Presidential Candidate Beto O'Rourke Makes Early Campaign Stop in Northern Ohio

O'Rourke talked guns, healthcare and more during his visit to the south side of Cleveland on March 18.

click to enlarge Beto O'Rourke in Cleveland on March 18 - Photo: Sam Allard/Cleveland Scene
Photo: Sam Allard/Cleveland Scene
Beto O'Rourke in Cleveland on March 18

The joke at Gino's Cento Anno, a blue-collar dive on the south and windward side of Cleveland's industrial valley where Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke made a pit stop Monday, was that two hours before his scheduled arrival, the TVs were all playing Fox News. By 3:30 p.m., the planned start time for O'Rourke's remarks, they'd been switched to CNN. And by 4 p.m., right before the erstwhile punk rocker and Texas Senate candidate began to gesticulate before a jam-packed crowd, they'd been tuned to MSNBC.

[GOP's STEVE KING SHARES MEME OF MODERN-DAY CIVIL WAR], the chyron read, as Beto was welcomed by Cuyahoga County Democratic Chair Shontel Brown. Hopped-up members of the crowd, chanting "BAY-to, BAY-to, BAY-to," were coaxed by frantic, Patagonia-vested campaign volunteers to please chant "BEH-to, BEH-to, BEH-to."

"They keep moving to the Left," a wisecracking cameraman observed above the din, nodding to the TVs.

Beto's political movement is less clear, in large part because his initial position is still somewhat vague. But in a high-energy campaign speech framed as an in-person introduction to local voters, and in answers to questions from the crowd, he presented much as he did on the Texas trail: an "authentic" charismatic Gen-Xer who absolutely loves Rock 'n' Roll and wants to make America a better place. O'Rourke spent 20 minutes earlier in the day at the Rock Hall, in fact, and opened his speech with a celebration of the ingenuity of America's musicians.

No one could argue with the things this tall, lean man said he wanted: affordable trips to the Doctor for everybody; a fairer criminal justice system; humane immigration policies that welcome refugees and don't lock children up in cages; a belief in science (!) and the need for bold action on climate change, etc.

But the criticism from the Left that O'Rourke is a bit of a nothingburger — "neither a bold progressive nor a distinguished legislator" — was difficult to dispel on first blush. He advocated for very few specific policies, though he did gesture toward the full legalization of marijuana and a bunch of stuff concerning "the VA," and in many areas where Democratic candidates have staked out aggressive progressive positions, he proposed what might be deemed "pragmatic" lesser measures.

On gun control, for example, speaking to a cohort of Moms Demand Action attendees in their trademark red shirts, O'Rourke said he wanted universal background checks — obvs — but then said something extremely weird and contradictory.

He talked about what a bad idea it is to have military-grade assault weapons in our communities. These are weapons, he said, that "could blow a hole out of your back so large, destroy the insides of your systems so much, that you'll bleed to death before [a doctor] can save your life."

O'Rourke warned the crowd that what he was about to espouse was a "much more difficult" issue than something palatable like universal background checks. It was this: "If you own an AR-15, I don't want to take it from you. Keep it. Use it responsibly. All I'm saying is that we don't need to sell any more of them in our communities."


O'Rourke's from Texas, "a responsible, proud gun-owning state." And he said there's "nothing wrong with" gun ownership for hunting, collecting, etc. "In fact, there's so much right with the way we take that responsibility seriously." And yet, what a lame non-stance. It's no surprise that "use your assault weapons responsibly" didn't quite generate the same applause as, "I believe in a woman's right to choose." And why would it? He'd just spent an impassioned minute-and-a-half talking about what a senseless and irresponsible death-machine an AR-15 is.

On health care, he doesn't want Medicare for All, necessarily. He just wants it to be a bit more affordable, maybe by putting the Medicare option on the public exchanges for people who don't have, or aren't happy with, their employer insurance. On college affordability, he doesn't want free public college, necessarily. He wants to refinance student loans at lower rates.

When asked about the structure of the Supreme Court, he literally threw out a few rhetorical questions — Do we let an equal number of current Democratic and Republican justices select new members? Do we expand the body? Do we impose term limits? — and said he was partial to the option (term limits) that had generated the most applause.

But the Gino's crowd was largely receptive. (What he proposed would be improvements!) The chatter among attendees before Beto arrived, though, seemed to describe curiosity more than ardent support. Given the current occupant of the White House, local Democratic voters are ready to be energized by national politics. And honestly only upon review did the candidate's wishy-washy positions become clearer (other than the AR-15 comment, which was instantly a head-scratcher). In the moment, and in the excitement of the crowd, he sounded courageous and idealistic and hoarse from the fervor of his beliefs. He was a handsome, sweating politician in peak physical shape who had no qualms whatsoever about repeatedly name-dropping Sherrod Brown for the Cleveland crowd. And people were enjoying themselves.

Even the Gino's regulars, even the blue-collar Cuyahoga County "Democrats" who prefer Fox News, sipped their domestics approvingly now and again. 

This article first appeared in Clevland Scene.

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