CHARLESTON, S.C. ― “Why should black people vote for you?” Patricia Williams Lessane, an associate dean at the College of Charleston, asked point blank to Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke on Saturday, following a campaign kickoff marked by, among other things, an unusual discussion of his white male privilege.
It was the first question of the day at a town hall meeting at Burke High School, an institution founded over 100 years ago for African-American students in Charleston, which was a port of entry for 40 percent of Africans brought to this country during the slave trade. Many political observers are similarly asking whether the lanky 46-year-old former Texas congressman can capture a major Democratic constituency as he barnstorms the country in a gray Dodge Caravan ― one that he personally drives to each stop.
O’Rourke held six campaign events in South Carolina alone on Friday after eight straight days on the campaign trail, reprising the furious pace of his unsuccessful 2018 Senate campaign. Not surprisingly, he was hoarse by the end of the day.
His speeches in the early primary state placed heavy emphasis on the need to address voter suppression, police brutality, the “Charleston loophole” on gun background checks, and congressional gerrymandering ― all part of an effort to court its large African-American population.
“As a white man in this country, it is only belatedly and only in part that I begin to understand the struggles of others,” O’Rourke said Saturday in response to Lessane’s question, before launching into a bite of his stump speech about racial disparities and biases in the country’s criminal justice, education and health care systems ― which he said “must be squarely confronted.”
The stemwinder earned several rounds of applause and a “That’s right!” from one African-American woman in the crowd, which numbered several hundred people. But the town hall, like most of his other events in the state on Friday, drew mostly a white audience. It’s a challenge similar to what Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-V.t.), another progressive white candidate in the 2020 race for the Democratic nomination, faced during his 2016 presidential campaign. (Hillary Clinton won the South Carolina Democratic primary over Sanders by nearly 50 points.)
But Lessane said she thought O’Rourke’s pitch could use some fine-tuning.
“I think he could say a little bit more, especially given the fact that he’s sort of against reparations,” she told HuffPost. “He knows a little bit about the history but not as much. ... I think that as he develops further, his understanding and priorities will become clearer.”
Still, O’Rourke drew large crowds during his first jaunt in the Palmetto State. The national interest in his candidacy ― which some doubted prior to his announcement earlier this month ― was affirmed last week when he reported raising $6.1 million in his first 24 hours as an official candidate. The number exceeded even Sanders’ haul in the same period of time.
O’Rourke’s first campaign event in South Carolina began shortly after dawn on Friday in the city of Rock Hill, a pocket of blue in an otherwise conservative area of the state just south of Charlotte. The candidate toured McCrory’s lunch counter, a segregated establishment and a crucial piece of civil rights history. It was there in 1961 that nine African-American men from Friendship Junior College ― thereafter called the Friendship Nine ― were arrested and jailed after they refused to leave the premises. The incident sparked the “jail not bail” strategy in following demonstrations and sit-ins against segregation across the South.
Willie McLeod, one of those men, showed O’Rourke the seat that would ultimately land him a 30-day prison sentence of hard labor. O’Rourke said the visit left him “incredibly inspired,” adding that McLeod’s stand “purchased the freedoms and something more closely approaching civil rights for millions of more Americans.” He incorporated the moment into his stump speech, telling crowds what McLeod and the others had accomplished at later campaign events throughout the day.
In Columbia, O’Rourke met with Steve Benjamin, the city’s influential African-American mayor who currently heads the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Benjamin called the Texas Democrat a “phenom” who could energize the party back into the White House, and he later introduced him at another packed town hall at the University of South Carolina. The two men sat down for lunch at a diner in downtown Columbia, capturing the attention of some other patrons.
“I like his demeanor; how he talks. He seems positive, he wants to change things,” a local rapper who goes by the name Youngin’ told HuffPost about O’Rourke afterward.
O’Rourke was received warmly by a large crowd at USC’s campus, where he fielded questions on police brutality, health care, education and climate change. But he skirted a query from a student who wanted to know if he would pledge not to accept contributions from the fossil fuel industry, which donated heavily to his Senate campaign in Texas. O’Rourke said he received many contributions from people in various other professions, as well.
