The Irish-American skateboarder looking to take Ted Cruz’s seat

Robert ‘Beto’ O’Rourke isn’t a typical senator but is he hoping to shake up the state of Texas

Beto O’Rourke, running for the US Senate seat, addresses supporters during a campaign rally at Texas Southern University in Houston last week. Photo: Loren Elliott/Reuters

Beto O’Rourke, running for the US Senate seat, addresses supporters during a campaign rally at Texas Southern University in Houston last week. Photo: Loren Elliott/Reuters

 

The footage of Beto O’Rourke nonchalantly skateboarding around a WhataBurger car park in Texas lasts just under one minute. Long enough for informed observers to note he moved with the grace and elan of a genuine skater. Or at least as much grace and elan as any 46-year-old father of three can possibly muster.

After a long day on the stump, O’Rourke shredding on a board might have come off as one more middle-aged buffoon politician trying too hard to appear hip except he looked so at ease with the peculiar circumstances. A common enough description of his meteoric rise.

On Tuesday, November 6th, O’Rourke will attempt to wrest one of Texas’s two Senate seats from Ted Cruz, the Republican incumbent who bears more than a passing resemblance to The Count from Sesame Street. In a state that hasn’t sent a Democratic senator to Washington for three decades the challenger is in a seriously uphill battle but has made such a fight of it he’s already being talked about as a future presidential candidate, regardless of what happens here.

That sort of breathless hype might be a tad premature but illustrates his party’s quest to unearth a new icon and the unlikely impact the Congressman has made on the national consciousness.

At least part of his charm is a resume so eclectic that his opponent’s every attempt to use it against him appears to backfire. For instance, the Cruz campaign made much of sourcing old photographs of when O’Rourke was the bass player in a punk outfit called Foss. They thought tweeting an album cover of him with long hair, wearing a flowery chemise, was politically toxic and something to mock, only to discover it was the sort of uber-cool entry on a CV that most people find admirable. Who wouldn’t want to have spent part of their youth touring America and Canada in the back of a van playing songs every night?

O’Rourke wasn’t your typical punk. He comes from wealthy stock, his father was a judge, his mother had a furniture business, and, after attending a fee-paying boarding school in Virginia, he did an undergraduate degree in English Literature (one of his kids was christened Ulysses) at Columbia University in New York city.

The ideal location for an alternative musician with aspirations, he spent his nights in the downtown pubs and clubs going to gigs in the Village. Unlike most other denizens of that world, however, he rose at 4.30am most mornings to pick up the college minivan so he could drive himself and his team-mates to the top of Manhattan island for rowing training at Spuyten Duyvill Creek.

The record shows he captained Columbia’s heavyweight crew and once won oarsman of the year but even that sporting pedigree became a campaign issue. In his days competing in arguably the most Ivy League of all pursuits, O’Rourke went by the name Robert rather than the childhood sobriquet and distinctly Hispanic Beto. The accusation is that he has just used the latter to try to garner Latino votes in Texas, his defence is that he couldn’t be bothered explaining to people in New York how a kid from an Irish-American family was, like most children named Robert in his native El Paso, called Beto.

If that kind of kerfuffle showcases how constant, petty and internecine identity politics are in America today, O’Rourke’s break-out moment came in August when he was asked if he found NFL players kneeling in protest during the anthem to be disrespectful. After unequivocally stating he didn’t, he went on to deliver a lengthier, more considered response, invoking Martin Luther King, referencing the country’s history of non-violent protests and displaying an acute understanding of the way in which African-Americans are policed today.

“And so, non-violently, peacefully, while the eyes of this country are watching these games, they take a knee to bring our attention and our focus to this problem to ensure that we fix it,” concluded O’Rourke. “That is why they are doing it. And I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up or take a knee, for your rights anytime, anywhere, in any place.”

Members of the Dallas Cowboys link arms and kneel during the National Anthem before the start of their meeting with the Arizona Cardinals last year. Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Members of the Dallas Cowboys link arms and kneel during the National Anthem before the start of their meeting with the Arizona Cardinals last year. Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Such is the level of hysterical discourse in American political life just now that this perfectly serviceable answer was regarded as some masterpiece of rhetoric. It wasn’t that. It was just a rational, compassionate response to the issue from an educated character not given to the dissembling that, unfortunately, seems to come as standard in every person seeking higher office in the unforgiving age of 24 hour news.

When a video of his answer subsequently went viral, being retweeted by the likes of LeBron James, Ellen Degeneres and women’s soccer star Abby Wambach, the media resorted all too typically to unfortunate JFK comparisons.

That name has unfortunate connotations for his opponent. During their sordid battle for their party’s presidential nomination in 2016, Donald Trump preposterously accused Cruz’s father Rafael of being involved in the Kennedy assassination. Such is the Republican’s desperation to hold onto his seat now, he is flying Trump (who also mocked Cruz’s wife’s looks) in on Monday to hold a rally in Houston.

There, the pair of them will, no doubt, fling all sorts of mud at O’Rourke, a man who skateboarded onto the stage at a college event in Corpus Christi the other day. A cameo that perfectly captures the difference between the pair.

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