The El Paso Homecoming That Set Beto O’Rourke’s Star on the Rise

EL PASO — Beto O’Rourke attracted the officers’ attention near the Texas-New Mexico state line, rocketing past them in a speeding Volvo, hustling to nowhere around 3 a.m.

He was so inebriated when the police reached him — after he had collided with a truck and pivoted to a stop across the center median of Interstate 10 — that he nearly collapsed when he tried to step out of the car.

Hours earlier, on Sept. 26, 1998, Mr. O’Rourke had turned 26. He was home again in El Paso, back for good after three searching years of post-college odd jobs in New York City. He had moved into an apartment near his parents, in an 18-unit building his family owned. His mother hired him to help with computers and inventory at her home-furnishings store. His father, a hard-charging former local politician, was dreaming bigger.

And an after-hours mistake, even one this serious, was not going to stand in the way.

“I remember he came home afterward; we were talking about it,” his mother, Melissa O’Rourke, said of the arrest. “It was just very, ‘How could I be so stupid?’”

Mr. O’Rourke’s fortunes would turn quickly. He had some help.

In the years that followed, he transitioned from rootless former musician to celebrated civic-leader-in-a-hurry. Within months, with a loan from his parents and a business plan guided by his father, Pat O’Rourke, he started a successful web design company and an online newsmagazine. Before long, despite having shunned politics for much of his life, he assumed the sheen of a rising star, poised to carry the family name to the ballot as his father had before him.

This critical period of Mr. O’Rourke’s life, spanning his late 20s and early 30s, was neither the first nor the last time an inherited tool kit of family influence and relative financial comforts helped smooth his stumbles and hasten his successes.

His step-grandfather, a former Navy secretary, had steered him to a prestigious Virginia boarding school. His father’s political connections had landed him a Capitol Hill internship. His eventual marriage to the daughter of one of El Paso’s wealthiest men, the developer William D. Sanders, would ease access to a new network of political allies.

Mr. O’Rourke’s tax returns, released this month, lay bare the extent to which he and his wife, Amy, have benefited from their parents’ largess, placing them among the wealthiest families in the Democratic presidential field. In the decade from 2008 through 2017, close to 40 percent of the O’Rourkes’ $3.4 million in income came from shares in partnerships gifted to them by their parents — dividends, interest, capital gains and rental revenue. More than $1 million came from two entities established by Amy O’Rourke’s father.

Friends from Mr. O’Rourke’s youth say this is not the life they imagined for him: ownership stakes, making money from money, a sprint into national politics.

Yet if Mr. O’Rourke’s punk-rock days and New York chapter were in some respects a reaction to his rearing — the son of a businesswoman and a glad-handing politician in search of something different — his El Paso re-entry made clear he was his parents’ child.

Coaxed for years by his achievement-minded father, Mr. O’Rourke grew increasingly self-motivated, former co-workers say. He began shuttling between meetings in blue button-downs and khakis. He took intensive Spanish lessons to reintegrate himself into the bilingual border city, his mother said. He recruited out-of-state talent to El Paso to work with him, promising a role in a “movement” to revitalize what was once a commercial hub of the American Southwest (and neglecting to mention the prevalence of sandstorms).

Mr. O’Rourke seemed to see the city as an extension of himself — a theme now underpinning his bridges-not-walls presidential messaging, with immigration at the national fore. He became a kind of evangelist for a 21st-century El Paso, celebrated in the local press as a returning Northeasterner “saving the city from the brain drain.”

Mr. O’Rourke’s often-charmed trajectory has not been lost on some progressive skeptics, who wonder if a white man of relative privilege is the best fit for this Democratic moment. Mr. O’Rourke’s personality-driven political appeal — “Man, I’m just born to be in it,” he told Vanity Fair as he entered the race — has done little to discourage the trope, which some rivals have been quick to highlight.

“I wasn’t born to run, but I am running,” Senator Amy Klobuchar said on “Meet the Press.”

