At a Texas State town hall, college enthusiasm for O'Rourke was on display

Texas State students who went to O'Rourke's town hall said they are fired up about a candidate who takes the time to speak and listen to them.

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, speaks to college students at a town hall event in San Marcos on Sept. 9, 2018. Holly He/The Texas Tribune

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SAN MARCOS — Sunday was a day of college visits for U.S. Rep Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, as he spoke to packed town halls of university students here and in College Station.

“It’s young people who are leading the charge right now in Texas, here in this community, and across the country,” the El Paso congressman told hundreds at an auditorium at Texas State University. “If I hope to serve and represent you, I’ve got to first show up and be here.”

Students had lined up two hours ahead of time to see O’Rourke take the stage, as others peeked inside the auditorium for a glimpse.

Wearing a maroon Texas State cap, O'Rourke told the crowd to have “uncomfortable conversations with your Republican mother,” just as O’Rourke did with his own mom.

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“It worked,” he said, “because she’s going to vote for me in November.”

O’Rourke’s campaign, which he said is operating the largest field organization in the history of Texas politics, has drawn much of its core support from college campuses like this one.

Yunuen Alvarado, a junior whose campus group, Student Community of Progressive Empowerment, helped bring the candidate to Texas State, said O'Rourke's efforts to travel around the state and meet with Texans at town halls like this one have won him strong support on campus.

“A lot of candidates don’t tend to focus on young people, they don’t make the effort to go out to talk to people,” she said, adding that “for Beto, that’s his brand. Yes, he’s a politician, but he’s willing to listen to us.”

Rhett Parr, another Texas State student, said that left-leaning students were fired up behind his campaign after feelings of disillusionment following the 2016 presidential election.

Hays County, home to Texas State University and the college town of San Marcos, went narrowly in 2016 to Donald Trump, who edged out Hillary Clinton by less than one percentage point.

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“Students are excited to actually put their voice to use and feel like it matters,” Parr said.

During the town hall, O’Rourke answered questions about what he thinks about impeaching Trump, how to address the wealth gap between African-Americans and whites and whether he supports Betsy DeVos’ efforts to bring guns to campuses (“No,” he said).

One man in the audience, who asked a question about school choice, said he identifies as a “Mexican-American conservative” and said it was important to come out and listen to a progressive candidate.

Speaking to reporters before going onstage, O’Rourke said he wants to attract all sorts of young voters — Democrats, Republicans, and independents — as well as those who have never voted at all.

“I’m struck by the number of young people who don’t think of themselves in partisan terms,” he told reporters before appearing onstage. “Political parties, for them, are a vestige of the 20th century.”

For others, though, O’Rourke’s star power was enough.

Toward the end of the town hall, a senior who identified herself as Kiely and said she was studying political science, started shaking as she went to the mic to ask a question about O’Rourke’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Oh my god, sorry,” she gasped. “Holy shit.”

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