Beto O’Rourke Changed His Message To Win Voters Of Color In Texas. The Result Could Swing The Presidential Race.
As he weighs a run for president, O’Rourke’s outreach to people of color during his Senate campaign could offer a blueprint. But he still has skeptics.
Bobbi Clavon confronted Beto O’Rourke at a town hall in DeSoto, Texas, in March of 2018. O’Rourke had been running for Senate for almost a year, crisscrossing the state and drawing huge crowds of energized supporters, but Clavon saw a stark problem: O’Rourke wasn’t doing enough to speak to black voters. Without them, he had no chance of beating Sen. Ted Cruz.
“You cannot just whitewash everything,” she told him, her voice rising with passion as she spoke of a young black man who had been assaulted by a police officer in Fort Worth. “You have got to be at the forefront of this, because black people, right now, we need a reason to come out and vote. You have got to address these issues head-on.”
Clavon wasn’t alone. O’Rourke heard the same message a month earlier from a group of black and Latino leaders in Dallas. They were frustrated with a campaign, they said, that didn’t include their communities. O’Rourke had traveled all over rural and suburban Texas, but he hadn’t been to mostly black South Dallas in many months. In border towns across the state with big Latino populations, his events were still mostly white.
The Rev. Michael Waters, of Joy Tabernacle AME Church, “pushed hard against” O’Rourke’s campaign in that meeting, he said. “I didn’t think they’d put enough effort into connecting with the black community.”
Something unexpected happened after those confrontations, Clavon and Waters say: O’Rourke listened. And then, they said, he worked to fix it.
If O’Rourke does run for president in 2020, urged on by millions of people who were swept up in his 2018 Senate bid, the turnaround he tried to engineer with voters of color in Texas offers a blueprint for his candidacy.
In a primary where the voters of color are dramatically important, O’Rourke’s eventual willingness to speak frankly about race, and to highlight issues affecting black and Latino voters in front of white audiences, may give him an edge over other Democrats — particularly prominent white candidates who have publicly struggled with how to speak about issues of race and identity, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
After several quiet postelection months, O’Rourke will appear onstage with Oprah Winfrey in early February. Winfrey’s team reached out to O’Rourke, a campaign adviser said, hoping to include him in an annual event with people who gave her hope for the new year. She and O’Rourke will speak about decency, civility, and unity, the adviser said.
Winfrey had been inspired, O’Rourke’s adviser said, by online videos showing him speaking to issues of police brutality and criminal justice to two vastly different audiences: defending NFL players who knelt during the national anthem to a white crowd, and stirring a black church after the police killing of a black man in Dallas.
O’Rourke is also planning a solo cross-country road trip in February. An adviser said he hoped to visit historically black colleges.
But O’Rourke also angered some black and Latino activists in Texas, particularly younger voters and those outside of the Democratic establishment. They saw a campaign that primarily focused on energizing voters who were young and wealthy or white and rural, not poor voters of color. O’Rourke, some said, hid a refusal to commit to progressive policies behind eloquent speeches about criminal justice and the border.
O’Rourke’s slim loss in Texas was, some activists say, evidence that he did not do enough with voters of color.
“If it was enough for white progressives to beat Ted Cruz, they would have done it years ago,” said Kandice Webber, a Black Lives Matter organizer and registered nurse in Houston. “Beto had to reach black and brown people who didn’t generally vote, and he didn’t do that.”
After Clavon confronted O’Rourke last March, he brought her on as an adviser for his Senate race, telling her at the town hall, “I’m here, and I’m willing to follow your lead, if you’re willing to guide me.”
He began to increasingly seek out not just black neighborhoods, but radio stations and newspapers. He educated himself about criminal justice issues and wove them into his stump speech as well as his platform. He spoke more explicitly of racial disparities in everything from education to health care to policing — and he did it in white neighborhoods as well as black and Latino ones, in outstate Texas as well as the inner city.