“I’m the one from the other side of the tracks,” Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and Obama-era housing secretary, told voters in Nevada, striking back at the impression that he was the lesser Texan seeking the nomination. “I’m the one that didn’t grow up as a front-runner.”

Mr. O’Rourke can be sensitive to the barb that he was raised in affluence, and the reality is indeed more nuanced. While his family held prominence and influence in El Paso, interviews and financial records indicate that the O’Rourkes were well off but hardly superrich.

He mentioned, unprompted, in a recent interview that he had received financial aid in college, and said his parents had taken out personal loans to help pay for his education. “They wouldn’t have done that unless we had to do,” he said. “And we had to do.”

At the same time, Mr. O’Rourke has acknowledged that his rise was made possible, at least in part, by the clear advantages he enjoyed, particularly during this stretch of his life.

Speaking last month in Iowa, he cited his two arrests: the drunken-driving episode — during which he tried to leave the accident scene, according to the police report, though Mr. O’Rourke has denied this — and a previous trespassing incident. He noted that neither had limited his opportunities.

“It’s not because I’m a great person, or I’m a genius, or I’ve figured anything out,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with the fact that I’m a white man, that I had parents who had the cash to post bail at the time. A lot of people don’t have that.”

Just months before his car veered out of control, Mr. O’Rourke had reached a professional cul-de-sac.

Lingering in New York after graduating in 1995 from Columbia University with a degree in English literature, he worked in various jobs — at his uncle’s web business, as an Upper West Side nanny, in an entry-level publishing position. Nothing stuck.

At home in El Paso, his parents received a call.

“He said, ‘I don’t see my purpose here,’” his mother recalled. “‘I think I’m really ready to go back to where my roots are.’”

His timing was good. There was an opening at his mother’s furniture and gift shop catering to El Paso’s well-to-do.

“It was perfect,” she said. “He showed me how to look things up in the computer.”

Founded in the 1950s by Mr. O’Rourke’s grandmother, the store — together with the surrounding family-owned shopping center and the O’Rourkes’ apartment building — set them firmly among El Paso’s financially comfortable.

Mr. O’Rourke and his two younger sisters had grown up in one of the nicer houses in a neighborhood near the University of Texas at El Paso: a 4,000-square-foot stucco-and-brick with a design inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, complete with a backyard pool.

There had been domestic help as well. In the yearbook of Woodberry Forest School, the boarding school Mr. O’Rourke attended on the recommendation of his grandmother’s husband, former Navy Secretary Frederick Korth, he thanked faculty members; his family; and Coco, their housekeeper.

Back from New York, Mr. O’Rourke settled not at his boyhood home but at an apartment in the family’s building.

He began connecting with friends, in and outside the city. He had a big idea, a couple actually. His uncle, Brooks Williams, recalled that Mr. O’Rourke, skilled at drawing out even strangers in social settings, had expressed an interest in operating some kind of salon for civic discussion.

“I want to have that burrito store,” Mr. Williams remembers Mr. O’Rourke saying after he returned home. “I want to have that place downtown where politicians come in and talk.”

But it was Mr. O’Rourke’s experience working with Mr. Williams’s technology company in New York that helped set him on his future path.

He began selling friends on the untapped potential of the tech market in El Paso, with a job environment far more accommodating than in a place like New York.

“Because the talent pool was shallow enough at that point, you could really move there and reinvent things,” said Lisa Degliantoni, a friend who moved to Texas to work with Mr. O’Rourke. “You could be the person who revitalized downtown El Paso.”

To Ms. Degliantoni, it sounded, endearingly, like “rose-colored glasses.”

To discerning locals, it sounded familiar.

A major traffic jam snarled the on-ramp to Interstate 10 one St. Patrick’s Day morning years earlier as Bonnie Lesley, an El Paso educator, headed to work.

