2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke addresses a crowd at a café near the University of Nevada-Reno on April 25, 2019 (Harrison Blackman).

Late-stage Betomania in Reno

The once-darling candidate makes his case in purple Nevada

On April 25, 2019, at 10:29 AM, Beto O’Rourke arrived at a café just a block from the University of Nevada-Reno. On this particularly brilliant spring Nevada day, he parked a rental car, a Ford Fusion with Eco-Boost. A crowd of about a hundred had gathered within and around the tiny café to hear from the 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful.

Immediately upon exiting the vehicle, O’Rourke donned a UNR Wolfpack cap and greeted the café manager.

“Bibo, right?” O’Rourke asked, shaking the man’s hand. “Beto.”

Known for his proclivity for shouting and standing on tables, O’Rourke proceeded to do just that. In fact, the café his campaign had chosen for this first stop in Northern Nevada was eminently suited for his purposes.

Bibo Coffee Company’s Records Street location is an edgy joint known for distressed furniture, zero WiFi availability, and the frequent broadcasting of punk rock. Its proximity to the Union Pacific railroad also allows for some curious scenes. A half-hour before O’Rourke arrived, a train stopped on the tracks, an engineer climbed out, heading for the café. A few minutes later, the engineer climbed back aboard, iced coffee in hand, and continued eastward.

But — the tables. O’Rourke took the ADA ramp to the café’s outdoor deck and perched himself on a picnic table where I think I worked on a short story, once. This was where he began.

“I’m here perhaps for the same reason you are here,” Beto said. “We have not faced a greater set of challenges in our lives, perhaps in the life of this country.”

Perhaps it is also the greatest challenge for Beto. After he became a household name in his unsuccessful Senate bid to unseat Ted Cruz, after he started a Medium blog in which he described being in a post-campaign ‘funk,’ after a fawning New York Times Magazine feature on his punk rock roots, and after Beto launched his campaign with a splashy Vanity Fair cover story, in which he apparently said he “was born to be in it” — Beto is struggling to keep up with the insanely-deep Democratic field.

By mid-April 2019, Bernie Sanders had raised almost $21 million. Getting out of the gate far earlier than O’Rourke, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have both out-fundraised him. In particular, the rise of Pete Buttigieg, the youthful mayor of South Bend, has displaced O’Rourke’s uncanny media star power. To make matters more difficult for Beto, the day he spoke at UNR, Joe Biden launched his campaign.

Beto O’Rourke arrives at Bibo Coffee and dons the Wolfpack hat (Harrison Blackman).

And so it is interesting how Beto has synthesized all the talking points of his competitors. At UNR, Beto talked about healthcare-for-all, the border and the children placed in cages, climate change, women’s rights, gerrymandering; he even talked about the president’s Mueller Report-related offenses, which he carefully framed as “grounds for impeachment.” Having hired one of Obama’s top campaign managers last month, Beto seems to position himself as this election’s vague “Hope” and “Change” candidate, an approach that seemed to work almost well enough in his Senate race (he still lost by 2.6 points). And so he said things like this:

“We have an economy that works too well for too few, does not work at all for too many. Folks working two or three jobs just to make ends meet, to put food on the table, to meet the note on their mortgage, to try to pay down some of that student loan debt that they accrued trying to improve themselves for this country, and then perhaps the greatest challenge of them all, because of the scale no one, faces not just this country, but the entire planet, civilization as we know it, the human race, climate change, that has warmed this planet maybe a degree Celsius just since 1980, and will continue to warm and produce the disasters caused not by God, not by nature, but by all of us — our emissions, our excesses, our inaction in the face of the science. We know that this will become much worse, and much worse for our kids, and our grandkids, especially if we don’t take action at this moment, this defining moment of truth.”

O’Rourke talked about everything. He talked in a fluid, energetic, run-on style that was interesting to listen to — at first. As soon as you thought you had caught up with one chunk of clever rhetoric he moved on to the next set-piece, so you could never really process what he was saying. The more he spoke, the more his phrases grew monotonous in aggregate, and his animated talking points merged into each other, a river of charming progressivism in isolation; overwhelming and almost incomprehensible when unloaded all at once.

Viewed from his perch under the Nevada sun, I could also see the candidate in a more ‘complete’ light. Before his rhetoric became exhausting, all the rumors of the Kennedy vibes seemed to ring true. He wore a crisp white button-down plucked straight from Massachusetts, but his blue chinos and dark shoes seemed rugged enough to evoke nouveau-Western charm. He even made sure to turn ever so slightly as he spoke so that we could all see, photograph and Instagram him. As for his hands, it seems he has toned them down since he announced his campaign, since President Trump declared, ironically, he’d “never seen so much hand movement.”

Still, O’Rourke might be a good fit for Nevada voters. He looks like a Romney Republican and talks like a Democrat. Nevada’s swing-state, deeply-purple status and early caucus could thus help Beto out in the early going.

“[Reno] reminds me of my hometown of El Paso, in the mountains, in the desert, along the river, [an] incredibly beautiful community,” Beto stated during the Q&A which followed inside the café, making a geographic connection he can’t force in every location he visits.

However, during Beto’s Q&A, I managed to take a closer look at his rental Ford, no doubt a meditated choice. If Mr. O’Rourke’s staff really knew Reno and its current demographics, they would have sprung for a Subaru.

A dwindling crowd listens to Beto’s Q&A inside Bibo Coffee Company’s Records Street location (Harrison Blackman).

As Beto concluded with a gracias, the crowd began to disperse, except for the loyal contingent who waited in line for selfies. Next to me, a woman lauded Beto’s talent for public speaking.

As for the nineteen-year-old Salvatore Ficarrotta III, a freshman at UNR studying tuba performance and neuroscience, he beamed when emerging from the Q&A, where Beto had answered his question about indifference in politics — and wished him a happy birthday.

“I loved the answer to my question,” Ficarrotta said, in awe of his ‘Beto Birthday.’ The student, who is from Las Vegas, said he’ll actually vote for Beto, as he has come to view O’Rourke as a “fabled warrior from Texas.”

The afterglow was not shared by all. Before departing, I asked a fan who lingered at the rally if she’d vote for Beto.

“By this point,” she said, “I’d vote for a wet mop.”

This is the first post in an creative nonfiction (opinion) series about presidential candidates visiting UNR. You can read the second post, about Bernie Sanders’ September 2019 visit to UNR, here.

Essays on film, politics, and storytelling. Learn more at www.harrisonblackman.com/ and https://harrisonblackman.substack.com/.

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