Sporting a Keene State Owls cap and his slim-cut navy trousers, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke returned to the Elm City for his second visit Friday night with his usual charisma, but a more severe mindset.
O’Rourke, 46, entered the race as an energetic former congressman from Texas who narrowly lost to Ted Cruz in the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history. His oratory reminded some of the late Bobby Kennedy, and his grassroots fundraising ability — after swearing off corporate donations and help from super PACs — put him atop some early 2020 presidential polls before he even jumped in.
Those expectations were palpable in his first visit to Keene State College in March, where he packed the lobby of the Young Student Center with hundreds of voters even as some left as he ran nearly two hours late to his first New Hampshire campaign stop as a declared candidate.
Friday night, he spoke in the Mabel Brown Room on the second floor of the student center to a much smaller, more subdued crowd.
His first visit, however, made enough of a lasting impression to bring some younger supporters back.
Keene State sophomores Matt Wagner, a computer science major from Tewksbury, Mass., and Eliza Copell, a sociology and Holocaust and genocide studies double major from Canton, Conn., were won over by O’Rourke in March and arrived early to see him again.
“I have a lot of respect for him because I feel like he’s one of the few people who I can actually tell is a genuine human being,” Copell said as punk rock permeated around the room as voters filed in. “He’s empathetic towards everything that happens, and in a world like this, it’s good to see somebody like that.”
O’Rourke stepped up off a crate onto a circular end table to address the crowd, whose seats were arranged in semi-Shakespearean in-the-round fashion, weaving American history, personal anecdotes and aspirational rhetoric into his stump speech.
The former congressman took considerable time to answer questions from voters.
Cassandra McKinney, a disability rights advocate from Keene, asked O’Rourke about sub-minimum wage work for Americans with disabilities.
McKinney, 34, who said she’s legally blind, also cited high unemployment among Americans who are legally blind or visually impaired, and asked if he would do anything to change that.
O’Rourke’s response surprised McKinney, she said afterward, when he talked about his sister, Erin, and her struggles with employment living with a developmental disability.
O’Rourke said he supports a $15 minimum wage across the board.
“I had no idea that he had been touched by disability in his own family,” McKinney said. “That was really nice to hear.”
Close observers like Quinn Mitchell of Walpole — an 11-year-old who has seen 17 presidential candidates this cycle — said that after seeing O’Rourke for the fifth time, he has noticed some improvements.
“I wasn’t as impressed with Beto in Keene five months ago as I was here,” Quinn said. “He was so much better at everything ... I thought he had some good answers on gun violence, racism, and he answered my Russia question too.”
In response to Quinn’s question on what O’Rourke would do as president to address Russian interference in American elections, the candidate said President Donald Trump should be impeached as part of holding the Russians accountable, and social media companies should be regulated more closely.
Later, O’Rourke had a civil exchange with a Trump supporter, Chris Shaw, 21, of Barnstead.
Shaw asked O’Rourke why Trump should always have to condemn white supremacists every time a hateful incident happens, and how O’Rourke would go about his new proposal to institute a mandatory buyback of assault weapons, such as the AR-15 and AK-47.
O’Rourke told Shaw he believes the president is a white supremacist because of Trump’s remarks after the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally and other instances, such as his telling four freshman Congresswomen to “go back” to their home country. On firearms, O’Rourke said he has met gun owners who want to give up their assault weapons, and under his plan, Americans could keep shotguns, rifles and handguns for hunting and self defense.
“He didn’t really answer my question,” Shaw said afterward of his exchange with O’Rourke. “Well, he kind of did ... he’s gonna do mandatory AR-15 buybacks, so that means an American citizen is going to have to give up their AR-15s. What about the criminals?”
In an interview with The Sentinel after the rally, O’Rourke said he expects gun owners to abide by the law in the buyback program, where they would be given a “fair price” for their weapons. When asked if he would dedicate federal resources or a task force to go to people’s homes and take the guns, O’Rourke did not go that far.
“I expect people to comply with the law, and certainly we’ll listen to our fellow Americans — gun owners and non-gun owners alike — about the best way to implement this, but the goal at the end of the day is to save the lives of our fellow Americans, and we are completely falling down on that job right now, and we’ve gotta be honest with ourselves that universal background checks, ending the sale of weapons of war will be insufficient to the scale and scope and severity of the challenge,” O’Rourke said.
The buyback proposal and the effort to end gun violence has become personal for O’Rourke after the Aug. 3 shooting in his hometown of El Paso, where a gunman killed 22 people in a Walmart after posting a manifesto indicating he planned to target Mexican immigrants.
In some instances, O’Rourke has responded to questions about the shooting and gun control with profanity, and his campaign even sells T-shirts reading “THIS IS FCKED UP” in response to inaction from lawmakers in the wake of the shooting.
O’Rourke told a New York Times reporter in the press gaggle that he prefers to be cordial most of the time, but also wants to express himself honestly to voters, which sometimes involves profanity.
For supporters like Wagner, it’s a sign of the candidate’s endearing authenticity.
“Honestly, I’d rather see him do a no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy look,” Wagner said. “I feel like a lot of people gave into Trump because he told it how it is, but he’s not really doing that, where Beto is actually telling it how it is.”