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Senate hopeful O’Rourke campaigns at packed UH town hall

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is running for Ted Cruz’s Senate seat, visited UH for a town hall on Thursday. At one point, he compared Congress’ 9 percent approval rating to that of communism and chlamydia. | Thomas Dwyer/The Cougar

Before Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, politely declined an attendee’s offer to kiss his feet, he told the crowd about the road-trip snacks people made for his team in some of the 228 Texas counties they visited— one which apparently hadn’t hosted a Senate candidate since Lyndon B. Johnson rolled through 70 years ago.

UH Democrats hosted O’Rourke’s 194th town hall since announcing his campaign for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sen. Ted Cruz on Thursday in the Student Center Theater.

“If we go back to the early 1960s, it’s the young people who have had the courage to sit at the lunch counter, though it might be against the law,” O’Rourke said. “Any great, important, significant, transformational change that we have ever seen in this country was brought to bear, in part, but not completely, by young people.”

Gabriel Aguilar, a liberal studies senior and president of UH Democrats who helped organize the event, said he interned for O’Rourke at his El Paso office in 2017.

“I had always wanted to put on a town hall with Beto O’Rourke, so I sent out an email to the campaign and worked out a time and date that would work out best for both of us,” Aguilar said.

Since launching his campaign, O’Rourke has strictly relied on public donations to fund his Senate run. Recently-released fundraising figures show he brought in $6.7 million in the first quarter of 2018 — more than any other Democrat running for U.S. Senate. Cruz’s figures for that quarter have not been released yet, but O’Rourke has surpassed him in previous quarters.

When O’Rourke won the Democratic nomination for the race, he vowed to limit his tenure to two six-year terms if elected. He is in favor of publicly-funded college tuition, stricter gun regulations, pharmaceutical reform and pro-immigration legislation.

After O’Rourke’s 30-minute speech, he opened the floor for questions from the audience. At one point, he asked a campaign staffer to start timing his answers to under 2 minutes. | Dana C. Jones/The Cougar

The crowd of more than 400 students was visibly excited to see O’Rourke speak. Gilbert Baca, an art history senior, posed the idea of kissing O’Rourke’s feet when asking a question.

“You are awesome. I’m, like, vibing with you right now,” Baca said. Later, he explained why he’s such an ardent supporter.

“I appreciate it, because after Donald Trump being elected, it was sort of a backhand to the face,” Baca said in an interview. “It’s nice to see someone like Beto actually engaging a younger community.”

When explaining his priorities and grievances, O’Rouke often gave examples from other town halls he hosted across the state. Every few minutes, he name-checked a new county or small town.

“I found at a Dickey’s Barbecue, owned by a vegetarian — no joke — I met a doctor trained at Harvard Medical School,” O’Rourke said. “I don’t know how the deal was struck, but the taxpayers of Pickens County agreed to send him to Harvard Medical School, covering 100 percent of his costs on the condition that he come back for no less that six years.”

Maham Quadri, a junior in the pre-law program, said the representative’s platform aligns closely with her own political views.

“I feel like in general it’s important to know how a congressman is as a person,” Quadri said. “I’m not saying one speech does it, but I could tell from the way he spoke that he was a genuine, humble person.”

To win support for the midterm elections in November, O’Rourke has traveled across Texas to counties with opposing demographics. His strategy, which deviates from the political norm, attempts to hear the concerns of both Republican and Democratic voters.

“Any political consultant would never allow to come to a college campus. They tell me young people don’t vote,” he said. “I could never expect you to vote me before showing up, but at least we began the conversations.”

Jakob Walker contributed reporting.

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