AUSTIN, Texas — The patio of the historic Scholz Garten in Downtown Austin was filled to its 500 person capacity Friday night for a meet-and-greet with presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke.
O'Rourke was coming off a debate performance in Miami some described as lackluster but was enthusiastic on stage in front of his supporters.
He started out talking about voting and energizing young Democrats.
"Before this campaign, Texas had ranked 50th in voter turnout in the country," O'Rourke said. "Not because we love our democracy any less than anyone else in any other state in the Union, but because we were literally drawn that way. Our state legislature, because Gina [Hinojosa] was not in the majority, drew people out based on their race and their ethnicity from a congressional district to diminish the power of their vote."
O'Rourke didn't shy away from mentioning his failed Senate run against Senator Ted Cruz and instead used it to motivate voters.
"At the end of the day, though we did not defeat Ted Cruz, we won more votes than any Democrat in the history of the State of Texas," O'Rourke said. "It'll take a movement like the one we started here in Texas, like the one that we led together, to defeat Donald Trump. To bring this divided country back together again. And to make sure that we confront the greatest set of challenges that this country has ever faced. And that we do it together."
O'Rourke spent the majority of his time on stage talking about the conditions and treatment of migrant children. He told supporters about his trip this week to a detention center in Homestead, Florida, where he said children were living in tents that he likened to what you would keep prisoners of war in, not children.
"Those kids, even if they are siblings, are not allowed to touch each other. Imagine that," O'Rourke said. "You're suffering, not knowing if and when you will see your folks again...and you're walking in single file line, in a uniform they gave you and there's your brother, walking in the opposite direction. You are punished if you acknowledge him or touch him or have any kind of human contact with him."
O'Rourke gave supporters a laundry list of things he would change if he were elected, from teacher pay and gun safety reforms to legalizing marijuana and reforming the criminal justice system.
"The racism that we see in our criminal justice system is reflective of the foundational racism that we see across this country," he said.
There were some tense moments when a man approached O'Rourke on stage, initially handing him a beer but then pulling on him during a handshake. The man left without incident, and O'Rourke returned the beer to him on his way out.
After speaking, O'Rourke stuck around to take photos and talk with the supporters.
He then took questions from reporters, further discussing his immigration policy ideas.
"I want to make sure that we never again cage kids, put them in these tent camps, inflict this kind of suffering and cruelty on them," he said. "In my administration, we will not criminally prosecute any family, any child, any man, any woman who is fleeing violence or persecution."
O'Rourke said he would be more outspoken in the next debate and challenge mischaracterizations of his ideas, but added, "I'm not running against any of those other candidates. I'm running for this country."
He now heads to Houston, where he will host two events Saturday. Sunday, he's asking people to join him for a protest in Clint, Texas outside the detention center that's been in the news lately for the mistreatment of migrant children.
At the same time as O'Rourke's event in Austin, opponent Julian Castro was also courting the city's Democratic voters.
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