Robert “Beto” O’Rourke: No “Son of the Border,” Only An Heir to Imperialism

By The Incendiary Editorial Board

After a lauded performance at the third Democratic presidential debate last week, candidate Robert “Beto” O’Rourke has watched his favorability ratings jump in the polls after having low numbers for most of the campaign season. This boost is largely thanks to his response to a question about gun control, where he enthusiastically asserted that he supported a mandatory buyback program for assault rifles.

“Hell yes we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke exclaimed at the debate, met with cheers and applause. Rob Flaherty, one of O’Rourke’s campaign directors, said that the hours following this quote were the highest-grossing fundraising hours of his campaign so far.

Breakout moments like this define the bourgeois media’s political coverage of the election cycle, where one-liners count more than context. Up until last month, O’Rourke, an established Democratic Party centrist, had failed to stand out among the other leading candidates.

His ties to the state which witnessed two consecutive shooting massacres last month has positioned him to use the consistent coverage of the aftermath to his political advantage. Where the masses saw tragedy, O’Rourke’s campaign team saw opportunity.

Formerly a US congressman, O’Rourke released his gun control proposal shortly after the mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso on August 3, where fascist Patrick Crusius killed 22 people and injured dozens more. On August 31, a couple weeks before the debate, Seth Aaron Ator went on a shooting spree in the cities of Odessa and Midland, killing eight and injuring dozens. O’Rourke’s plan would ban assault weapons as well as high-capacity magazines and silencers and would require owners of such weapons to sell them back to the government. His absurd solution for fascist attackers is asking them to turn in their guns for cash.

On Meet the Press yesterday, host Chuck Todd asked O’Rourke if he was frustrated that it took “theatrics” to get the attention of the bourgeois press. “I think what people want [and] what I’m trying to do in this campaign is just to see things as clearly as I possibly can and speak as honestly as I possibly can,” O’Rourke said.

What O’Rourke means here is not speaking truthfully about himself – doing so would mean disclosing his bourgeois background (he has a reported net worth of $9 million) and his role in gentrifying El Paso which would harm his campaign. He also does not mean speaking truthfully about mass shootings either, which would entail the settler-colonial history of the US (Texas included) as well as the contemporary emergence of fascism. Rather, O’Rourke means that he wants to appear as honest as he possibly can, as he appeared to be passionate about gun control when he shouted, “Hell yes!”

Electoral politics run on pretense, where the biggest frauds rise to the top. This serves the intended purpose of tricking the masses into legitimizing the rule of US imperialism, the number one enemy of the world’s people. O’Rourke wishes to eventually challenge the big-shot Democratic deceivers like Joe Biden, who sells himself as a friend to Black people, Elizabeth Warren, who has convinced her followers that she has a “plan” to fix capitalism, and Bernie Sanders, who peddles a phony version of socialism.

Combating these falsehoods means turning the passive boycott of the elections into an active one that targets the whole system and its counterrevolutionary purpose. By exposing O’Rourke as a class enemy, this editorial intends to lend itself as a small preliminary step in that direction.

New Campaign, Old Problems

Only a few blocks away from O’Rourke’s presidential campaign kickoff rally this past March in downtown El Paso, the US government held hundreds of mostly Central American migrants seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border under a highway overpass in a makeshift camp. As he spoke to the crowd, O’Rourke addressed the situation in an attempt to showcase his supposed moral high ground in contrast to the Democrat’s easy foil, President Donald Trump. O’Rourke declared that the migrants held “behind chain-link fence and barbed wire…are our fellow human beings and deserve to be treated like our fellow human beings.”

But only a few blocks from the rally in the other direction is a site that tells a story of exploitation directly tied to O’Rourke’s own political rise in his hometown of El Paso, and one which his ruling class capitalist family is still driving. El Paso’s capitalists are attempting to raze the historic downtown barrio of Duranguito in order to build a multi-use sports arena, a fight which has caused the displacement of dozens of mostly elderly, Spanish-speaking, working-class border residents, known as fronterizos. The ongoing saga has unfolded over two years of legal battles and a surge of community organizing to push back against the scheme, but its roots go back to O’Rourke’s first elected position as a city councilman.

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Detained migrants in a makeshift camp under an El Paso Highway

O’Rourke and his fans avoid the fact that this attempt to displace working class El Pasoans and demolish a historic barrio was fundamental to O’Rourke’s early political career and a key part of his rise to power. While O’Rourke has attempted to deceive the national audience, in his hometown, progressive sections of El Paso residents know that he is nothing more than the creation of the city’s wealthy capitalists. His backers started him on his presidential track when they first threw their wealth and power behind him.

“Man, I was born to be in it,” O’Rourke said in an interview earlier this year, showing his own self-inflated sense of destiny for the presidency. He acted on this shamelessness following the El Paso shooting, when O’Rourke put himself at the head of vigils and rallies, his only qualification being that he was born in the city.

