EL PASO, Texas — Democrats running for president are trying to paint themselves as the antithesis to Donald Trump by virtue of their personal histories, their liberal policies, or even their affinity for math.
As Beto O’Rourke officially launched his presidential campaign Saturday, he offered his own vision of that contrast: the city of El Paso.
As several thousand supporters who gathered on a street lined with Spanish-language storefronts, O’Rourke described his city, through its very existence, as a stark rebuttal to President Donald Trump, who launched his own presidential campaign in 2015 by decrying Mexican immigrants as “rapists and murderers.”
“El Paso, to me, represents America at its very best,” O’Rourke said, to the roars of a crowd.
“For more than 100 years, this community has welcomed generations of immigrants from across the Rio Grande … trying to escape brutality, violence, and crushing poverty to find a better life in this country for themselves and their kids,” O’Rourke said. Immigrants also came, he noted, “because they were called to contribute to our shared success and to this country’s greatness — and they have.”
To distinguish himself from the throng of other Democrats running for president in 2020, O’Rourke has primarily turned to his roots in El Paso. On Saturday, he offered a portrait of a candidacy built not just in this heavily Latino border city but in Texas, a staunchly red state. (O’Rourke also hosted rallies in Houston and Austin later in the day.)
At one end of the street where O’Rourke spoke in El Paso — less than a mile away— was the US–Mexico border, and a bridge that leads across the Rio Grande to Ciudad Juárez. At the other end of the street were dozens of Trump supporters, wearing red hats and carrying signs reading “Finish the Wall.”
The unusually robust and organized counterprotest was a reminder that few other top Democrats in the 2020 race hail from states as conservative as Texas, where O’Rourke narrowly lost a Senate race to Ted Cruz.
The bridge has become the site of the latest flashpoint on immigration: Beneath it, dozens of immigrant families are being held behind chain-link fences by the US government.
“They are our fellow human beings, and deserve to be treated like our fellow human beings,” O’Rourke said of the immigrants, whom he visited Friday.
In the early days of his campaign, O’Rourke faced criticism for speeches that were often light on specifics and hard-to-pin-down policies on pivotal issues like health care and immigration reform. He often spoke in broad brushes, delving into policy mostly when pressed with questions from voters.
O’Rourke seemed to offer more specifics Saturday, said Bill Irvin, a longtime El Paso resident now living in Phoenix, who had heard that O’Rourke’s policy positions could be “sketchy.”
“The immigration thing, putting people back to work, technology, marijuana — for one of those, he had a solution,” Irvin said. “For every A, he had a B.”
El Pasoan supporters who attended O’Rourke’s launch said they were excited to see the “positive” aspects of their city get a national spotlight. Trump made a recent visit to El Paso to highlight the threat to Americans presented by what he called a “crisis” at the border.
“I’m so excited that the eyes of the world are on El Paso right now,” said Cheri Dorsey. “This isn’t an unsafe place, it’s a friendly place. There’s this misconception, this stereotype … that you have migrants running across willy-nilly. It’s not like that at all.”