His specificity about race turned into a viral moment last summer, with the video of him explaining his support for black NFL players’ right to protest.
In the process, O’Rourke won over some skeptics in Texas, particularly black leaders who had been wary of a candidacy that seemed, at first, to cater mostly to white voters. He helped drive up urban turnout dramatically, according to some urban organizers: In Houston, turnout was higher than in the 2016 presidential elections. (Though they note O’Rourke was hardly the sole cause.)
Mary Moreno, the director of communications at the Texas Organizing Project, said the group has been working for years to turn out voters of color in numbers strong enough to “close the gap” that exists between Democrats and Republicans in the state. “Beto accelerated that plan,” Moreno said. “Our eyes were on closing the gap by 2022. Now, it’s 2020.”
What made O’Rourke stand out for voters of color, Moreno said, was the way he “spoke to issues of identity.”
“I like that he was very precise about DREAMers, and about the border — that it’s not a threat,” Moreno said. “For others it was his Black Lives Matter message. Not many politicians have the courage to say that. Those kinds of things were really important to energizing voters. I’d compare it to ‘Build the Wall,’ almost — a thing that energizes people.”
But some Texas organizers and activists remain unconvinced, and even many of those he won over aren’t lining up behind his potential run for president.
It wasn’t just early and obvious missteps with voters of color — detractors say O’Rourke’s campaign continued to pay only lip service to black and Latino voters, doing too little to connect with everyday people in communities of color or support black candidates running for other offices.
And despite eloquent speeches, they say O’Rourke’s politics often didn’t match his rhetoric: He declined to come out in support of abolishing ICE, a key issue for many Latino activists, and voted in Congress for a bill that targeted people for assaulting police officers.
“All Beto did was fire up white people. Black and brown people were already fired up before candidates were announced,” said Ashton Woods, the lead organizer for Black Lives Matter Houston. “The boost in Houston was from two years of Black Lives Matter Marches, of women’s marches, and organizers — that’s what actually catapulted him.”
Woods compared O’Rourke to Jon Ossoff, the young, much-hyped white Democrat who raised record amounts of money only to lose a special election in Georgia’s 6th District in 2017. In the 2018 midterms, a black woman Democrat, Lucy McBath, won the race that Ossoff couldn’t. “They’re two white mouths, just talking,” Woods said.
For all the talk of O’Rourke’s listening skills, Webber, another Houston Black Lives Matter activist, said she felt he didn’t hear her. She spoke with O’Rourke several times, she said, about issues important to black women.
“I feel like he’s very charismatic — he engages you face-to-face, but when we wanted real hard policy change, he wasn’t providing that,” she said. “It was more like, ‘I’m going to say everything I know black and brown people want to hear,’ but he didn’t back it up with any substance. We’re smarter than he played us for.”
When he announced his run for Senate in March of 2017 in El Paso, O’Rourke made almost no mention of race. Of education, he said kids “deserve leadership that is not focused on bathrooms, but is focused on making sure that we have better classrooms.” He mentioned criminal justice reform in terms of the opioid crisis; though he spoke of a “failed war on drugs” and “locking people up for marijuana convictions,” he left unsaid what those people looked like, and whom the war had targeted.
Clavon listened to speeches like these, early in O’Rourke’s storm across Texas, with dismay. O’Rourke was fluent, already, not just in Spanish but in issues of the border, where he grew up. But Clavon felt O’Rourke was “whitewashing” issues like education, health care, and criminal justice in a way she thought minimized the realities of black voters.
She tried for weeks, Clavon said, to get in touch with O’Rourke’s campaign, through his website and email, but heard nothing back. That was when she showed up at his town hall in DeSoto. Later, she spoke to him individually. She offered the campaign a markup of his own platform, which she said she had worked through, “precept-by-precept,” to include ways he should be speaking to black voters.
