2020 Election

Beto O’Rourke Finds His Voice Helping El Paso Grieve

10 minute read

Beto O’Rourke sits in an armchair in his El Paso living room, tapping his foot and trying not to talk about himself any more than he needs to.

It’s three days after the mass shooting that left at least 22 people dead and 26 injured at a Walmart just under 10 miles from where O’Rourke and his family live. His kids, newly returned from summer camp, have strewn arts and crafts across the coffee table. (Friendship bracelets, in just about any color you could want.) His wife Amy is sitting in the chair next to his, and campaign staffers putter around the house.

O’Rourke is talking about the shooter. “This guy who came here was afraid of this community, because he had been taught to be afraid,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “These border communities are safe not despite but because they’re communities of immigrants. There’s something very special about these places. And they also hold a key for the rest of the country about how we can be stronger and safer and more secure.”

In the days since the murders, O’Rourke, who represented El Paso in Congress from 2013 until the start of this year, has emerged as a voice for a shattered community of 680,000 that has for years been among the safest in the U.S. He returned home from campaigning in Nevada immediately. He’s met with victims and their families. He’s gone to vigils. He’s donated blood. And he’s tapped into the anger that has been building, here and all around the U.S., as each mass shooting is met with “thoughts and prayers” but no significant legislative action.

O’Rourke has been unsparing in his criticism of Donald Trump, calling the President a white supremacist and assigning blame for the attack to his rhetoric. “When you look at what he has said and done in its totality, it is unmistakable the intent,” O’Rourke says. “This is how it happens. Using his pulpit and his access to the country through social media, mass communications, and the media. Sending these signals out unambiguously.”

Since returning to El Paso, O’Rourke’s words have drawn on the grief that surrounds him. In some ways, it can seem as though the tragedy has helped him find his voice for the first time in what has been a difficult campaign. Even though he has left office, he remains this community’s public face—a presidential candidate who entered the race with plenty of hype after nearly winning a Senate seat in red Texas.

But on the trail, O’Rourke has struggled to make a compelling case for his candidacy. His polling and fundraising numbers have sank. At times he’s seemed lost, like he’s unsure why he’s running. But now, as he talks about the toxicity of Trump and the strength of El Paso, there’s no lack of clarity. “The threat of white supremacy and white-nationalist terrorism has to be met with the urgency that it demands. And we have not seen that,” he says. “More important than … almost anything else is having a President who reflects a pride in who we are as a country.”

The memorial for the victims in El Paso has overtaken a curb overlooking the Walmart. It’s brimming with posters, prayer candles, stuffed animals, flowers, white crosses, and Mexican and American flags in an ever-growing tribute. The mood there is often somber. But on the night of Aug. 7, the area was packed with hundreds of people there to celebrate the victims’ lives, with a mariachi band playing, a pack of therapy dogs, dancing and prayer circles.

O’Rourke arrived to do a TV hit. As he spoke into the camera, people started to realize he was there. Aides strategized how to get him through the crowd to the memorial to drop off a bouquet of red roses. O’Rourke paused to shake hands as a sea of people called his name.

O’Rourke’s history in El Paso is long and complicated. He grew up here as the son of a local politician and business owner. But in his youth, he “wanted out,” O’Rourke told Vanity Fair earlier this year. Part of his time away included seven years kicking around New York, attending Columbia and then getting by on jobs like nannying. Eventually, he returned to his hometown and started an Internet company. He married Amy, the daughter of a wealthy real-estate businessman with roots in the community, had kids, and then started a career in public service, getting elected to the city council in 2005 and the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012.

When the 2018 midterms came around, O’Rourke decided not to seek reelection to his House seat in order to run for Senate against Republican Ted Cruz. During that race he captured the hearts of many in the Democratic Party, becoming something of a national sensation even though he lost narrowly. For the past several months, he’s been on the road campaigning to be President. But right now, O’Rourke says, he can’t imagine being anywhere else. “Beyond telling people how sorry I am, I just want them to know that I’m there, and that we will always be there, and I want them to feel what I know to be true,” he says, “which is this community so loves them, and this country so loves them.”