“He completely dodged the question,” Bob Lacio, the engineering student who asked him about the pledge, told HuffPost after the event. “You say you’re going to take on climate change, but you’ve taken the most fossil fuel money. How can you say the money won’t influence your position?”
Climate activists have been pushing 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to promise not to accept any money from the oil, gas or coal industries. So far, only Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee have done so.
At an event in the Democratic stronghold of Orangeburg later in the day, O’Rourke spoke to a predominantly black crowd of students at the South Carolina State University. It was his first visit to a historically black university since announcing his campaign for president, but the smallest crowd for his campaign of the day. (O’Rourke’s campaign claimed that was due to the event being held Friday at a commuter school.) He was met by a more subdued, and at times disinterested audience, failing to stir applause with lines that lit up the overwhelmingly white crowd at USC earlier in the day.
O’Rourke maintained that he had to “show up” and try to win over such voters anyway. It was a tactic he employed in his Senate race by visiting all 254 counties in Texas, even those that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The grueling pace left him just 2.6 percent of the vote short of defeating incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R).
“Go everywhere. Be for everyone,” he said Saturday, summing up his campaign strategy. “Go to that county that voted 96 percent for Trump because they’re just deserving of our respect. Go to that county that voted over 90 percent for Hillary Clinton and not take them for granted.”
The reaction to his pitch among students at South Carolina State University, however, was mixed. Fahmmi Mamo, who studies computer science, said he preferred to hear a more unifying message from a presidential candidate.
“I don’t know if I can believe him, but he sounds believable,” Mamo said. “I feel like every time he answered the question, he’s referring to just blacks and whites instead of just his own agenda as one. He’s referring to blacks as being betrayed, that is true, but him mentioning black folks all the time makes me feel like I don’t know if he’s really with it or if he’s just saying that to get our vote.”
McCayla Goodwin, on the other hand, said the Texas Democrat gave her “Obama vibes,” a comparison others have made between O’Rourke and the 44th U.S. president, who is also known for his charisma. She said she appreciated him acknowledging that he’s enjoyed privileges as a white man that others have not, a statement he first made earlier this month after making several eyebrow-raising comments following his campaign announcement.
“Most white people don’t really notice that. So I was like, hmm, OK, I see you,” Goodwin, who studies human performance and recreation, said before flashing a smile. She added, however, that she has yet to decide whom she will support in 2020, ticking off other candidates she’d like to hear from, including Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kamala Harris (Calif.).
The battle for black voters in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary has heated up in recent weeks, a sign of how crucial candidates and strategists see that bloc to a successful campaign, especially in a state with a heavy proportion of black voters. Booker and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg also made campaign stops in South Carolina this weekend. Harris, meanwhile, held a massive rally on Saturday in Houston, a city with a large black population that O’Rourke carried overwhelmingly in his 2018 Senate race.
If O’Rourke falls short in his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, no one will be able to say he didn’t work hard enough. Since announcing his campaign for president earlier this month in a video to supporters, he has driven through Iowa, the upper Midwest, all 10 counties of New Hampshire, and back south across South Carolina ― a task made easier by the fact that he is currently unemployed. On Sunday, he’s scheduled to hold several campaign events in Nevada, with an official campaign kickoff set in El Paso, Texas, at the end of the month.
His swing through the Palmetto state was merely an introduction, he said ― both to its voters, many of whom sheepishly asked reporters how to pronounce his name (“Is it ‘Bee-toh’?”) ― and to the state itself. When Betty Henderson, the retired Democratic Party chair of Orangeburg County, proudly told O’Rourke that he was standing in the “most Democratic county in South Carolina, where every state official is a Democrat,” he looked a bit taken aback.
“I didn’t know that,” O’Rourke replied on Friday before his town hall there.
He pledged “just to listen to folks,” saying it is “the only way I have any prospect of winning their votes and representing their interests in the White House. So we came here to listen and learn and show up for everybody.”