Before Beto O’Rourke became the darling of liberal online donors, his top financial backers hailed from a different set entirely — wealthy businessmen who have sought political influence by collectively donating millions of dollars to Republicans.
Several of El Paso’s richest business moguls donated to and raised money for O’Rourke’ s city council campaigns, drawn to his support for a plan to redevelop El Paso’s poorer neighborhoods. Some later backed a super PAC that would play a key role in helping him defeat an incumbent Democratic congressman.
For his part, O’Rourke worked on issues that had the potential to make money for some of his benefactors. His support as a council member for the redevelopment plan, which sparked controversy at the time because it involved relocating low-income residents, many of them Hispanic, coincided with property investments by some of his benefactors.
As a congressman, he supported a $2 billion military funding increase that benefited a company controlled by another major donor. That donor, real estate developer Woody Hunt, was friends with O’Rourke’s late father. Hunt also co-founded and funds an El Paso nonprofit organization that has employed O’Rourke’s wife since 2016.
“We shared a common goal,” said Ted Houghton, a local financial adviser and longtime O’Rourke donor who raised money for former Texas governor Rick Perry, a Republican, and helped steer millions in state transportation funding to the city. “The common goal was we needed to move El Paso in a different direction.”
O’Rourke, who emerged in 2018 as a national Democratic sensation in his narrow loss to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, launched his campaign for president on Thursday promising a new era of unity as he campaigned through small towns in eastern Iowa. The Iowa caucuses in early February will kick off the 2020 primary season.
In contrast to the aspirational image he has fostered in recent years, however, O’Rourke’s political career traced a more traditional path for a Texas politician — winning support from a typically pro-GOP business establishment interested in swaying public policy. Born into one politically potent family and married into another, he benefited repeatedly from his relationships with El Paso’s most powerful residents, including several nationally known Republican moneymen.
The former congressman’s GOP ties are likely to become an issue as he enters a crowded Democratic presidential primary field that has so far leaned leftward. Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders have already criticized O’Rourke’s voting record as insufficiently liberal.
Republicans are also piling on. A recent ad by the Club for Growth, a conservative group with a focus on cutting taxes, described O’Rourke’s pushing a redevelopment scheme “to bulldoze a poor Hispanic neighborhood.”
“O’Rourke, because of his charisma, can kind of pull off some of this behind-the-scenes power peddling,” said El Paso historian and activist David Romo, who has long opposed the business community’s push to redevelop downtown. “He was the pretty face in the really ugly gentrification plan that negatively affected the most vulnerable people in El Paso.”
O’Rourke and his allies did not see it that way. At the start of his career, O’Rourke went door-to-door to sell the plan, crafted by the Paso Del Norte Group, a dues-paying alliance of business and community leaders on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
O’Rourke, his mother, his wife and his father-in-law, William Sanders — one of the most prominent real estate investors in the country — had all been members of the group, which included many of the financial backers of O’Rourke’s early campaigns. Sanders led a private investment group that was buying up downtown properties, as some other donors to O’Rourke’s campaigns were doing.
The plan initially called for seizing land in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods through eminent domain — the same tactic that O’Rourke has opposed as part of the Trump administration’s plan to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. Faced with accusations of a potential conflict of interest, O’Rourke eventually agreed to recuse himself from city council votes on the plan, which was later shelved as real estate struggled during the 2008 recession.
The local business leaders who have supported O’Rourke’s career say they were brought together by a common vision for improving the city.
It is a mission that until recently was the north star of O’Rourke’s political career.
“There was this point where it really came into focus how exceptional this community is, the people, the border, the connection to the rest of the world,” O’Rourke told The Washington Post. “I’ve worked hard to try to make sure that every El Pasoan could benefit from living in a thriving binational community.”
The son of a local Democratic-turned-Republican politician and a furniture store owner, O’Rourke has described his childhood as beset by disillusionment with his hometown.
El Paso had once been a prosperous city with a thriving middle class, buoyed when a civil war drove a wave of wealthy Mexicans north into Texas in the 1920s. But when O’Rourke was young, the city found itself in decline, with many downtown buildings vacant or blighted and an economy focused on low-wage labor.
When O’Rourke moved home several years after college in 1998 and started an Internet services and software company, two local Democratic politicians who would become his political mentors were beginning to put the pieces in place for the city’s rebirth. Future mayor Ray Caballero and then-state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh crafted a plan in the late 1990s to attract educated professionals, particularly in the areas of medical research and education.
The state’s political power structure at the time was dominated by Republicans, so the Democrats began to recruit local business leaders to the cause.
They included Hunt and oil refining billionaire Paul Foster, who would become fundraisers and donors for Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his successor, Perry. Both continue to be major donors to Republicans. In the 2018 election cycle, Hunt gave more than $1 million to Republican efforts to keep control of the U.S. House and Senate. Foster gave more than $2.5 million. Sanders, who joined the effort later, has previously given money to Cruz and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“It was really important to get these high-roller political types involved,” Caballero said of the early efforts to influence the state capitol.
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Source: Texas Tribune