EL PASO, Texas—In 1998, in the closing days of the race for county judge here, Pat O’Rourke sensed a shift in the electorate. “I know we’re in the game,” he told the El Paso Times as he drew within 7 percentage points of the front-runner in the race for his old job. “You can feel it on the street corners.” His son felt it, too, watching his father’s commanding performance in a debate that year. He was “so thoughtful and forthright,” Beto O’Rourke told me at his home on a recent July morning. “I just remember listening to him, just thinking, ‘God, this guy, it’s got to be obvious to anybody watching this that he should be county judge.’”
But in political campaigns—as Pat O’Rourke surely knew by then and his son is now acutely aware—there is often a disconnect between how a candidate feels a campaign should be going and how it is actually going.Story Continued Below
Pat O’Rourke lost that race by nearly 17 points. At the time, he had been out of public office for more than a decade. He had abandoned the Democratic Party, lost a congressional race and, after publicly aligning himself with then-Gov. George W. Bush, was running as a Republican in a heavily Democratic swath of West Texas.
“He was on the wrong side there,” says Bill Uhlig, a friend of Pat O’Rourke’s from childhood. “He had lost his appeal, I think.” Pablo Sergent, another longtime friend of Pat’s, told me, “He didn’t have the aura anymore.”
Beto O’Rourke, who helped his father on his 1998 campaign, appeared to inherit that aura during his near-miss U.S. Senate run in Texas and through the opening days of his presidential campaign.
Then Beto, too, saw his prospects fade. He is now polling at about 3 percent nationally and raised a dispiriting $3.6 million from April through June, less money in three months than he raised in the first day of his campaign in March.
Speaking to reporters at the opening of a campaign field office in El Paso in July, O’Rourke said, “It’s a really small minority of Americans who’ve made up their mind.” With months before the Iowa caucuses, he said, there remains “a lot of time to meet and get in front of a lot of people.”
But O’Rourke has also started laboring to recast his campaign, inviting Democratic voters to remember him not as the “born to be in it” Vanity Fair spectacle he had been in March, but as the long shot he has always been every time he sought a new political office in Texas. Asked by a reporter at the field office opening what image he hoped to project in the second round of presidential debates, O’Rourke invoked two decades-old sports victories still celebrated in El Paso—a baseball state championship in 1949 and the Texas Western College Miners’ defeat of the Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA men’s basketball championship in 1966, the inspiration for the movie Glory Road.
A picture of Pat O’Rourke with a friend. | Photo courtesy of Beto O’Rourke
“Look, I want to reflect what we’re seeing here in El Paso,” O’Rourke said. “There’s a strength, and a courage and a confidence in this community, though we’ve often been counted out or forgotten. … This is a community that’s produced come-from-behind, long-shot teams, whether it was the ’49 Bowie Bears or the ’66 Texas Western College Miners. So, I want that part of this community to come through on that debate stage—that strength, that confidence, that ability to win even when we are counted down.”
Beto O’Rourke’s prominence in the Democratic Party came so suddenly that he began contemplating a presidential campaign only late last year. He is still assembling an organization months after most of his competitors had apparatuses in place.
“This isn’t something that I’ve always wanted to do or have organized my life around, very obviously,” he told me, sitting barefoot in his living room before another flight to Iowa. “And also, I take some great comfort in the wisdom of people.”
In his first campaign for City Council, in 2005, O’Rourke said he told himself that he would “give it all I’ve got,” and then, “If people want me to represent them, great. If they don’t, great.”
O’Rourke’s father lost two races for a local community college board before he was elected county commissioner in 1978, then judge—the county’s top administrative post—in 1982. Then he lost three more times—for Congress, county tax assessor and judge again.
His father, Beto O’Rourke said, “just placed a priority on being with people where they were, and trying to make sure there was no interference, and it was just really him … just never met a stranger, never blew anybody off.”
If he can replicate that approach to politics in his presidential campaign, he said, then whatever the outcome, “I’m great with it, I really am.”
The record of parents as templates—or as object lessons for what not to do—for future presidents and failed aspirants to the White House is sufficiently rich to constitute a whole genre of political psychology: Donald and Fred Trump; Bill Clinton and his mother, Virginia Kelley, and her husband, Roger Clinton; John and Roberta McCain; the Kennedy clan in all its permutations; Barack Obama and his absent father of the same name; not to mention the two presidents, George W. Bush and John Quincy Adams, whose fathers preceded them in the office.