While he sees himself as a hometown hero and man of the people, his true relationship to the oppressed peoples of El Paso and the world is that of exploiter to exploited. Just as they were the primary targets of the fascist shooter, Chicanos, Mexicans, and the working class of El Paso have long been the targets of O’Rourke and his ruling class family even before the start of his political career.

A White Elite in the Chicano Nation

O’Rourke and his supporters cite his origins in the city of El Paso on the US-Mexico border at the tip of West Texas as the source of what they see as his enlightened approach to politics, particularly when it comes to issues such as border policy and immigration. O’Rourke has used this to brand himself as a “son of the border.” But this is another marketing ploy.  He is nothing but a son of the bourgeoisie and beneficiary of the colonial history of the Southwestern United States.

Since its founding, the city of El Paso has held a strategic military purpose. In English, it is “The Pass,” named for where the Rio Grande crosses between the Franklin Mountains. The area was settled first by the Spaniards, then held by Mexico, and eventually became an important outpost for the Westward expansion of the US. It is still the site of Fort Bliss, the largest US Army base by geographic area and home of the 1st Armored Tank Division.

Fort Bliss was founded in 1849, one year after the US’s settler-colonial expansionist war against Mexico and the forced ceding of nearly half of the Mexican territory from Texas to California. This is when El Paso became part of the US. This event also marks what can be considered the birth of what became the Chicano nation, which arose out the Mexican and indigenous peoples who now found themselves occupied under US rule.

In cities of the Southwest like El Paso, the vast majority of people are Chicano or of Mexican heritage (over 80% in 2017), but power and wealth still reside with the descendants of the European-Americans who settled the land. While Chicanos were dominated by the US and relegated to second-class status with eras of heightened violent repression, O’Rourke’s family arrived to the area with the construction of the Western railroads.

Irish-Americans arrived as immigrants from an oppressed nation in their early years in the US, but in places like the West, the character of their national oppression fell away in only a generation or two, and they became part of the white settlers who accumulated wealth and status in part by participating in the national oppression against Chicanos. This is reflected in the fact that even in border cities with large majorities of Chicanos, the political and business elites are still disproportionately white. One of these political elites included O’Rourke’s own late father, Patrick or ‘Pat’.

Pat O’Rourke looms large in the history of the city and of the younger O’Rourke. The elder O’Rourke was county judge for El Paso, an elected position and the highest chief executive officer in the county. Pat drilled in the expectations for “Beto” at an early age to follow in his footsteps as an elected official. This expectation explains the origins of Robert O’Rourke’s Spanish nickname, “Beto.”

The nickname is a quintessential part of O’Rourke’s brand. It is the Spanish diminutive for Roberto, or Robert in this case. While O’Rourke defenders claim it reflects the culture of his home region, the elder O’Rourke was the actual source of the nickname, which he explicitly chose for political reasons. According to the Dallas Morning News, Pat said he coined the name because the, “odds of being elected in this mostly Mexican-American city were far greater with a name like ‘Beto’ than Robert Francis O’Rourke.” O’Rourke later praised his father for being “farsighted in that way.”

Many Chicanos attest to thinking O’Rourke was one of them simply based on his name, a confusion that O’Rourke, as a white man with Irish roots, has no interest in clarifying.

Pat’s calculated political machinations were not limited to his son’s nickname. In an attention-seeking stunt that would have surely gone viral in our social media era, he sent an unenforceable $10 million invoice to then President Ronald Reagan for health care and other costs the county had incurred providing for undocumented immigrants. It’s obvious where the younger O’Rourke got his own inspiration for stunts over substance, such as visiting all 254 Texas counties during his Senate race, showing his view of politics as nothing more a publicity game.

In the older O’Rourke’s last race as an elected official, he casually switched to the Republican party, to chase Texas’s rightward march into conservatism as the dominance of the Democrats dissolved during Reagan’s administration. Just like his son became, Pat was an opportunist who chased whatever position or politics were convenient at the moment.

The young O’Rourke, like many petty bourgeois youth, was the quintessential prodigal son, spending his college and post-college years in aimless pursuits, often misconstrued as rebellion against his father’s looming legacy. There are his much-touted stints in punk rock bands, as well as the years he spent working as a nanny in New York.

O’Rourke returned home after graduating and got into some brushes with the law, but the consequences were softened by his family name. One of these was a DUI, which O’Rourke will answer with the packaged response of saying how he is not perfect and had to learn from his mistakes – a narrative hardly afforded to the working class, where one DUI can send them into further impoverishment.

O’Rourke senior died in a cycling accident in 2001 but at this point the younger O’Rourke was moving past his empty rebellious phase and ready to carry on the family legacy. His father’s death was what catalyzed him towards taking up a political career, but he would still need the backing of other El Paso elites, including his mother.

