Beto O'Rourke's Journey From Childhood To Political Star

The following article includes brief references to gun violence.

Beto O'Rourke has become a household name in politics ever since his high-profile run for the Senate in 2018. But that name isn't the same one that appeared on his birth certificate: born Robert Francis O'Rourke, he was given the nickname by his politician father, Pat O'Rourke. "I was painfully shy growing up, and it may have been a byproduct of my father's gregariousness and the fact that he was in public life and in politics," Beto later told Politico Magazine, describing his late dad's status as a local hero.

In a radio ad, Texas' incumbent Senator Ted Cruz accused his political rival of deliberately going by Beto instead of Robert to appeal to Latino voters. In response, the Democrat shared a childhood picture of himself on Twitter wearing a "Beto" sweater to prove that he'd always used the nickname. Meanwhile, CNN was quick to point out that Cruz's own first name is actually Rafael, seemingly implying that he had allegedly changed it to sound less Hispanic. During a 2018 town hall, Beto explained that his nickname was a popular one in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, the population of which is mostly Mexican American. He added, "That's just part of who I am and where I'm from."

Keep reading to find out more about the man giving hope to Texas Democrats and how Beto O'Rourke went from punk rock to politics.

Beto O'Rourke was part of a hacker group

As a teenager, Beto O'Rourke published his own stories and musings on message boards as part of the Cult of the Dead Cow, a very early and exclusive hacking group. According to a 2019 book called "Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World," the future politician was interested in technology from an early age. "When Dad bought an Apple IIe and a 300-baud modem and I started to get on boards, it was the Facebook of its day," O'Rourke explained, per Reuters

Named after an abattoir in Texas, the group coined the term "hacktivism" and shared underground media through online bulletin boards. In the age of dial-up, this admittedly required kids like O'Rourke to gain access to long-distance phone service through not-so-legal means. "There's just this profound value in being able to be apart from the system and look at it critically and have fun," he said. O'Rourke also pushed for the group to include its first female member, who later stated her appreciation as this was a rarity at the time.

"I was really at the margins, but I very much wanted to be as cool as these people," O'Rourke reflected. "I never was, but it meant so much just being able to be a part of something with them." After college, the Texas Democrat's background in computers led him to start his own software company Stanton Street Technology, per KFOX 14. As a politician, he later campaigned to protect net neutrality.

He was a punk rocker

Beto O'Rourke has been open about his background in the music world: as Spin reported, he was drawn to the scrappy underdog nature of punk rock as a teen and later founded the band Foss as a bassist. He also played in a punk cover band called Sheeps, who wore sheep masks and onesies for their performances. Ted Cruz seemingly attempted to embarrass him during their battle for a Senate seat in the 2018 midterms by tweeting out a picture from his past, where O'Rourke was wearing a floral dress with his band — which only sparked further interest in his time as a musician.

In an interview on "Late Night with Seth Meyers," O'Rourke insisted that his punk rock roots weren't incongruous with his political career. "This campaign at its best has a do-it-yourself ethic and spirit," he explained, noting that they "don't take a dime from a single political action committee or corporation or special interest or lobbyist," unlike other politicians. "It's all people all the time, driving from one town to the next: showing up, telling our story but listening to the stories of others — which is kind of like touring in a punk rock band in the 1990s, a little bit." 

O'Rourke admitted that he's traveling in a slightly nicer vehicle nowadays, however, describing the so-called "lumber wagon" his band used to pile into with their instruments, amps, and one change of clothes each.

Beto O'Rourke's been open about his criminal record

Beto O'Rourke's political rivals have criticized him for his criminal record, but the Democrat has insisted that he has nothing to hide. O'Rourke got a burglary charge for jumping a fence at El Paso's University of Texas campus in 1995, per AP News, and a charge for drunk driving three years later. Both were later dismissed. 

"I've been arrested twice in my life," O'Rourke stated at a campaign event in 2020 (via NBC News). Noting the seriousness of both charges, he called the DUI a "far more serious and far more grave a mistake." The politician also admitted how lucky he was that his family could post bail in both cases, and that these instances didn't affect his future. Prior to this, a Republican super PAC used his mugshot in a 2018 attack ad, accusing him of lying about his drunk driving and leaving the scene. "I did not flee," O'Rourke clarified in his response, per The Texas Tribune, adding that the other passenger backed up his recollection. 

