country. Cruz responded by saying he admired Beto’s passion for what he believed; his passion for, in short, being a socialist in the image of Bernie Sanders.
Beto then issued the Line of the Night, simply saying “True to form”.
From Dallas, Beto headed for San Antonio. Rainy weather prevented him from flying to the Alamo City; a flight which would have taken an hour became a five-plus-hour drive in the rain. Undaunted, Beto made sure he posted a snapshot of him scarfing a Whataburger along the way (Whataburger is, for the uninitiated, pretty much the state fast food. The reason for that is, they really are good).
From San Antonio, Beto drove the extra couple of hours for a Saturday rally in the border city of Del Rio. From there, it was southeast along the Rio Grande to Eagle Pass and Laredo for huge rallies, then Sunday in Edinburg (not right on the border, but a par-five away), then to my neck of the woods in Brownsville.
Along the way from Laredo, Beto, accompanied by Texas Dem leaders Julian and Joaquín Castro, stopped at another Whataburger to refuel. (If you’ve seen how passionate Beto gets at any of his rallies, you’d understand the need for a high-calorie burger.)
I wanted to go to that rally in Brownsville. I knew exactly where the venue was, and where the good parking spots were, and I figured “well, the Cowboys are playing, so maybe it won’t be too crammed”.
I couldn’t get within a country mile of the place.
But I saw video of the jam-packed rally, and while Beto is an exciting, motivating speaker, I was focused on the crowd.
In a city with an 80-plus-percent Latino population, I saw as many Anglo faces as Latino.
As many men as women.
As many older folks as young.
And even though South Texas has been a Democratic stronghold since forever, Beto’s pull was amazing.
They wanted to see Beto O’Rourke. They wanted their families to see him. They wanted their children to see who they think will be the next U-S Senator from Texas. Maybe more than that someday..
If you can get a bunch of Rio Grande Valley people to turn out on an NFL Sunday, well, then, you’ve won the election.
If not, we know who won that debate.