First assuming there had been an accident, Ms. Lesley soon came upon the true cause: Pat O’Rourke, a candidate for county office, dressed as a leprechaun and passing out fliers. “I’m having the time of my life,” he told her as she rolled down her window.

Mr. O’Rourke served on the El Paso County commission for four years, then won a four-year term as the county’s chief executive.

“He was mesmerizing,” said Pat Haggerty, a former Texas state representative. “He had facts. He had figures. He could spout them off.”

Publicity stunts were common, and occasionally delivered Mr. O’Rourke a platform beyond El Paso. In 1986, after an influx of indigent Mexicans ran up costs at the county-funded hospital, Mr. O’Rourke sent an invoice for the charges — $7.5 million — to President Ronald Reagan. The story made The New York Times.

There was also a bit of controversy. In 1983, sheriff’s deputies installing a radio in Mr. O’Rourke’s Jeep found a white powdery substance in a condom. A deputy threw the substance away before it could be tested. Mr. O’Rourke insisted he had no idea what the substance was or why it was in his vehicle. But he feared the episode would mar his reputation, and did not run for re-election when his term expired three years later. He never held elected office again.

But he did not exactly slow down. He had always been an exercise fanatic, sometimes showing up at county offices in sweaty bicycling clothes. And he had long harbored grand visions for his son.

“We had just finished reading ‘Peter the Great’ by Robert Massie,” Melissa O’Rourke remembered. “It’s a big book. And I think Beto was 10 years old. And Pat said, ‘Beto, you need to read this book.’ Pat was, I think, always seeing the potential. Not seeing the limits.”

As Beto O’Rourke grew into his teen years, Pat O’Rourke related little to a son who joined a computer hacking group and listened to music he did not understand.

“Pat confided that he was very concerned and frustrated with the direction that Beto had taken,” said Flip Lyle, an El Paso businessman and former bicycling friend.

When his father arranged for him to intern with the Texas congressman Ron Coleman the summer before he started at Columbia, Beto O’Rourke chafed, telling friends he would have preferred to be elsewhere.

“I think Pat expected a lot of him, and probably pushed him some,” Ms. O’Rourke said. “Beto would just accept it and just say, ‘All right, I’m going to do it to keep the peace.’”

Despite his own business setbacks — a manufacturing operation in Mexico fizzled — Pat O’Rourke excelled at strategy. He helped his son map out a business plan for his new company, Ms. O’Rourke said.

Records show that his parents also lent him about $19,000 in start-up money. In the interview, Mr. O’Rourke said his father “had to take out a loan using, I would assume, our family home as collateral,” suggesting that his parents were hardly flush with cash.

“If my parents had 10,000 bucks or 20,000 bucks to give to me to help start that business or to personally loan to me, they would have done that,” he said. “They didn’t.”

Around the same time, Mr. O’Rourke said, he moved back in with his parents so he could stop paying rent on his apartment and “put every cent into the business.”

It would be called Stanton Street Technology, named for the El Paso thoroughfare where the family-owned apartment building was located. Pat O’Rourke beamed.

“The dynamic had shifted,” said Mike Stevens, a close friend and former bandmate of Beto O’Rourke’s. “Pat seemed to me like he was not anxious for Beto. That seemed to be something from the past.”

In November 1999, the drunken-driving case against Beto O’Rourke was officially dismissed. He had completed a court-sanctioned training program.

The same month, he posted on his company’s website,, hinting at a burgeoning interest in local public affairs. “The big issue today is access to capital,” he wrote, “and whether or not banks are making credit available to the qualified small businesses in town who need it.”

The posting was in the “City Talk Reader’s Forum,” a feature of the new company — part website developer, part online newsmagazine covering local affairs and culture.

The web design operation distinguished itself from competitors by catering to higher-end clients: companies, nonprofit organizations and even government-funded entities that recognized the need to establish a presence on the nascent internet.

“We just want to do the Cadillac sites,” Mr. O’Rourke’s partner, Grace Madden, whom he had recruited from New York, told the monthly publication El Paso Scene.