But he's also continued to speak about the severity of that particular charge, as The Dallas Morning News reported. "There is no excuse and there's nothing I can say, other than that was very stupid of me and I showed really poor judgment, bad judgment," O'Rourke admitted. "I hope in those 20 years I have been able to contribute to this community. But there is just no excusing for that."

The politician met his wife on a blind date in Mexico

During Beto O'Rourke's first date with his wife, Amy O'Rourke, they crossed the border to a restaurant in Mexico. According to AP News, the pair had been set up on a blind date and the politician decided to take her to Juarez for margaritas, dinner, and a trip to the city's cathedral.

"She felt really good in Juarez," Beto explained of their 2004 meet-cute. "That's a great test of people for me. If you don't like that, that's fine. But we're probably not going to hit it off." He insisted that as a Texan living in El Paso, he really valued the town's connection to the Mexican cities just across the border. "We're really one community, and it's beautiful. It's nothing to be ashamed of, defensive about or wall off." His hometown pride didn't stop there. Recounting how she had only recently moved back into the area, Amy later told Vanity Fair, "He was giving me reasons 1 through 10 of why I needed to stay in El Paso. And I quickly learned that he just is an ultimate El Paso salesman."

The pair already had a serendipitous connection: In the '60s, Beto's mother, Melissa O'Rourke, went on a double date with Bill Sanders, Amy's entrepreneur father. While she ended up marrying the other man on that double date, Pat O'Rourke, the couple's families still came together when Beto and Amy got married in 2005 at her dad's ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico — not long after Beto joined El Paso's City Council.

Beto O'Rourke live-streamed a road trip with his political rival

In 2017 (during his third and final term in the House of Representatives), Beto O'Rourke raised his profile after snowy weather forced him and Republican Congressman Will Hurd to drive a rented car across the country for a vote in Washington, D.C. — and they took their road trip debates to Facebook Live.

During the 1,600-mile journey from San Antonio, the pair spoke about music, healthcare, their shared resistance to a U.S.-Mexico border wall, and fast food. They soon gained a large audience as other politicians and members of the public wrote in with their own questions and comments, which shifted from aggressive to genuinely curious. "The fact that people really changed the kind of language they were using while they were commenting at us was pretty cool," Hurd told Fox 5 DC when their car arrived. O'Rourke added, "I learned something — and this is a guy I can work with. It just happens that we're on opposite sides of the aisle."

The trip also made Hurd and O'Rourke the first Texans to win the National Press Club's Prize for Civility in Public Life. "At a time where so many people wonder whether our institutions still work, whether members of Congress still listen to the people they represent, whether a Republican and a Democrat can get along and work together," O'Rourke explained during the livestream (via El Paso Times), "I thought, let's try to prove the concept." Though they had been able to reach an agreement on some issues, Medicare remained a point of contention.

He got the most votes ever cast for a Democrat in Texas

After opting not to run for a fourth term in the House of Representatives, Beto O'Rourke narrowly lost to Republican incumbent Ted Cruz in his 2018 Senate bid, receiving 48.3% of the vote compared to Cruz at 50.9%. "I am as inspired, I'm as hopeful as I have ever been in my life, and tonight's loss does nothing to diminish the way that I feel about Texas or this country," O'Rourke told supporters after his loss, per ABC News. His campaign still made a significant impact, however, as he broke fundraising records, influenced a ripple effect of Democrat wins around the country, and toured all 254 counties in Texas.

As O'Rourke later explained to Seth Meyers, the latter move was unfortunately a rarity among politicians in the Lone Star State. "No matter how small, or red, or rural, we showed up there, too, because we didn't want to write you off," O'Rourke insisted. "... One place, Archer County, that we went to, no candidate for Senate from either party had shown up in 70 years," he told Meyers, adding that the last time had been "when [Lyndon B. Johnson] dropped out of the sky in a helicopter in 1948, landed on the courthouse grounds, and walked over to the American Legion Hall." 

