McALLEN — Before Beto O’Rourke sharpened his critique of Ted Cruz at the least-intimate rally he has held in the Rio Grande Valley, a nurse handed the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate a light saber.
“You’re part of the rebellion and we’re going against the empire,” said the McAllen-based nurse, Heron Alvarez III, in the bowels of the McAllen Convention Center. “You’re Luke Skywalker, my friend, so keep it up.”
The man also handed O’Rourke a bag of pan dulce, or sweet bread, for O’Rourke to give to his campaign comrade this weekend, U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass. That’s how O’Rourke, the representative from El Paso running to unseat U.S. Sen. Cruz, led his speech in front of more than 1,500 people at the convention center, the most spacious and best-air conditioned venue O’Rourke has held court in during his more than seven visits to the Valley over the last two years, with another slated for Thursday.
“I remember being at Sofie’s (Saloon) in March of ‘17, I was like 30 feet from Beto, there was like 100, 150 people,” said supporter Ian Llewellyn.
On Saturday, 30 feet in front of Llewellyn were rows and rows of chairs. O’Rourke was about to be introduced, but the candidate wanted to practice the pronunciation of Alvarez’s first name.
O’Rourke often livestreams his movements during the campaign, as he did while driving from Corpus Christi to McAllen on Saturday. Normally O’Rourke drives himself, but Kennedy took the wheel this time, and would again later in the day on the way to Harlingen.
On Friday in Houston, Cruz poked at Kennedy campaigning with O’Rourke.
“By the way, he had Joe Kennedy down here campaigning with him,” Cruz said at the Houston event. “And Joe Kennedy was driving him around. I have to admit, it may be the first time in history anyone’s ever asked a Kennedy to drive.”
The crowd laughed at the reference to the 1969 incident at Chappaquiddick, where Sen. Ted Kennedy — great uncle to the congressman — crashed a car off a bridge. The passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, was killed.
“I think that just says everything you need to know about Sen. Cruz,” O’Rourke said before the rally, noting Cruz’s comment was the “smallest of the small.”
O’Rourke responded to Cruz, though not by name, on stage, too. When Kennedy was driving his own wife, Lauren, as well as O’Rourke and his wife, Amy, to McAllen on Saturday, the livestream was running.
“Somebody on the livestream, as Joe Kennedy was driving us into town, and you know you’ve made it when you’ve got a Kennedy driving you,” O’Rourke said to a large cheer. “Someone asked on the livestream, for Joe, ‘have you ever had pan dulce in McAllen?’
“And Heron, where are you? All the way in the back, Heron Alvarez, who’s a nurse, my sister’s a nurse, we need to get connected, make sure we provide better healthcare to more people in this state.”
O’Rourke added, “But before we do that, for God’s sake, get Joe Kennedy some of this pan dulce.”
Kennedy, a fluent Spanish speaker, flipped between English and Spanish during his introduction, as O’Rourke regularly does. Kennedy critiqued Cruz’s filibuster that helped lead to a 2013 government shutdown, which O’Rourke followed up on when he had the microphone.
But a sizable portion of O’Rourke’s speech focused on immigration and border security, two of President Donald Trump’s top issues that Cruz has been forceful on, too.
O’Rourke welcomed Central American immigrants who have fled their countries for better lives in the United States, while “Ted Cruz, your junior senator, has vowed to deport every single dreamer,” O’Rourke said to a chorus of boos.”When the Senate voted to proceed on determining their fate, of the 98 Senators who showed up that day, he was the only one — it was 97 to 1 — who voted against moving forward.”
A border wall, he added, would be nonsense, something Cruz has mostly supported.
“A nation of walls, 2,000 miles long, 30-feet high and a cost of $30 billion,” O’Rourke said to applause. “And as you know, those walls, they won’t be built on the international boundary between the United States and Mexico, which is the middle of the Rio Grande river channel. It’ll be built through the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, it will be built through somebody’s ranch, or farm or home, forcing this country to use its power of eminent domain to take its own citizens’ property to construct a wall that by any measure we do not need.”
Just last week, the Department of Homeland Security issued a waiver to certain laws to ensure “the expeditious construction of barriers and roads near the international border in the state of Texas, in the county of Hidalgo.”
O’Rourke, who will return to McAllen on Thursday for a CNN town hall, referenced other local issues, such as there being no Veterans Affairs hospital near McAllen, something he said a senator should put an emphasis on. Kennedy, for his part, understands the region more than other members of congress far from the border.
He was in Pharr within the last couple years for the opening of Kennedy Middle School, and in 2008 with his uncle, former U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, campaigning for then-nominee Barack Obama. The Valley has supported Kennedy too, and on Saturday large groups of supporters wore shirts that read “Viva Beto” on the front, and “Viva Kennedy” on the back.
“My family feels a very special connection to the Rio Grande Valley,” Kennedy said. “This is an area that my family has campaigned in for a long time.”
O’Rourke went a bit further.
“The border,” O’Rourke said on stage. “It’s effing amazing.”