The political maps may color the Waco area deep red, but you wouldn’t know it by the applause lines at U.S. Senate hopeful Beto O’Rourke’s “town hall” at Knox Hall on Monday.
The crowd of 250 cheered as he called for legalizing marijuana, declared universal health care a “fundamental right,” urged a Constitutional amendment to dismantle the electoral college and said he’d support impeaching President Donald Trump.
O’Rourke, a Democratic Congressman from El Paso, continues to find enthusiastic crowds as he hits the home stretch of a 34-day tour of Texas in preparation for the 2018 Senate race against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. And he’s not just hitting liberal bastions: Recent stops have included Amarillo, College Station and Pampa.
No Texas Democrat has won a U.S. Senate seat since 1988 or a statewide election since 1994, but O’Rourke said he’s taking on the challenge.
At the Waco town hall and in a Monday interview, he made the case for his bipartisan appeal, saying he has worked with Republican lawmakers to craft bills on immigration and veterans’ issues.
A member of the House Armed Services Committee, O’Rourke promised to work for shorter wait lists and better care for veterans. He said he would fight to control college costs and expand young people’s access to higher education. He called for an end to the federal war on marijuana, saying it has only enriched drug kingpins.
He called for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, and railed against the creation of a border wall.
“Texas is home of so many immigrants,” he said. “Twenty-five percent of my constituents were born in another country, and because of that, not in spite of that, El Paso is one of the safest cities in America today.”
O’Rourke also took aim at redistricting maps he said state officials have used to dilute the votes of minorities — a situation he said contributes to voter apathy.
“Texas is the most gerrymandered state in the union,” he said. “We are really not a red state. I don’t know if we’re going to be a blue state. But now we’re a nonvoting state because people have literally been drawn out of their democracy because of their race and ethnicity.”
Asked by a Baylor Law School student whether he would support impeaching Donald Trump, O’Rourke answered carefully. He said he has defended his attendance at Trump’s inauguration in terms of celebrating America’s tradition of peaceful transfer of power.
“But my concerns about the president have only grown since then,” he said. “Not just the very real possibility of active collusion with a foreign power and attempts at obstruction of justice with the FBI investigation. But the last straw for me was this president’s response to rioting in Charlottesville.”
O’Rourke said he wouldn’t expect his Republican colleagues to support impeachment short of “clear and damning” evidence that he is unfit for office, but he himself would vote for impeachment.
O’Rourke has visited Waco three times in recent months, and he said he has been impressed with the city’s civic pride and its initiatives such as Prosper Waco and the Waco Mammoth Site, a national monument. On Monday, he served and ate meals at the Harrison Senior Center, watched the eclipse at Brazos Park East and made a stop at the Magnolia silos for his wife.
O’Rourke’s welcome to Waco was warm, and a long line waited to meet him after the event.
“He hit all the right notes,” said Jose Villanueva, a Waco attorney who was already a supporter. “I like that he’s really open and that he told people, ‘I’ll get back with you.’”
Cheryl Foster, a progressive activist, laughingly called O’Rourke her “unicorn candidate with rainbows and glitter.”
“He has a plan,” she said more seriously. “He knows how to get in there and work the system.”
Kaley Eggers, a social worker and foster parent, said she didn’t know much about O’Rourke before the event. But she said he showed sincerity and willingness to listen when she asked him about shortcomings of the foster system.
“He seemed to know what he was talking about and wanted to learn more,” she said.
In the receiving line, O’Rourke and Waco college student Josh Grijalva chatted politics and punk rock, with O’Rourke insisting on “London Calling” as the Clash’s best album.
Grijalva, who campaigned for Bernie Sanders in the last election, said he hopes O’Rourke can bridge the “corporate” and “progressive” wings of the Democratic Party.
“He’s very easy to talk to, and he’s good at reaching out to his constituents,” Grijalva said.