In the weeks and months following their conversation, Clavon heard O’Rourke begin to change the way he spoke about many issues. He spoke, for example, not just about education quality but the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
O’Rourke’s stump speech evolved frequently because of people like Clavon, said one O’Rourke adviser, in large part because his exhaustive town halls almost always included question-and-answer sessions with voters and involved conversations on rope lines. At one town hall, he was given a copy of The New Jim Crow, a book on the mass incarceration of black men.
After O’Rourke mentioned Texas’s struggling health care system, including high rates of maternal mortality compared to the rest of the country, a voter said she hadn’t heard him mention that the rate was three to four times higher for black women. O’Rourke said he hadn’t known. Later, an adviser said, he began incorporating the statistic into his speeches.
“I think the hallmark of Beto’s campaign was his willingness to listen and be reformed,” said Waters, the Dallas pastor. “He did not show up in the room to be the expert in the room, he showed up to be informed about the greatest concerns to the community.”
There was no issue that became more noticeably part of O’Rourke’s speech than criminal justice. He reminded voters that blacks and Latinos were disproportionately arrested for drug crimes, though they used drugs at the same rates as whites. He spoke of “banning the box,” or forbidding employers from asking about past incarceration on job applications.
In the 2018 midterms, many Democrats zeroed in almost entirely on health care, a key issue particularly with white and suburban voters. But that message wasn’t as effective in Texas and other places where nonwhite voter turnout was vital.
“If you’re going to motivate a diverse group of voters, criminal justice is the easiest issue to motivate them on,” said Jay Jenkins, an attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “It was refreshing to have a candidate speak openly and plainly about the things that black and brown folks experience on a daily basis, but politicians have been, for whatever reason, reluctant to bring up.”
After a meeting with criminal justice advocates in Houston, O’Rourke “really did his research — he started digging and digging, and he took things to heart,” said Robert Williams, a community organizer and former Democratic Party official in Brazoria County. “I’ll never forget the look on his face — it was like he understood the issues but he could not feel our pain on this issue, and he wanted to learn more and more. That guy is a great listener, man.”
Then there was the town hall on Aug. 10, 2018, in Houston, where O’Rourke was asked by a veteran what he thought about black NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. The veteran said he was “incredibly frustrated that people seem to be okay with that.”
“My short answer is no, I don’t think it’s disrespectful,” O’Rourke told the crowd. He offered an eloquent defense of NFL protests, fitting them into the legacy of civil rights sit-ins and boycotts, and explaining what lay at the protests’ roots.
“Black teeangers, unarmed, and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now, including by members of law enforcement,” O’Rourke said. “They’re frustrated, frankly, with people like me and those in traditions of public trust and power, who have been unable to resolve this or bring justice for what has been done.”
O’Rourke had never handled the question before, O’Rourke’s adviser said, and his speech was off-the-cuff. But it incorporated pieces of an impassioned invocation of the civil rights movement that he had been giving for months — like in San Antonio, in June, when he spoke of a book on the civil rights movement, Parting the Waters, by Taylor Branch, that he said he had been given by someone at a rally. “It makes me almost emotional with pride to make me think about the sacrifices that have been made on my behalf,” he said. Months later, he began his answer on NFL players by mentioning that same book.
The video of O’Rourke’s answer went viral. LeBron James called it a “must watch.” Donations poured in. Cruz blasted O’Rourke for catering to “Hollywood liberals.”
The video also had an impact in Texas, some state organizers and activists said, where it earned him trust and credibility that, given early missteps, he had yet to win with black voters.
“Honestly, it took him a while to get there,” said Chas Moore, the executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition. “When he first started campaigning and running, he wasn’t talking about this. But I thought the speech was awesome. It was a time where, for me, I wasn’t fully on the Beto train like everyone else was. When he started talking like that, I thought, ‘maybe this is the guy.’ Initially it was just like, I’ll vote for you. But now I can go out and publicly tell people I’m voting for Beto.”
The national reception of the NFL players video, Clavon said, gave O’Rourke “confidence.” He had become increasingly comfortable with speaking about issues like civil rights and criminal justice — not just to black audiences, but to mostly white ones, too.
