Beto O'Rourke Biography: Progressive Politician From Texas

Rising Democrat Was Narrowly Defeated in Senate Run in Red State

Beto O'Rourke
Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas addresses a campaign rally in Austin in 2018.

 Chip Somodevilla / Staff

Beto O’Rourke (born Robert Francis O’Rourke on Sept. 26, 1972) is a Texas politician whose progressive politics, enthusiastic following on the campaign trail, and aspirations to the presidency have earned him comparisons to a Kennedy and a young Obama. O’Rourke is a former businessman who served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives before embarking on what would be the most expensive, yet unsuccessful, campaign for U.S. Senate in the midterm elections of President Donald Trump’s first term.

Fast Facts: Beto O'Rourke

  • Full Name: Robert Francis O’Rourke
  • Known For: American politician and potential presidential hopeful. His unsuccessful campaign against Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was the most expensive in the 2018 congressional midterm elections, costing $80 million.
  • Born: Sept. 26, 1972, in El Paso, Texas
  • Parents: Pat and Melissa O’Rourke
  • Spouse: Amy Hoover Sanders
  • Children: Ulysses, Henry and Molly
  • Education: Columbia University, bachelor of arts degree in English literature, 1995.
  • Famous Quote: "I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, any time, anywhere, in any place."
  • Fun Fact: O'Rourke played bass in a punk band called Foss.

Early Years and an Unusual Nickname for an Irish Kid

O’Rourke was born in El Paso, Texas, the son of Pat and Melissa O’Rourke. His father was in politics, serving as a Democratic county commissioner and judge before switching parties and mounting an unsuccessful campaign for Congress. His mother worked in a furniture store. O’Rourke’s family had immigrated from Ireland four generations before, but the young man went by "Beto"—short for Roberto in Mexico. “My parents have called me Beto from day one, and it’s just—it’s kind of a nickname for Robert in El Paso. It just stuck,” he has said.

As a young man, O'Rourke often accompanied his politician father around town. He told an interviewer in 2018 that he and his father were far apart in their enjoyment of glad-handing and schmoozing. “He had this real joy in public life, in meeting people and representing people,” the younger O’Rourke recalled about his father. "In some ways, I really hated it. It was the kind of stuff you don’t want to do when you are 10 years old, unless you were really into that. And I wasn’t. I was an awkward and shy kid, so it was the last thing I wanted to do, but now I can look back and bless my experience in it.”

As a young teen in high school, O'Rourke sought distance from his father by transferring from the public high school in El Paso to an all-male boarding school in Virginia, Woodberry Forest. After graduation he entered Columbia University in New York, where he majored in English literature, worked at a publishing house, and wrote fiction while playing bass with a punk band with some friends.

After graduating from college, O'Rourke moved back to El Paso in 1998, and co-founded a software and technology company called Stanton Street Technology Group. He also became a partner in a real-estate firm and invested in property in his home town.

Political Career

O'Rourke was catapulted to political fame with his folksy 2018 bid for U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz—he livestreamed a 254-county tour of Texas—and his accessibility in the House. He was popular with small-money donors and progressive activists, much the way Bernie Sanders was in running for president in 2016.

But his political career began on a much smaller level, as a member of El Paso city council from 2005 to 2011. It was during his tenure on city council that he became involved in a controversy that placed him squarely between the interests of his wealthy investor father-in-law and the angry residents and small businesses he was elected to represent. O'Rourke sided with his father-in-law and publicly supported the plan to replace tenements and boarded-up buildings in downtown El Paso with restaurants, shops and an arts walk, a move that angered his constituents.

His first step into the national political spotlight came in the May 2012 Democratic congressional primary in Texas, when O'Rourke knocked off an eight-term incumbent who had been endorsed by President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes. O'Rourke was elected that year to represent the 16th Congressional District in El Paso.

O'Rourke served three two-year terms in Congress, and had several pieces of legislation signed into law. One was the “Honor Our Commitment Act,” which expanded mental health care to veterans with “other-than-honorable” discharges from the military. 

He did not seek re-election to the House in 2018 and chose instead to challenge Cruz for one of the state's seats in the U.S. Senate. Cruz narrowly won the race, which in an of itself was shocking because Texas is overwhelmingly Republican. O'Rourke, though defeated, had accomplished much by running so close to an entrenched incumbent.

O'Rourke has said he is weighing a run for president in 2020.

Personal Life and Wealth

O'Rourke married his wife, Amy, in 2005. She is the daughter of wealthy real estate mogul William “Bill” Sanders. The O'Rourkes have three children: Ulysses, Molly and Henry. 

The Center for Responsive Politics estimated Beto O’Rourke’s net worth as $9.1 million in 2016. His net worth and familial ties to a wealthy real estate investor made him an unlikely star among young progressives in 2018.

Arrests

O’Rourke has been relatively open about facing criminal charges—one for drunk driving and another for breaking into a facility at the University of Texas at El Paso. Both cases have been used against him by political opponents.

In the drunk-driving case, from September 1998, O’Rourke was allegedly driving at a high rate of speed when he crashed his car about a mile from the Texas border with New Mexico. A breath-test administered by police found O’Rourke’s blood-alcohol level was above the legal threshold, 0.10 percent. The 26-year-old’s reading was a high of 0.136, according to published reports. The charge was later dismissed after O’Rourke completed a court-approved program. He has described the DUI as a “serious mistake for which there is no excuse.”

Three years earlier, in 1995, O’Rourke had been charged with attempted forcible entry to the physical plant at the University of Texas at El Paso, where he was a student. He spent a night in the El Paso County Jail, made bail the next day and was released. The charge was later dropped. "I along with some friends were horsing around, and we snuck under the fence at the UTEP physical plant and set off an alarm. We were arrested by UTEP police. ... UTEP decided not to press charges. We weren't intending to do any harm," he has been quoted saying.

Sources and Further Reading