by Alfredo Corchado
Melissa O’Rourke, a businesswoman who tilts Republican, said she “rarely, rarely” gives advice to her son Beto O’Rourke. But like most mothers, she can’t help but offer some unsolicited tips as the second round of Democratic primary debates nears: He should “get to the point quicker,” “be more concise” on his answers. He should button up his coat.
And, more broadly as the campaign nears the critical fall season, continue to ease up on the “live-streaming;” His Instagram broadcast of his own dental cleaning lead, in great part, to a nationwide groan.
“Maybe he shouldn’t be so open about everything. Like, the biggest mistake to me was when I heard he was at the dentist’s office,” she said. “All he wanted to talk about was the hygienist and her story, but that obviously didn’t come through.”
His poll numbers are falling, raising money is getting harder, and his rock star power is dimming. Yet as the person who arguably knows O’Rourke the best, she insists it’s too early to write him off.
She’s seen her son face adversity before, like dealing with the death of his father, Pat, in a bike accident. Or most recently being blindsided by his opponent Julian Castro, who in the first Democratic primary debate sternly accused him of not doing his homework on immigration.
Throughout his life, his mother said O’Rourke has followed a pattern when facing hardships: Take a step back at first, assess the situation carefully, and then push forward with renewed resiliency, focus and determination. She says this routine is a trademark of his own familial upbringing in this underdog border city, which “always recharges him, nourishes him” with renewed energy.
“So he doesn’t make every decision correctly, but 99% of the time he does. I think he learned from that and moved on, and that’s what he does. He learns from mistakes and moves forward.”
Now that he’s faced some early struggles in the campaign head on, Melissa think her son is more relaxed and free spirited. In short, he’s more prepared to “kick some ass” in the debate.
“He doesn’t cave in. He’s a quick learner,” said Melissa, who plans to be in Detroit on Tuesday to watch the first of the two second-round Democratic battles. “He knows there are some things he can improve on from the first and he’s been working on that. He’s going to really shine.”
Close friends predict the former congressman is one breakout moment away from recapturing the kind of magic that vaulted him onto the national scene in his improbable senate campaign against Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz. He broke fundraising records and helped turn Texas into a battleground state for that race, generating huge voter enthusiasm even as he lost by less than three percent of the vote.
Over 8.3 million Texans voted in the 2018 midterm election, compared to about 4.6 million in 2014, according to the office of the Secretary of State.
But in his bid for the presidency, the road has been more perilous. It’s hard to break out of the pack when there are 24 presidential candidates. In the second quarter, his fundraising plummeted to $3.6 million, well outside the five top-polling candidates.
Melissa concedes that watching her son run for president has been anything but easy. She stays off social media, which she feels only underscore how divided and polarized the country is.
“The attacks against him can be vicious and so hateful. I once told him, ‘Don’t do this to yourself,’ because I knew what the life would be like,” she said. “But this is his time. He’s able to draw people from all political sides. He knows the issues well, whether the border, immigration, climate change, and that is increasingly coming through to people.
“The bottom line is, he’s doing this, running for president, for the right reasons. He wants to unite people and his centrist theme is key in bringing the country together.”
The middle child of three, Melissa was born and raised in El Paso to a mother from Wisconsin and a father from Georgia. They owned Charlotte’s — a furniture store. She long voted Republican, though she considers herself independent these days after she says she saw her party “hijacked by evangelicals and the far right.
“I’d often find myself saying over and over again outloud, ‘This is not right. This is wrong. Why isn’t my party speaking out?”
She and Pat, a former County Judge, raised three children: Beto, the eldest, followed by Charlotte and Erin. They took out a bank loan to help Beto pay for his education, which included a private prep school and Columbia University.
Longtime family friend Bill Clark, owner of Literarity Book Shop, says Beto has the “political instincts of his father and the kind heart of his mother.”
Melissa, who like Beto, is tall and lanky, demurs and finally smiles politely, turning a shade of pink, when asked about that comparison.
She lives in the house of her parents in El Paso’s west side. It is filled with pictures of her children. She also keeps old newspaper articles about Beto and Pat. Both were avid bicyclist, runners, crisscrossing the border. They spoke Spanish. They saw themselves as binational. He was 28 and Pat was 59 when he died. She can’t help but see some of her husband in her son.
Yes, Beto is soft spoken like his mother, and growing up he was bookish and quiet, except for his punk rock phase.
“He’s always been curious, thoughtful and maybe that’s why I was very surprised when he told me he wanted to enter politics,” she said.
Then she started seeing him on stage delivering speeches with a sense of earnestness, poise and clarity that reminded her of someone else.
“That all comes from Pat,” she said. “His hand gestures, the way he moves on stage, the way he pounds his chest, his heart, it all reminds me of Pat, and the clarity of his message, something that I think Beto does even better than Pat,” she said.
“He has such empathy, compassion, patience for people who have disadvantages. Maybe it was growing up with a sister (Erin) who has disabilities. She inspires him. She inspires all of us to be better.”
One thing that hasn’t changed during his bid for the presidency is the need “to talk to people, to listen carefully and to carry their message. His did this as a city councilman, as a congressman, as a candidate for the U.S. Senate and now for president. That’s what drives him, being out there talking with people, figuring out how to solve their problems, how to make this country better for everyone.”
Alfredo Corchado is the Dallas Morning US-Mex Border Correspondent. Alfredo Corchado has covered U.S.-Mexico issues for The News since 1993. A graduate of UTEP, he’s also reported from Washington and Cuba. Before the News, Corchado reported at El Paso Herald-Post & The Wall Street Journal in Dallas and Philadelphia. He’s author of Midnight in Mexico and Homelands, to be published in 2018. Follow Alfredo