Democrat Beto O’Rourke brought the 2020 presidential campaign to North Carolina on Monday, a state he said will play a “critical role” in the selection of his party’s nominee.
The former Texas congressman kicked off a statewide tour with a rally at Charlotte’s Central Piedmont Community College, where he talked about everything from immigration and climate change to the expected release of a video of a fatal shooting by police in Charlotte.
He later headed to Greensboro and then to Chapel Hill, where hundreds of students packed an auditorium at the UNC student union.
O’Rourke is among 18 Democratic candidates and one of the first to campaign in North Carolina. The state’s 2020 primary is on March 3, along with contests in California and 10 other states.
O’Rourke, 46, told the Charlotte Observer he believes his experience as a businessman, a congressman from the border town of El Paso and a Democrat who almost won in a red state, can distinguish him in a crowded field.
A former three-term lawmaker from Texas, O’Rourke came close to beating Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, surprising many in a state which President Donald Trump carried by 9 points. He’s running third in Real Clear Politics’ polling average behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
In Chapel Hill, O’Rourke told the crowd climate change is “the greatest challenge of them all,” and called for a fast pivot away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy.
He cited Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Matthew, which both brought record-setting floods to North Carolina in the last few years, as well as droughts and wildfires in other parts of the country, saying “this only gets worse” without significant U.S. action. He suggested rejoining the Paris climate accord, which Trump has begun withdrawing from, and investing more in government programs for renewable energy resources like wind and solar farms.
O’Rourke also spoke in Spanish several times, and called for changes to U.S. immigration policy. He said undocumented immigrants who are already here should get help to fully join society, and he said the U.S. should have less draconian policies for handling people who come here seeking asylum.
“We must vow never again to take another child from another parent when they come to our country,” he said.
He also called for universal health care, a higher minimum wage, and universal background checks on gun purchases.
In Charlotte, O’Rourke waded into statewide and even local issues.
Wearing a white CPCC baseball cap, he applauded the media for pushing for release of the video of the fatal police shooting of 27-year-old Danquirs Franklin on March 25.
“I am grateful to members of the press who insisted on transparency,” he told around 250 people on the lawn of CPCC. Decrying what he described as the disproportionate number of minorities behind bars, he said he would try to ensure “equal justice for every single one of us.”
He also criticized House Bill 2 — the 2016 legislation, later partially repealed, that overturned a Charlotte anti-discrimination ordinance that would have allowed transgender people to use the bathroom or locker room of the gender with which they identified. A similar bill was introduced in Texas, but failed to pass.
O’Rourke called HB2 “a very hateful bathroom bill that you exported to Texas,” fueled by “paranoia for political gain.”
The Texas Democrat answered a handful of questions from the crowd, including one from someone who called Israel “an apartheid state” built on the oppression of Palestinians. O’Rourke reaffirmed his belief in a two-state solution, but said, “I also agree this is looking harder and harder to achieve.”
He blamed “failed leadership” on both sides, but criticized newly re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for what he called “racist (actions) that seek to stoke anxiety and fear.”
After speaking, O’Rourke patiently posed for pictures and autographs for a long line of admirers. Among them was Rebecca Fitzsimons of Charlotte.
“I loved everything he had to say,” she said. “He’s passionate (and) inclusive. I just love his vision for the country.”
In a statement, Republican National Committee spokeswoman Ellie Hockenbury said, “On a day when North Carolinians file their taxes, Beto O’Rourke travels to the Tar Heel State with his plan to hike them into oblivion.”
In Chapel Hill, a student asked O’Rourke how he planned to pay for some of his ideas, given the national debt’s rise to more than $20 trillion.
“One, we can begin by rolling back the worst of the Trump tax cuts,” O’Rourke said, referring to the tax changes Trump signed into law in 2017 that are expected to add an estimated $1.5 trillion to the national debt.
O’Rourke also said the U.S. should pull troops out of the Middle East, saving the government money and letting those men and women start focusing on their communities back home.