O’Rourke reaches the front of the memorial and lays down the flowers. He moves along the edge and reaches Antonio Basco, whose wife, Margie Reckard, died in the shooting. He and O’Rourke exchange quiet words and pray together.

The day before, O’Rourke had walked me through the victims and the families of victims that he’s met with, with striking recall—their injuries, their stories, their relationship to one another.

There was Octavio Lizarde, who was at Walmart shopping with his nephew. Lizarde survived with a foot blasted apart by a bullet, but his nephew, Javier Amir Rodriguez, did not.

There was Chris Grant, who threw items at the shooter to try to distract him. He was reportedly shot twice near his rib cage, but survived.

There was Maribel Latin, who was there with her daughter, selling horchata to fundraise for her soccer team. Latin hid behind vending machines. She was shot, but both of she and her daughter survived the ordeal.

As O’Rourke talked to Basco, someone shouted: “Beto! Vino el diablo y se fue! Solo le bastaron tres horas!” People laugh. The devil came and left, and he only lasted three hours—a reference to Trump’s visit to the city earlier that day.

After about an hour, O’Rourke left the memorial. Heat lightning appeared over the mountains in the distance. Basco remained, wearing a Ford baseball cap and blue checkered shirt and holding a handkerchief and a flower. Someone moved in to hug him. And then someone else gave him another hug. And another hug. And another hug. And another. And a sign of the cross on his forehead. And another hug. And Basco stood there, graciously accepting all of their condolences, as the sky turned purple and pink.

When Trump came to El Paso to visit with first responders, victims and their families, O’Rourke joined a protest put on by local organizations to honor the victims and call for gun-control legislation. His feud with Trump had been escalating. O’Rourke had said Trump had “no place” in El Paso, and issued a profanity-laden answer to a reporter who asked about the President. Trump, in return, had mocked O’Rourke’s paltry poll numbers ahead of his trip.

Hundreds of people joined the rally. People handed out free water under the unforgiving sun. Protesters carried signs that said things like, “There’s blood on your little hands.” The broader message was that Trump was not welcome.

“As of right now, [O’Rourke’s] a good representation of who we are as El Paso, and I’m happy about that,” says Deidrah Carrillo, a 23-year-old El Paso resident at the rally. Nevertheless, she added, O’Rourke wasn’t her top presidential candidate at this point.

O’Rourke’s struggles in the campaign have prompted plenty of pundits to suggest he could best help the Democratic Party by dropping out of the race to run instead against the other Texas Senator, John Cornyn, in 2020. Asked if he’s reconsidered his run for president, O’Rourke says no.

“There’s not the space in my head or the place in my heart to think about that, you know?” he says. “I don’t know how to even begin to think through anything other than what we’re doing right now,” in reference to running for President.

As President, O’Rourke says he would take a set of steps to prevent massacres like this: make the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, and intelligence community “fully focused” on domestic-terror threats. Push for universal background checks and “ending the sale of weapons of war.” He wants a national standard for red flag laws, and to close the Boyfriend Loophole, which would keep those convicted of domestic abuse or stalking a dating partner from purchasing or owning guns.

In addition to all of that, he suggests, it’s important to have a leader “who reflects that the power of this country is in its diversity,” O’Rourke says. “That’s our genius and what has so powerfully and positively set us apart from the rest of the world.”

It’s not clear yet when O’Rourke will leave El Paso and return to the campaign trail. Nor is it clear what will change over the coming months, for the city or the candidate. But seeing the violence in his community and the grief it has brought has clearly hardened O’Rourke’s resolve, at least when it comes to Trump. To “see it right here at home, and know full well that this will continue unless something changes,” O’Rourke begins. Then he pauses. “Yeah. So that’s where I’m coming from.”

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Write to Lissandra Villa/El Paso, Tex. at lissandra.villa@time.com