Beto O’Rourke passed through Colorado last week on a solo five-state road trip the Democrat documented in online posts that reminded some people of Jack Kerouac and others of something else. Maybe an old-style blog, when people just rambled.
He lost a close race in Texas for the Senate seat held by Ted Cruz. Since then, he’s been thinking about running for president. Raised a lot of money from small donors, polls well in early surveys. Posted an Instagram video of his visit to the dentist.
“Maybe if I get moving, on the road, meet people, learn about what’s going on where they live, have some adventure, go where I don’t know and I’m not known, it’ll clear my head, reset, I’ll think new thoughts, break out of the loops I’ve been stuck in,” he wrote.
Stayed at motels, ate blackberry cobbler. Talked to people. Heard about wind production tax credits and what it takes to make it in America after your family immigrates from Nigeria, health care in Canada, what it's like at the Mexican border and the cost of insulin.
Spent the night in Pueblo, met some students and ate fish and chips at an Irish pub. Wrote all about it.
More Democrats might run for president next year than anyone can count. Could be 20, maybe 30. A year before the first caucuses and primaries, candidates are jumping in. Making it official.
Kamala Harris, a senator from California, got in recently, and Elizabeth Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, filed paperwork for an exploratory committee. Kick the tires.
Beto is one of the B’s. Led in some early polls, got called potential frontrunners. The others are Joe Biden, the former vice president, and Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont who came in second last time.
Other B’s might run. Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire who was mayor of New York, and Michael Bennet, Colorado’s senior senator. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, started an exploratory committee this week.
And that’s just the B’s.
John Hickenlooper, governor of Colorado until a couple of weeks ago, was headed to Iowa to meet some people at a house party. Then a brewery. Like he used to own.
If you’re running for president, you’re going to Iowa and South Carolina and New Hampshire.
Except for Beto.
None of the others drove around the Southwest by themselves last week. Just Beto.
Some places, he ran. Not for president. Not yet. Went running in new shoes along the roads under skies. The other kind of running could come later. After he talks to Oprah next month. Maybe then.
Traveled through five states covering around 1,400 miles if he took the shortest route. Started in El Paso, Texas, and went north on U.S. 54 to Tucumcari, New Mexico. His great-grandparents lived there, when his great-grandfather was the young son of immigrants from Ireland and his great-grandmother was a new immigrant from Wales, but the house where they lived more than a hundred years ago had been turned into a parking lot next to a bank.
The next day Beto stayed on 54 northeast to Oklahoma Panhandle State University. It’s in the middle of the Panhandle. People there at the college talked about coming together and how to make a difference. How to make democracy work so they don’t lose it.
Then it was on to Kansas, first to Liberal and then up to Ulysses. Had carne asada tacos at Alejandro’s but had to break a rule to do it. Rule says if you’re from El Paso, you don’t eat Mexican food anywhere else. Beto is from El Paso, but it doesn’t sound like a hard and fast rule.
Drove his pickup truck into Colorado, from across the Kansas border along the Arkansas River through Lamar, past the big John Martin reservoir to La Junta and then on to Pueblo. Hall and Oates stuck in his head but the radio helped with that.
There had been fog in Kansas. Heavy fog, like a blanket, Beto wrote. But there wasn’t any on the drive to Pueblo across southeast Colorado. Clear skies.
The highway ran through Rocky Ford, famous for its cantaloupes. In Texas, the best cantaloupes are grown around Pecos along the lower Rio Grande, north of El Paso. Soil. Hard honest work. For generations. Healthy food that’s also delicious. Used to be you could count on finding a cantaloupe wedge on the breakfast menu at any roadside diner. Used to be a steady job would be enough. Enough to raise a family, get ahead.
Everywhere he went, someone recognized him, asked if he was Beto or if anyone ever told him he looks like Beto. Once it almost got awkward.
A couple of times an aide had called ahead to arrange for a meeting at a community college. A chance to talk to honest, hard-working people with dreams who know what it is to struggle and take pride, work together. To serve. Natural leaders among them. Some of them also knew good places to eat.
That’s what happened in Pueblo. A few dozen students and staff met Beto at Pueblo Community College after he got a coffee at Starbucks and met some people there.
It was “one of these transcendent moments in public life… something so raw and honest that you want to hold on to it, remember every word… a flow between people,” he wrote, but he wondered if he did it justice the way he wrote it. They talked about fixing the country, running for office, listening to each other.
The next day he went to Taos but didn’t write about it. Made it back to El Paso the day after that. Didn't say if he decided on the trip to run for president, but the discussion in Pueblo made an impression on Beto.
After they talked, first at the community college and then at the Irish pub, he was "just really feeling grateful, a big smile on my face."
The country, he wrote, "will be OK," because of the many people like the ones he met in Pueblo.
"So many who want to be part of the solution, who have the courage to engage and push themselves and those around them to do better. Who are troubled by what’s happening in the country right now, but come to the table with ideas, with open hearts and minds, with a kindness and generosity that is powerful."