Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke visits Chapel Hill

CHAPEL HILL—Donning a Carolina hat and starting a “Tar Heels” chant, Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke called for unity on climate change and a number of other issues in a town-hall style speech Monday at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

O’Rourke, who declared his candidacy for president in March, said that humans have just ten years to confront climate change before it is too late and need to act accordingly. 

In front of hundreds of onlookers in a nearly full FPG Student Union, O'Rourke called for increasing investment in renewable energy, "freeing ourselves from fossil fuels" and taking more responsibility to get other nations to fight climate change, among other things. 

“The very youngest among us, perhaps more than the oldest, understand that if we fail to confront climate change now, while there is still time…the fires, the devastation and the loss of life that we are already seeing in record numbers in this year of 2019 will continue and will be only be exponentially worse, more destructive and more deadly for our fellow humans,” O’Rourke said. “If we are going to do this it cannot be by half measure. It cannot be with only half the country.”

O’Rourke is attempting to separate himself from a deep field of Democratic hopefuls vying to unseat President Donald Trump in 2020. The former Texas Representative—whose near-victory against incumbent Senator Ted Cruz in 2018 pushed him to national prominence—is sitting in fourth in the latest national polling. 

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is leading the way with 29%, with former Vice President Joe Biden at 24%, South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 9% and O'Rourke at 8%. Traditionally a swing state, North Carolina played a pivotal role in the 2016 election.

O’Rourke kicked off his first full day campaigning in North Carolina by visiting Charlotte, Greensboro and then Chapel Hill to close the day—by the end of which he was dripping with sweat. 

Before his day ended in Chapel Hill, O’Rourke touched on a number of key issues, including immigration, climate change, gun control, wealth inequality, gerrymandering and the divided country. North Carolina was forcefully hit by Hurricanes Matthew and Florence in recent years—something O’Rourke linked to climate change. 

“This only gets much worse if continued emissions and excesses and inaction are not met with our courage and our understanding of science and the facts involved,” O’Rourke said. 

The 46-year-old native of El Paso, Texas, called for the United States to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, which Trump withdrew the nation from. O’Rourke spoke glowingly of freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal,” an economic plan intended to tackle climate change and economic inequality.

O’Rourke also spoke of the issue of gerrymandering—an issue of relevance with redistricting set to follow the 2020 census and one that has been highly contested in courts. North Carolina's congressional districts were ruled racial gerrymanders in 2016. Once again, gerrymandering in North Carolina has seen itself back in the Supreme Court after a district court struck down the state's 2016 congressional maps for being an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. 

O’Rourke called for a number of reforms, including a new Voting Rights Act, same day and automatic voter registration, as well as citizen-led redistricting commissions to fight gerrymandering.  

On a national level, O’Rourke called for “universal, high quality health care” that includes “world-class” mental health care. As for education, he said he aims to achieve debt-free higher education, free pre-kindergarten and free community college. 

How to pay for some of these reforms? Raising taxes and ending expensive foreign wars, among other things. 

On immigration, O’Rourke called Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy “tantamount to torture.” 

In 2018, the Trump administration announced that all who crossed the border illegally would be prosecuted—even asylum seekers. This led to children being separated en masse from their families because children cannot be held in federal prisons. 

“We must vow to never again to take another child from another parent,” O’Rourke said, also calling for comprehensive immigration reform that included freeing “Dreamers” from free of deportation by making them citizens. 

He blamed Trump in part for America’s “historic divisions,” saying Trump seeks to “make us angry and afraid and keep us apart based upon race, ethnicity, faith or geography.” O’Rourke called for Americans to embrace their differences. 

Elisabeth Convery, a senior at a local high school, said before the event that she was trying to decide between O’Rourke and fellow Democratic contender Cory Booker. Convery said O’Rourke is a “very charismatic candidate” and said that his campaign was “grassroots.” 

In response to a question about how to get young Americans enthusiastic about politics, O’Rourke expressed that he was not concerned about young people’s engagement. Nearly every major change in American history was “purchased by the sacrifice of young people," O’Rourke said. 

“Every issue that matters, I find the greatest urgency, leadership and action and energy from young people,” O’Rourke said, later noting a large increase in young voter turnout in Texas in the 2018 midterms. “So I don’t know that I’m worried about young people being engaged. The only problem would be if I could not follow their lead.” 

Ben Leonard profile
Ben Leonard

Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor 

A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks. 


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