Yesterday I was surprised to get a notification that Democratic Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke was showing up at a small coffee shop near where I am staying.
I knew little of O’Rourke’s positions, save for what’s been seen in headlines. He acknowledges he benefits from white privilege. He’s made jokes at his wife’s expense. At one point in time, he was part of a “hacktivist” group. And he is “not sure” Medicare for all is the best option. So I RSVP’d to the event, and started looking more at his platform.
Most of his policies I can get behind, as they are starting to look more and more like the norm for Democratic candidates. I supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries, even going so far as to get the Bernie tattoo of his hair and glasses (I voted for Clinton in the November election). Anything other candidates might propose as a mainstream candidate would be far more moderate than what I would like, so I expected no less.
I felt I understood enough to want to go and hear what O’Rourke had to say. Given he had less of a celebrity status than candidates like Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren, I also felt he would be more inclined to take real questions and actually answer them. I’d gone to a rally for John Kasich in 2016, not out of support, and it was clear there were people planted in the audience to ask questions. It felt scripted and, given how Kasich responded to questions in front of national audiences, planned and fake. O’Rourke would be different.
Oh, what a fool I was.
Scheduled to start at 8:10, I arrived at the coffee shop an hour early. Already teeming with activity, news cameras and people with Macbooks and USB microphones, people were excited. “Anti Trump AF” read one woman’s shirt. Another had “Texas ❤’s Beto”, while a group of younger attendees had shirts that simply read “Vote”.
8:10 approached and went with no sign of O’Rourke. People became fidgety, rocking in place. Watches, phones, social media accounts checked. Nothing. I started keeping track of how many people stepped on my toes with no apology.
It was eight.
At 8:30, someone came in and announced Beto was “on the block,” and he finally walked through the door ten minutes later. Someone had tried to rile the crowd up, but after chanting “Be-to, Be-to” for two minutes with no sign of the man, he came in to staggered applause.
Standing on a chair, O’Rourke’s voice was raspy and hoarse. He apologized, blaming being on the road for eight days straight. Then he leapt right into his “fire ’em up” speech; the current administration is a human rights disaster. We need immigration reform. We need stricter gun laws and a universal background check. Teachers need to be paid more so they’re not working two or three jobs to make ends meet. Our prison system is the largest in the world. Voter turnout is at an all time low, but it went up 500% in Texas during this last election.
Oh, and he was here to hear from we, the people.
Except, not really.
O’Rourke spoke for roughly 12–15 minutes (according to the iPhone video being recorded right in front of my face). When it came time for feedback, I had my hand raised and kept it up nearly the entire time he was “taking questions.”
“I go to each of these because I want to know what’s affecting you, the people that I want to represent,” he quipped.
The first question was about representing minorities in the White House. O’Rourke launched into his platform of understanding that people of color are more likely to be incarcerated, and even to be disciplined in the school system as young as five-years-old. He advocated for human rights, and for recognizing how biased the current system has been for eons. Discussing the possibility of a female running-mate, O’Rourke said that, even if he did not pick a female VP, women already make up a large part of his team. It was a people-pleasing lecture, for sure.
For the record, I only saw men working with O’Rourke at this stop.
Keeping my hand up, he called on the woman sitting next to me. She had a script in her hand. And when she asked the question, even sitting right next to her, I could barely hear what she asked. People in the crowd told her to speak up, but for some reason O’Rourke had clearly heard her, repeating what she had said up to that point.
This is a plant, I realized. Still, I kept my hand up.
After he answered her question (I couldn’t tell you what she asked as, first, I was disappointed to realize he was planting questions, and second my whole body ached from being so tense from anxiety because I had little more than a few inches of personal space), my hand was still up.
O’Rourke turned and pointed to a man standing next to him who had not so much as raised his hand, let alone notified him he was even there. It was a question about veteran benefits and the VA.
“He says he’s a veteran for Beto, but I’m Beto for veterans,” he started. It was met with laughter and applause, and an eye roll from me.
A young woman, identifying herself as having come from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and Jewish, wanted to know O’Rourke’s position on gun safety and protecting people in places of worship.
First he talked about universal background checks (applause), then about how teachers are guarding and protecting our most precious treasures; children.
It was then he turned and a woman handed him her baby. I would say this was coincidence, but he posed with several other people’s babies after the rally ended. I felt shame for having shown up.
One last question was posed by a woman claiming to have come from the ACLU. She wanted to know how O’Rourke felt about the cash bond system, one that he had benefitted from in his past. He thanked her for her, and the ACLU’s, work and talked briefly about his own encounters with law enforcement. An opportunity for him to acknowledge, again, that he has benefitted greatly from white privilege.
With no prompting, O’Rourke then told the crowd he was notified he had to stop taking questions. It was 9:15. The event had been scheduled to run until 9:40.
After seeing O’Rourke stop to take photos with babies in his arms, I decided it was time to leave.
I went to the event hopeful to ask a question. Those are never guaranteed, but all the interviews I saw with him suggested he might grant me that opportunity. I fought through my anxiety, and accompanying claustrophobia, because I saw someone I thought was actually there to hear from people. What the question was doesn’t matter anymore. After giving the appearance of wanting to be there to hear from the people he wanted to represent, it was clear he was playing the same game as everyone else.