O’Rourke’s mother Melissa is infamous for embroiling her family-owned furniture store Charlotte’s Furniture in tax fraud. In 2012, the store was investigated by the IRS for nearly $1,000,000 in cash “purchases” from unidentified individuals, $630,000 of it from a single person. The store altered records in order to hide these transactions, and was forced to close as a result of the IRS investigation and a $250,000 fine. Many El Pasoans suspect that the incident was tied to money laundering for the border drug trade.

O’Rourke owns a $1 to $5 million stake in the same strip mall where Charlotte’s Furniture once operated. Melissa was also a key backer of O’Rourke’s web and software company, Stanton Street, his entrepreneurship dependent on his family’s capital. Stanton Street was O’Rourke’s private business venture immediately preceding the launch of his political career, and he eventually transferred ownership to his future wife, Amy.

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Left: O’Rourke’s Deceased Father and El Paso County Judge, Pat O’Rourke, Right: Father-in-Law William ‘Bill’ Sanders, Real Estate Tycoon

O’Rourke’s engagement to Amy was the final piece that would open the door for him to the true sources of El Paso’s bourgeois wealth and power. It was her father, William Sanders, who became O’Rourke’s father figure after Pat’s death and the main financial patron behind his rise. Sanders saw the potential in O’Rourke to act as friendly face for his ultimate goals of accumulating more real estate capital in El Paso.

One of the skills Sanders was sure to have taken stock of as he assessed his future son-in-law is O’Rourke’s ability to speak Spanish. This skill is held up by O’Rourke supporters as yet another example of his cultural depth and border roots, when in reality, it is another tool he uses to serve imperialism.

This sinister use of his bilingualism is apparent in O’Rourke’s early political career, where he used his Spanish skills to further his father-in-law’s attempts to demolish an entire working class border neighborhood, the Segundo Barrio of El Paso. In aiding his family’s real estate scheme, he employed the Spanish language to help further oppression against Chicanos, immigrants, and the working class, fulfilling his role as the son of ruling-class settlers.

As the political face of the development – all of O’Rourke’s wealth, status, and privilege as a member of the imperialist bourgeoisie within the Chicano national territory came together to attempt to displace an entire barrio, which while ultimately failing, successfully set the groundwork for El Paso’s future gentrification and displacement plans.

Razing Old El Paso from Segundo Barrio to Duranguito

At O’Rourke’s presidential kick-off rally in March, a small, but visibly defiant group of El Pasoans stood with signs directly targeting O’Rourke for his history in pushing the current plans to destroy the Duranguito barrio in his first elected position as a city councilman.

Signs read, “O’Rourke, remember the elders of Duranguito? You voted to destroy their barrio!” And “No Wall in Duranguito.” One of the people holding these banners was Toñita Morales, herself an elderly resident of the barrio who has fought for decades to beautify the area, and is one of the last remaining in her home. Now, city leaders want to turn her barrio into a sports arena. Toñita, and those standing with her, were making sure that the true nature of O’Rourke’s record, and his ties to these elites, are not lost in the ongoing glorification of “Beto.”

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El Pasoans facing displacement hold banners at O’Rourke’s kickoff rally

While the current battle is in Duranguito, the group’s signs refer to O’Rourke voting to “destroy their barrio.” The votes they refer to occurred when O’Rourke was a council member, during a fight that defined O’Rourke’s first steps into political manipulation and aiding his capitalist backers, in particular, his father-in-law Sanders.

According to an associate of Sanders, “His hobby was making money.”  Sanders is known as the godfather of the Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), and according to a Forbes estimate, has a net worth of around $500 million. An REIT allows various investors to buy shares into bundled real estate properties similar to buying stock. Sanders formed an REIT as a vehicle for investors to begin reshaping the Segundo Barrio neighborhood based on a plan pushed by the Paso del Norte Group (PNDG), a real estate consortium composed of El Paso’s elites including Sanders. O’Rourke, right before being elected to city council, was a dues paying member of PNDG.

O’Rourke claims he only wanted to help revitalize areas of El Paso based on his “inferiority complex” of El Paso as an off-the-map, undeveloped place in the vast American Southwest. The downtown neighborhoods which developers are lusting over, while geographically only a few miles from where O’Rourke grew up, are light years from the privileged world that he and his family inhabit.

The border adjacent areas of the Chicano Nation are economically depressed compared to the rest of the US. The working class of the border region, primarily composed of Chicanos and immigrants from Mexico, is exploited economically by the imperialist bourgeoisie and experience national oppression. What O’Rourke describes as “inferiority,” is the outcome of imperialism. His “inferiority complex” derives from a desire to see higher profits from economic exploitation, especially in the realm of real estate.