In El Paso, a one-time garment-making hub on the border with Juárez, Mexico, Pat O’Rourke was such a fixture in local politics that from the time Beto first ran for city council, four years after his father’s death, he had been squarely cast in his reflection.
Yet even as a Democrat, Pat O’Rourke had been more conservative than his son. And he was more temperamental. Where Beto O’Rourke curses joyfully—“I’m so fucking proud of you guys,” he told supporters during his Senate campaign concession speech last year; El Paso is “the greatest fucking city,” he said at a campaign event in July—his father turned to profanity in frustration at the press or, on one occasion while in office, at a park security guard. The headline-making incident resulted in a disorderly conduct complaint that was dismissed.
Where O’Rourke apologized for his past arrest for DUI, his father abstained from alcohol entirely each year from New Year’s Day to St Patrick’s Day. Then, as Uhlig put it, “he would go out and just get blitzed.”
Beto and Pat were both business-minded, Beto with Stanton Street, the web design and local news company he started before Pat’s death, and Pat with rental properties and manufacturing ventures in Mexico (projects included golf club heads and wheelchairs for obese people, according to friends and a former business partner).
When Pat O’Rourke crossed the country on his bicycle in 2000, the frequent dispatches he filed for Stanton Street were widely read in El Paso—written in a sparse style instantly recognizable to readers of Beto’s online journal, published as he traveled the Southwest in a pickup truck in January 2019 ruminating on his future.
Nearly two decades later, O’Rourke is still asked repeatedly about Pat.
“Sorry,” Beto O’Rourke said twice, wiping his eyes as he strained to answer a question about his father on a stage at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin last year.
At a town hall in Des Moines, Iowa, in May, CNN’s Dana Bash asked O’Rourke what his father would think of the candidate he had become.
“You know, I’d like to think that he would be proud,” O’Rourke replied. His dad, he said, “found total joy in serving others. And, to whatever degree I can emulate that and find that joy … I hope that I’m living up to the expectation that he set for me.”
Beto O’Rourke was born in 1972, the year his father turned 30 and first ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the El Paso Community College Board of Trustees. A poster from Pat’s second failed effort, in 1976, now hangs by a side door near the kitchen at Beto’s home in El Paso’s Sunset Heights neighborhood.
A poster from Pat’s second failed run for a seat on the El Paso Community College Board of Trustees now hangs at Beto’s home in El Paso’s Sunset Heights neighborhood. | David Siders
A more optimistic template for Beto’s presidential campaign would come two years later in Pat’s run for county commissioner. Declining to endorse Pat in the primary in terms besetting Beto’s campaign today, the El Paso Times dismissed Pat for failing to match the paper’s preferred candidate’s “experience, force of personality or degree and specificity of plans,” even as it praised him as “articulate, energetic, young and personable, with a record of effective civic involvement.”
After Pat advanced through the primary, the newspaper praised his “eagerness” and “fresh ideas.” He prevailed in the runoff election, drafting Beto into the life of a politician’s child. Beto’s father ferried him to meetings and events in the back of his 4×4.
“I was painfully shy growing up, and it may have been a byproduct of my father’s gregariousness and the fact that he was in public life and in politics,” O’Rourke said at a small forum in El Paso in January, before he had decided to run for president. “And I can’t tell you how many election night parties, city council meetings, chamber of commerce events that [O’Rourke’s sister] Charlotte and I were dragged to. And my dad would say, ‘Hey, go say hello to Commissioner [Miguel] Solis. Go introduce yourself. Tell him you’re Pat’s kid.’ How many times we were at the Cincinnati Bar & Grill or Jaxon’s Restaurant at the bar with my dad as he’s having beers with people, and we were brought along.”
O’Rourke said, “Maybe that was his form of child care, of executing his parental responsibilities. But I was convinced at a very early age I wanted no part of public life. It was just too painful.”
Instead, Beto O’Rourke retreated into himself, reading voraciously, listening to music and joining a computer hacking group while his father built a reputation as an efficient administrator and a fierce advocate for a region that, far from the state’s power centers, had in many ways fallen behind.