Rivals whispered that the company was cashing in on the O’Rourke family’s local reputation, but Stanton Street silenced naysayers by winning awards for its designs.

Mr. O’Rourke wrote infrequently for, tending mainly to the business operations. But his father became a regular contributor, crusading against public corruption and tax increases. Pat O’Rourke also posted diary entries during a cross-country trip on a recumbent bicycle — much as his son would do years later on a road trip while weighing his presidential run.

His familiarity to readers made what happened shortly thereafter, in July 2001, all the more wrenching for the city and Stanton Street: Pat O’Rourke was killed in a bicycle accident at age 58.

When word reached the office, the site had been approaching a major milestone, the planned debut of an alternative-weekly-style print publication. Shortly afterward, Mr. O’Rourke convened his employees. “He had to gather us and make a decision as a group whether we could emotionally handle proceeding without Pat,” Ms. Degliantoni said. “What would Pat want us to do?”

The first issue arrived in January 2002. In it, Beto O’Rourke eulogized his father as the project’s “inspiration.”

At first, Mr. O’Rourke seemed inclined to treat the tragedy as a personal turning point.

“I decided all bets are off. I was going to live life differently from now on, do everything I wanted,” he told an interviewer in 2003. “And then you don’t really at all. Life is still life.”

In the print journalism business, life was this: The publication lasted only a few months before Mr. O’Rourke was forced to pull the plug.

His tenure as publisher was short but significant.

The purpose of Stanton Street, on the web and in print, was to “tell the stories of El Paso which I didn’t feel were being told,” Mr. O’Rourke said in the recent interview.

From there, friends draw a straight line to Mr. O’Rourke’s early political education. “One of the issues they covered was politics,” said Steve Ortega, a close friend who served with Mr. O’Rourke on the El Paso City Council. “That kind of sparked his interest.”

So did the new mayor, Ray Caballero, elected in 2001 on a progressive platform, championing urban renewal and public transportation. Mr. O’Rourke forged an alliance with a group of the mayor’s young backers.

Soon, Mr. O’Rourke’s name was being floated for assorted local positions, often by Mr. O’Rourke himself. He expressed interest in an appointed school board position, agreed to serve on a task force promoting a new medical campus, and joined the Rotary Club and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“I joined every organization that would have me,” Mr. O’Rourke said. “If someone had an open slot, I wanted to be on it.”

Around the time he began considering a run for the Council against a popular incumbent, his personal and professional lives began to intersect — happily, in both cases, for Mr. O’Rourke.

Melissa O’Rourke had gotten a phone call from an old friend, Beth Galvin, an El Paso artist. She wondered if Beto would like to take out her niece, Amy Sanders.

Ms. Galvin remembered Beto as a bashful child. Now, he was part of a small group of young leaders imagining a new economy for a city once known as a low-wage garment center.

William Sanders, Amy’s father and Ms. Galvin’s brother, likewise understood the opportunities El Paso afforded. He had grown up there, left to make a fortune in Chicago and Santa Fe, then returned.

A pioneer in real estate investment, he was about to turn his gaze on downtown El Paso. Mr. Sanders, who said he was working at the mayor’s behest, would announce a controversial project that envisioned bulldozing parts of the city center — including sections of a historic barrio for Mexican immigrants near the Rio Grande — remaking it as an upscale shopping, dining and tourist destination. (Mr. O’Rourke’s support for the plan as a councilman drew the scorn of many barrio residents.)

Several months after Beth Galvin’s call, Mr. Sanders would tell business associates, Mr. O’Rourke phoned him to ask for a meeting.

Mr. Sanders thought Mr. O’Rourke, by then a council candidate, wanted a campaign contribution.

That would come later: Mr. Sanders and his allies would donate thousands of dollars to other O’Rourke campaigns.

This time, though, he was asking for something else.

He wanted to marry Bill Sanders’s daughter.

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