Beto 2020? How O'Rourke Became A Texan Sensation Who Could Shape The Future Of The Democrats

They included Hunt and oil refining billionaire Paul Foster, who would become fundraisers and donors for Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his successor, Perry. Both continue to be major donors to Republicans. In the 2018 election cycle, Hunt gave more than $1 million to Republican efforts to keep control of the U.S. House and Senate. Foster gave more than $2.5 million. Sanders, who joined the effort later, has previously given money to Cruz and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

"It was really important to get these high-roller political types involved," Caballero said of the early efforts to influence the state capitol.

Hunt, Foster, Houghton and others were rewarded by Bush or Perry with appointments to state boards, from which position they would eventually help win huge new investments for El Paso, including a new four-year medical school, a nursing school, roads to channel cross-border trade around the city and a downtown light-rail system.

"We don't think there is a pay-to-play issue," said Houghton, who now describes himself as a political independent. "But you have got to be a part of the team, show you are part of the team."

Though Republican donors from El Paso were working to get a foothold in Austin, Caballero and Shapleigh began urging a group of young liberals to run for El Paso City Council. O'Rourke was a star of the group.

"Bottom line, he wants to get things done. That's his history," Shapleigh said. "He can walk across the aisle and get people to support him."

The same network of donors wooing influence in Austin came to the aid of O'Rourke and his friends, including Steve Ortega and Susie Byrd, two other young liberals who also ran for and won seats on the city council in 2005.

"None of us are Republicans. None of us vote Republican. None of us had ever given money to Republicans before. But we like what these guys are doing," Ortega said of the city's GOP business leaders back in 2005. "We all got contributions from those guys. I'm proud of that."

The downtown redevelopment plan that O'Rourke backed early in his tenure on the city council had been drafted under the leadership of his father-in-law, Sanders, who had also positioned himself to profit from a turnaround by forming an investment group with other O'Rourke donors.

When O'Rourke ran for reelection to the city council in 2007, members of Sanders' investment group helped him raise more than $54,000, nearly nine times as much as his competitor in the race, Trini Acevedo.

The redevelopment effort hit a snag early in O'Rourke's tenure when a city-backed public relations plan presented at a 2006 city council meeting used racially insensitive imagery and language.

The slide presentation portrayed El Paso with a picture of an older Hispanic man in a cowboy hat, next to a caption that described the city's image as "gritty," "dirty," "lazy" and with people who "speak Spanish." The city's future appeared on another slide, with photos of the Texas-born actor Matthew McConaughey and the Spanish actress Penélope Cruz, who were described as "educated," "entrepreneurial" and "bi-lingual."

O'Rourke's spokesman, Chris Evans, said O'Rourke condemned the marketing pitch at the time. "Beto did not approve of that kind of language to describe those in his community or anyone," Evans said.

By 2012, O'Rourke had set his sights on the city's eight-term Democratic congressman, Silvestre Reyes, a decorated Vietnam veteran and Border Patrol officer who had fallen out of favor with the new liberals and older business executives working to remake El Paso.

The national party closed ranks to protect Reyes, who secured endorsements from former president Bill Clinton and then-President Barack Obama. Many El Paso donors who had backed O'Rourke's council races rallied to his side, along with a new national network of Republican donors who were spending money to defeat both Democratic and Republicanincumbents in primaries.

The group, the Campaign for Primary Accountability, received $37,500 in donations from a firm controlled by Sanders and $46,500 from other El Paso business executives.

As an independent operation, the group spent $240,000 to defeat Reyes in the primary election, a significant sum compared to the $616,205 spent by O'Rourke's campaign in that election cycle. Buoyed by support from Republican-leaning areas of the city, O'Rourke won 50.5 percent of the primary vote, narrowly avoiding a run off.

Chuy Reyes, who ran his brother's losing campaign that year, blamed O'Rourke's victory on the spending by local business leaders.

"I guess they got to the point where Silvestre would not carry their bucket of water on what they wanted to do, because he just didn't believe in it," Chuy Reyes said. "It was all driven because they wanted, number one, to grow their special interests."

A spokesman for O'Rourke said Reyes was the candidate whom voters identified with entrenched power. "Beto defeated a 16-year incumbent and received more than 50 percent of the vote in a five-person race because the people of El Paso wanted a representative who would put the interests of the community above special interests," Evans said.

Beto O'Rourke
Sarah L. Voisin / The Washington Post

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