“He became emboldened to speak on these things and know that they would resonate,” Clavon said.
Days later, a black man, Botham Shem Jean, was killed by an off-duty white police officer in Jean’s own apartment. O’Rourke quickly called for the police officer to be fired and criticized the department for releasing information that Jean had had a small amount of marijuana in his kitchen. Cruz pounced.
It was a moment that, some Texas activists said, had as much resonance as O’Rourke’s NFL speech — a sign of him following through on a promise to back the black community in moments of tension over police brutality.
Cruz’s account was the one to tweet out the video, which shows O’Rourke speaking in a black church in Dallas after Jean’s killing. “How can that be just in this country?” he says, as some congregants rise to their feet. “How can we continue to lose the lives of unarmed black men in the United States of America at the hands of white police officers?”
To Woods, the Black Lives Matter Houston organizer, the fuss over O’Rourke’s speech was a distraction. “I think that was just hype,” he said. “Everyone was excited to have a young white man who was the antithesis to Donald Trump. It flies in the face of a movement that I’m part of that was mostly woman-led, mostly led by people of color and LGBTQ people.”
When it came to actions, Woods said, O’Rourke often fell short.
“I didn’t see Beto campaign with black women candidates,” Woods said, noting that Beto mostly appeared alone at his huge rallies. “When he came to black neighborhoods, he didn’t interact with normal people.” His campaign didn’t hire “people from the hood.” In 2018, he voted for a bill, the Protect and Serve Act, that some activists branded a “Blue Lives Matter” bill.
O’Rourke’s adviser said the campaign had deliberately situated their Dallas and Houston headquarters in mostly black neighborhoods — in South Dallas, and in Houston’s Third Ward. And he disputed that O’Rourke had not campaigned with black women candidates, saying that local black women candidates had frequently appeared before him onstage at events and accompanied him on drives in his popular livestreams.
Sarahy Garcia, a community organizer in Houston who worked for O’Rourke’s primary opponent, a Latina progressive named Sema Hernandez, was frustrated with what she saw as O’Rourke’s embrace of centrist positions. She confronted him at a town hall about why he had said he didn’t support abolishing ICE, which she considers a “terroristic organization.”
O’Rourke spoke passionately about the issue: he told her he wanted to “abolish the practices that we're seeing in our communities right now, where families are being torn apart, where kids are saying goodbye to their parents at the start of the day as their parents go to work and then are not seeing their parents at the end of the day.”
But he wouldn’t go so far as calling to get rid of the agency altogether. “I don't think that abolishing any one department is going to solve all of these problems,” he said.
“That could have been his time to step up and be a leader,” Garcia said of O’Rourke’s refusal to support the position. “It just reiterates that he does not understand what we’re going through. Because if he did, if he was so sympathetic and empathetic to our plight, then abolishing ICE wouldn’t be a question — it would have been one of the first things in our platform.”
As Clavon worked to help O’Rourke reach black voters in Dallas, she struggled sometimes against O’Rourke’s campaign operation, she said. Its early lack of focus on voters of color hurt them, she said: Headquartered in Austin, not Houston or Dallas, the campaign was distant from the state’s biggest black populations.
For a community meeting at a Baptist church, Clavon said, O’Rourke’s campaign sent a white woman from its distant headquarters. She watched in disbelief: “How are you going to send this white lady from Austin who don’t know nothing about nothing?”
If he runs for president, Clavon said, O’Rourke will have to work harder to expand his circle beyond the mostly white staff and advisers — and give people of color power to make decisions.
“He had too many people in his inner circle telling him the same things, and not enough people of color,” she said. “If you stay in the echo chamber, you’re not going to grow.”
Moreno, of the Texas Organizing Project, said she’s eager for O’Rourke to run in 2020 — against Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who is up for reelection.
“I would love to see a person of color running for president,” she said. “Beto can be senator.” ●
Brazoria County was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.