As county judge in 1986, Pat O’Rourke drew national attention to the issue of immigration—now a centerpiece of Beto’s presidential campaign—when he sent the Reagan administration a $10 million bill for county hospital costs and other expenses incurred providing for undocumented immigrants.
Sitting on the hood of a car overlooking downtown El Paso and the U.S.-Mexico border that year, Pat O’Rourke—his hair scragglier than Beto’s, his voice as deep—described El Paso to Bill Moyers for CBS as “the natural land passage to economic opportunity.”
The interview, preserved on videotape in black and white, represents one of the clearest ideological through-lines from Pat, a fiscal conservative, to Beto, a center-left Democrat who has put immigration at the center of his campaign. Pointing across the Rio Grande to Juárez, Pat O’Rourke said, “If I were living over there and my child needed help from dehydration or from any disease, and I saw that hospital down there that could provide that help … I would take my child and I would walk across that 6-inch river—6 inches deep—and I’d save my child’s life. I’d do the same thing those people are doing.”
He called for the United States to shift much of its foreign policy focus from Europe to Central and South America. Reagan’s request for aid to the contras in Nicaragua, he said, “made me sick.”
“We can send a greater signal right here in El Paso and Juárez and Northern Mexico to all of Central and South America than we can by sending $100 million into Nicaragua to fight a war we don’t understand,” he said.
Shortly after Beto won a seat in Congress in 2012, he told the newspaper El Paso Inc. that he first became interested in politics “because it was what my dad did.”
But it could also be excruciating for a school-age child. A sample of headlines: “Sheriff calls O’Rourke a ‘jerk,’” “O’Rourke: Able administrator or rude personality?” And, of course, “Rubbergate.”
In 1983, sheriff’s deputies installing a two-way radio inside Pat O’Rourke’s Jeep-like, Toyota FJ 40 Land Cruiser discovered a condom containing a white powdery substance in the glove compartment. Suspecting it was a plant, a sheriff’s captain ordered the substance destroyed. The captain was acquitted of tampering with evidence following a trial, and O’Rourke, who was out of town at the time, said he did not know how it got into his vehicle.
He said he would take a lie detector test, then scolded the now-defunct El Paso Herald-Post when the newspaper offered to sponsor one. “You guys have dragged this through the papers enough,” the newspaper quoted O’Rourke as saying. “You (expletive deleted)s have done enough. No, I’m not going to take it. (Expletive deleted), no.”
Later, when the newspaper asked Pat O’Rourke if he had ever tried cocaine, he replied, “My god, yes, I’ve tried it.” But with a sinus condition and his family health history, he said, “Coke’s not my deal; it cannot be my deal.” He added that heroin—the more likely substance found in the vehicle—is “not a working man’s drug.”
“You just don’t shoot heroin or snort heroin or smoke heroin and go to work five days, six days a week. You just can’t do it. It’s just not real world.”
Pat O’Rourke’s friends found his explanation credible. But the publicity surrounding the incident was politically damaging, and he said he worried about the impact on his family. He had acknowledged to the Herald-Post, midway through his first term, that he was “too abrasive, and I can be too arrogant, and I enjoy a good laugh.”
However, he said, “I’m extremely competent administratively.”
Beto O’Rourke, considering his father’s self-assessment, told me at his house in July that his dad understated himself. He was “brilliant,” he said, but also demanding, both in public office and at home.
“He … just had very high expectations for all of us, you know, just really wanted us to achieve at a very high level and wanted to see examples of that in our athletics, in our academics, in whatever we were doing,” O’Rourke said. No father was prouder of his children than Pat O’Rourke was when they succeeded.
But Charlotte, Beto’s sister, said it was also easy to upset her father, and she recalls him yelling at Beto.
“Beto was a normal high school boy,” she told me. “He needed Beto to be perfect.”
Beto O’Rourke remembers his father saying, when he chose not to seek reelection in 1986, that he was “out, done with politics.” But when Beto returned to El Paso from New York in 1998, after a brief stay in the East Coast after his graduation from Columbia University, Pat was running again. Beto helped.
The two men, after several years apart, were now on a more even plane, Beto says, and he admired his father’s devotion to the city.