According to the politician, who nabbed the most votes ever cast for a Democrat in Texas' history, his aim was to hear everybody out. "It was really an extraordinary election," O'Rourke added.

Beto O'Rourke ended his 2020 presidential run by endorsing Biden

After his highly publicized race against Ted Cruz, Beto O'Rourke decided that he had enough momentum to mount a presidential campaign for the 2020 election in March 2019. But he dropped out only eight months later, explaining that the Democratic Party needed to put all of its effort behind one single nominee with enough support to defeat then-President Donald Trump

"Though it is difficult to accept, it is clear to me now that this campaign does not have the means to move forward successfully," he wrote in part in a statement published by CNN. "... I'm confident I will see you down the road, and I look forward to that day." Later, at a rally held in Dallas, O'Rourke took to the stage alongside future President Joe Biden to officially declare his endorsement. "Ladies and gentlemen, tomorrow, March 3, 2020, I will be casting my ballot for Joe Biden," he told the crowd (via Fox News), adding that Biden was the "antithesis of Donald Trump," and therefore the most appropriate candidate. 

For his part, Biden also insisted that he would continue to work with O'Rourke, singling out the issue of gun control. "I'm gonna guarantee you, this is not the last you're seeing of this guy — you're gonna take care of the gun problem with me, you're gonna be the one who leads this effort," the future POTUS announced. "I'm counting on you, I'm counting on you, we need you badly."

His gun control promises are controversial

Beto O'Rourke has made enemies in his home state with his approach to gun control. In contrast to most Texas politicians, O'Rourke has called for background checks, a red flag law system, safe storage and child access prevention laws, and better domestic violence reporting laws, per his website. "I'm proud of Texas' long tradition of responsible gun ownership," he wrote, describing how he was taught how to use guns safely as a child. "... To uphold that tradition, we must change how easy it is for people to use firearms irresponsibly." Citing statistics about gun violence, O'Rourke continued: "While it might not be the easy or politically safe thing to say, I don't believe any civilian should own an AR-15 or AK-47."

When he was confronted about this opinion and his proposed policy to buy back assault weapons in a 2019 presidential debate, O'Rourke memorably replied: "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47 — we're not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore." He also infamously crashed a forum in May 2022 to confront Texas Governor (and political rival) Greg Abbott about the Uvalde school shooting, per The Texas Tribune

"This is on you until you choose to do something different. ... Somebody needs to stand up for the children of this state or they will continue to be killed," O'Rourke reportedly shouted at Ted Cruz and Uvalde Mayor Don MacLaughlin, the latter of whom apparently replied, "I can't believe you're a sick son of a b***h that would come to a deal like this to make a political issue."

Beto O'Rourke helped out in the 2021 winter storms

During Ted Cruz's controversial vacation to Cancun amid the fatal Texas winter storms in February 2021, Beto O'Rourke was praised for organizing hundreds of thousands of calls. Power was lost throughout the state and the storms caused an estimated 246 deaths, so Texans were justifiably outraged when pictures of Cruz in an airport appeared online. "With school canceled for the week, our girls asked to take a trip with friends," the Republican senator later explained, per NBC News, claiming that he just wanted to be a good father by taking his family to Mexico and noting, "It was obviously a mistake and in hindsight, I wouldn't have done it." Following severe backlash, Cruz returned to Houston by himself, adding, "I understand why people are upset."

For his part, O'Rourke criticized his former rival on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" at the time, observing that, "[Cruz] is vacationing in Cancun right now when people are literally freezing to death in the state that he was elected to represent and serve." The Democrat, who would go on to run for governor in 2022, not only stayed in the state but also ran a phone bank with online volunteers to check on vulnerable senior citizens during the emergency. 

"BIG THANKS to the volunteers who made over 784,000 phone calls to senior citizens in Texas today," O'Rourke wrote in part on Twitter. "You helped to connect them with water, food, transportation, and shelter. And you made sure that they knew we were thinking about them and that they matter to us."