Beto O'Rourke in Dumfries, April 17, 2019

Beto O'Rourke, a Democratic candidate for president in 2020, spoke before about a dozen local party activists and about 100 diners during a stop at El Paso Grill in Dumfries on Wednesday, April 17.

Presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke made a campaign stop at El Paso Mexican Grill in Dumfries Wednesday, where he talked to a group of Democratic activists and about 100 diners on issues ranging from racism and Social Security to reversing President Trump’s ban on transgender troops.

O’Rourke, 46, is the first of the growing field of Democrats vying to oust Trump from the White House to visit the commonwealth. He attracted a crowd of about 1,000 at a Short Pump hotel on Tuesday and was headed for a town hall in Alexandria later Wednesday afternoon.

But stops in the middle –in Fredericksburg and then Dumfries – seemed as focused on helping Democrats retain or win seats in the Virginia General Assembly as raising his own profile in the only southern state Trump lost in 2016. 

In Fredericksburg, O’Rourke appeared with Josh Cole, a Democrat who lost his 2017 race for delegate by 73 votes to Republican Del. Bob Thomas. In Dumfries, O’Rourke was greeted by Dels. Hala Ayala, D-51st and Danica Roem, D-13th, both of whom are defending their seats against Republican challengers this fall.

Roem said she hasn’t yet picked a candidate for president but welcomed O’Rourke’s support.

“I welcome any candidate who wants to come to Virginia to help out our campaigns,” Roem said.

Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at Mary Washington University, said it’s a good time for O’Rourke or any Democratic 2020 hopeful to drum up energy and attention for Virginia Democrats since the party’s elected leaders – Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring – have been sidelined by scandals.

“For Democratic candidates, their inability to fundraise really undermines their chances for success,” Farnsworth said. “Normally, Democratic governors raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to help these candidates, who really have a hard time raising that kind of money on their own.”

On racism, child care, transgender troops

There was no talk of Northam’s or Herring’s revelations about blackface, but O’Rourke spoke about systemic racism in response to a question about his remarks last August about Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

E.J. Scott, a Manassas resident and chairwoman of the Democratic Black Caucus of Virginia, thanked O’Rourke for his “eloquent” defense of the players’ protest and then asked what he would do about the issues behind it.

O’Rourke said there must be more accountability and transparency around the use of deadly force by police, and said the “full weight of the nation’s civil rights laws” should be brought to bear if cases cannot be resolved locally.

But in a long, winding answer typical of O’Rourke’s speaking style, the former congressman said the issue is deeper than the criminal justice system and stretches back “to the very racist foundation of this country.”

“The larger problem, of which the criminal justice system is just a part, is the very racist foundation of this country, the fact the wealth of the United States of America and the Commonwealth of Virginia was built literally on the backs of those kidnapped in their home countries, transported in the middle passage to this country, and who had no hope or prospect in enjoying the fruits of their labor,” O’Rourke said. “And to add insult to injury, their descendants, up until the year 2019, through segregation, Jim Crow, suppression, red-lining and the disproportionate arrests of African Americans for possession of marijuana, although all races use it at the same rate in this country. All of that has been reinforced and compounded and leads to these results.”

In O’Rourke-speak, everything is complicated and connected. When asked about affordable child care, O’Rourke offered a long list of solutions, including raising the minimum wage, instituting paid family leave and universal pre-K and increasing tax credits for child care and funding for community development block grants. 

In response to a question about Trump’s ban on transgender people in the military, O’Rourke said he would “reverse that executive order on day one” and would further work to pass the Equality Act so no state can discriminate against LGBTQ people for housing or employment, which is now legal in both Virginia and Texas.

In response to a question about shoring up Social Security, O’Rourke acknowledged the program could be insolvent by the 2030s and said, if elected, he would sign a bill to raise the threshold on income subject to Social Security withholding.

A nod to El Paso

Yuly, a woman who identified herself as an owner of El Paso Mexican Grill, asked O’Rourke in Spanish why he chose their restaurant for the event. O’Rourke, who is a native of El Paso, Texas, replied in Spanish and then in English to say his parents had a rule about never eating Mexican food outside of El Paso.

“I’m going to be so happy to tell my mom today that even though I was in Virginia, I ate Mexican food in El Paso,” O’Rourke said to laughs from the crowd.

Tonya James, a retired Marine and vice chair of the Prince William County Democratic Committee said local Democrats, and especially minority voters, will be evaluating the pool of presidential candidates based on how they address the issues they care about.

“They need to hear a message that resonates specifically with them. And it’s about showing up with that message,” James said. “There’s a lot of respect for Beto being here first.”

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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