“He loved El Paso and wanted to do everything he could to make it the best possible place and ensure that the community could fulfill its potential,” he said. “And that was really exceptional at the time because we were really written off by most of the rest of the country, and really by a lot of people in El Paso as kind of a second-rate, mediocre place.”
In contrast, Beto O’Rourke said, was “this fierce pride that he felt, which is like, ‘You would be so fucking lucky to have a business here and be able to be in one of the most beautiful places on the planet and work with the most amazing people you’ll meet anywhere.’”
With Beto back in El Paso, Pat helped his son start Stanton Street. He assisted with financial issues, and he pressed Beto with questions about how many cold calls he had made in a day.
One night, after Beto had moved back to his parents’ home from a family-owned apartment, he and his father shared leftovers and a bottle of wine in the backyard over a wide-ranging discussion “about life, what are we doing, how’s the family doing.”
Pat O’Rourke died on July 3, 2001 when he was riding his bicycle just outside El Paso, across the New Mexico state line. | David Siders
“I never in my adult life felt as close to him as I did that night,” Beto said. “Whatever had come between us, certainly that was repaired.”
The next morning, July 3, 2001, Pat O’Rourke was killed when he was struck by a car and thrown from the recumbent bicycle he was riding just outside El Paso, across the New Mexico state line. He was 58. The front page of the El Paso Times the next day carried the image of a police officer on the roadway holding up the mangled bicycle by its back end. The paper later quoted from the eulogy Beto O’Rourke gave for his father at a funeral mass in front of hundreds of mourners. “He died young, but he lived life to the fullest,” he said, according to the Times. “He found a real joy in living.”
Eliot Shapleigh, a former Texas state senator and longtime friend of the family, told me Pat O’Rourke “thought the world” of his son.
He said, “I think it took Beto a while to think the world of his dad.”
Before deciding to run for president, Beto O’Rourke worried about the effect of a campaign on his three children, Ulysses, Molly and Henry. O’Rourke’s prolonged absences during the Senate race last year had taxed his family. At one point during Running with Beto, the documentary chronicling O’Rourke’s Senate campaign against Ted Cruz, his oldest son, Ulysses, who was 11 at the time, said he wished his dad was there to take him to school.
“I’m ready for it to be over,” Ulysses said.
But O’Rourke decided to run another campaign, he now says, because of his children—what he called, in a July fundraising appeal to supporters, “the very real knowledge that they’re counting on me and on all of us.”
At their home in El Paso, Henry, 8, Molly, 11, and Ulysses, who is now 12, are uncommonly quick to shake a visitor’s hand. Doak Sergent, Pat’s godson and a longtime friend of Beto, told me recently that when he sees Beto with Ulysses, “He has this thing where he says, ‘Give a firm handshake, look him in the eye.’ Basic codes of conduct, basic mores that we all hope our children adhere to. But it’s almost like I can here Pat saying that to him.”
But Beto, Sergent said, “just has more composure. … Sometimes Pat’s passions maybe ran away [from him], temper being one of them. And while Beto is very passionate, he’s also measured.”
On a campaign trip to Iowa over the Fourth of July holiday, O’Rourke brought the family and rented an RV (Molly, during the Senate race, had asked for a “house car.”). Inside a supporter’s home in Ames, Ulysses commandeered the iPhone used for livestreaming O’Rourke’s events from one of the candidate’s advisers, filming his father speaking while Molly and Henry sat on the living room floor.
Then two younger children sang from the soundtrack of The Greatest Showman on the drive to a house party at a wooded home in St. Ansgar, in northern Iowa, where O’Rourke introduced them to supporters on a deck and then released them to play in a creek running through the yard.
The next morning, at a Fourth of July parade, O’Rourke carried Henry on his shoulders while Molly walked ahead, handing Airheads candy to parade-goers. And on July 3, the anniversary of his father’s death, O’Rourke took his family to a carnival in Clear Lake.
That night, after a hard rain cleared, Henry won a stuffed tiger for shooting basketballs, and the family shared a funnel cake.
But it was still a campaign event. I asked O’Rourke whether his children liked being a part of it, given his own mixed feelings about it as a child.
“Ulysses, real quick,” O’Rourke said, beckoning him over. “He wants to know if you’re having a good time. This is a reporter. You can be honest. Do you enjoy traveling?”
Ulysses said he did.
Asked what he liked most, the boy said, “Seeing my dad.”
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