O’Rourke’s real estate backing and attempts to gentrify downtown El Paso culminated in a long, drawn-out battle with the residents of the Segundo Barrio, who formed a group called Paso del Sur, a direct answer to the name of the Paso del Norte Group. PNDG targeted Segundo Barrio as a potential site for a large development that would take advantage of the adjacent border to appeal to shoppers from Mexico, seeking to transform 168 acres into big box stores. It would have involved destroying massive portions of this working-class barrio primarily inhabited by Chicanos and Spanish-speaking immigrants.

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Screen capture from a video of a meeting between Segundo Barrio Residents and O’Rourke in 2007

A video created by Paso del Sur called The Barrio Speaks Out: “A Lack of Respect,” captures one of the confrontations between the community and O’Rourke, who has a deer-in-the-headlights stare as he attempts to address the concerns of barrio residents with the arrogance of a half-baked college grad. In a defining interaction, one of the elderly residents tells O’Rourke, “They are trying to scare us out of our homes. And you know who it is?” “Yes, I do,” O’Rourke replies.

“It’s your father in law,” she responds. O’Rourke immediately starts shaking his head, telling her, “No, that’s your opinion.”

“No, that’s not my opinion, Beto, I’m telling you what is happening,” she says.

This exchange happens in Spanish, showing how O’Rourke used his bilingual abilities to try and deceive nationally oppressed people and deflect their outrage.

After a year of wrangling with the community, the plan eventually fell apart due to community resistance and the 2008 recession. Before departing the council chambers, O’Rourke voted on and funded a downtown revitalization plan that became the blueprint for development in Central El Paso for the next decade. This included a document known as the Glass Beach study, which contained the racist portrayal of old El Paso, with a photo of an elderly Chicano or Mexicano labeled as “lazy” and “uneducated,”  and using photos of Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz to portray their desired “New West.”

Slides from the 2007 Glass Beach Study. Click to Enlarge

This offensive study embodied all the racist portrayals of El Paso that O’Rourke and his backers seek to push in order to fuel their gentrification plans. To them, the proud, Chicano and Mexican people who define the city are nothing more than old fools who these brave settler entrepreneurs must clear out of the way.

The ongoing attempts to displace the Duranguito barrio for an arena rest on the groundwork that O’Rourke carried out in his early career. The battle to defend the working class barrios of El Paso rages to this day, and those fighting for Duranguito do not miss the irony of O’Rourke’s self-portrayal as a fighter for the oppressed, or his pandering, self-awareness of his privileged status.

The Working Class, Not O’Rourke, Will Inherit the World

As the people’s hunger for revolution grows, politicians work harder to appear revolutionary, no matter how embedded in the ruling class they actually are. O’Rourke is especially eager to capitalize on “woke” internet culture which reduces politics to the mere matter of “acknowledging your privilege” or paying empty lip service to the struggles of the oppressed. In a moment that many identify as his rise to national attention during the 2018 Senate race against Ted Cruz, O’Rourke reponded to a question about Colin Kaepernick’s protests against police brutality by saying, “Nonviolently, peacefully…they take a knee to bring our attention and our focus to this problem to ensure we fix it…And I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up or take a knee for your rights, any time, anywhere, in any place.”

Kaepernick’s protests took courage and cost him his professional sports career, and while his act of solidarity should not be discounted, his individual action and methods are by no means a route to liberation, or any meaningful change, as O’Rourke implies. O’Rourke, as a member of the ruling class, would like nothing more than for all oppressed nations to think “taking a knee” is the ideal model of protest. He emphasizes this by adding that there is “nothing more American” than this “peaceful” protest, reducing protest of the US government to flag waving, while dismissing the legitimacy of violent protest and anti-patriotic sentiments.

O’Rourke preaches pacifism because he fears the masses who every day reject bourgeois order more forcefully, as the residents of Segundo Barrio did when he was in city council and as the community members fighting to defend Duranguito are doing now. He prefers that the oppressed get on their knees rather than stand proudly for revolution to liberate themselves from bourgeois parasites such as himself.

The oppressed peoples of El Paso and the US must develop higher class consciousness and recognize that O’Rourke and all the Democratic candidates only want to preserve the barbaric capitalist-imperialist system which exploits the people. O’Rourke and his backers want to drag the masses into the electoral farce of the bourgeoisie and waste their desire for a better world on his election campaign.

O’Rourke has no real solutions for the monsters that US imperialism unleashes on the oppressed peoples of the world, whether it is fascists gunning down Chicanos and Mexicans along the border or the US military dropping bombs across the Middle East. He will say whatever it takes to distract the people from his true character, and will always be ready to propose another policy gimmick or drop an awkwardly-timed cuss word. O’Rourke does all this because he believes he was “born to be in it” – “it” being the bourgeois world. But it is the people who will inherit the world by wiping away the old one through revolution, leaving nothing for a bourgeois heir to imperialism like Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke.