Power Players

How Beto O'Rourke went from punk drummer and nanny to 2020 presidential candidate

Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX), candidate for U.S. Senate greets supporters at a campaign rally in Plano, Texas, November 2, 2018. 
Mike Segar | Reuters

On Thursday, Beto O'Rourke finally made his 2020 plans official, potentially setting him on a path to become America's first punk-rock president.

In the months since Beto came up short in a bid for the US Senate, the Texas politician never left the spotlight, whether he was drawing massive crowds or sitting down with Oprah Winfrey.

O'Rourke, 46, experienced a meteoric political rise despite losing a close race against Ted Cruz for one of Texas' two U.S. Senate seats in 2018. Just two years ago, you probably would have had no idea who O'Rourke was — unless you happened to live in El Paso, Texas, where he served three terms in the House of Representatives.

But his grassroots campaign that inspired a strong turnout among Texas Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections and his ability to connect younger voters spurred many of his supporters to call for O'Rourke to make a run at the White House — a call he finally answered this week with a cover story in Vanity Fair announcing his presidential ambitions.

"I want to be in it," O'Rourke tells Vanity Fair about the much-hyped 2020 presidential race. "Man, I'm just born to be in it, and want to do everything I humanly can for this country at this moment."

Over 25 years ago, though, O'Rourke was just another Ivy League student with a predilection for skateboarding, long hair and reportedly punk bands like Jawbox and Fugazi.

Born and raised in upper middle-class family in El Paso, O'Rourke (whose full name is Robert Francis O'Rourke, though he goes by the common Spanish nickname for people named "Roberto") went to college in New York City at Columbia University, where he majored in English and graduated in 1995.

At Columbia, O'Rourke was not particularly engaged in politics, according to some of his former classmates, and he instead spent much of his time rowing for the school's heavyweight crew team and playing music.

While at Columbia, O'Rourke played bass in a punk band he formed called Foss, which played small gigs across the United States and Canada during his summer break.

In 1993, Foss self-released an album called "The El Paso Pussycats." Rolling Stone even put a track from the album online last year and the Texas GOP tweeted a copy of the album's cover, seemingly to mock O'Rourke, though the move backfired.

One of O'Rourke's Foss bandmates, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, later won a Grammy in 2008 with the band Mars Volta and told the Dallas Observer in 2017 that O'Rourke was a mentor: "The way I make art, I learned it from Beto."

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O'Rourke realized after college that he didn't really have a future in music. "I wasn't that good at it," he told The Washington Post in 2017. Plus, O'Rourke says his father (a politician himself, who served as a County Commissioner and County Judge) wanted him to make more concrete plans for the future. "He won't say it, but the expectation is: We didn't take out loans for you to go to Columbia and then [play] in a punk band your whole life," O'Rourke told the Post.

After graduating, O'Rourke briefly worked as a live-in nanny for a family with two kids on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Later, he moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, (before it was a well-known hotbed for young bohemians) and shared a 2,000-square-foot industrial loft space with several other creative types, according to the Columbia Spectator. He also played drums in another punk band, called the Swedes, that released an album in 1995.

O'Rourke worked a handful of different jobs, including working as an art mover and he took a part-time job at his uncle's internet-service provider business. At one point, though, during a particularly crowded subway commute from Brooklyn to a job as a proofreader at a publishing house in the Bronx, "I just had this vision of being in my truck with the windows down," he told The New York Times, referring to his upbringing in Texas. "I remember calling my folks that night, and I said, 'Hey, I think I'm going to come back.'"

In 1998, O'Rourke moved back to El Paso, where he co-founded an internet services and software company called Stanton Street Technology. He also got involved in local politics, volunteering for a few campaigns in the area before deciding to run for city council in 2005. After winning that election, he served on the council until he won a seat in the US House of Representatives in 2012.

At that point, O'Rourke's wife, Amy, took over running their tech company, though she reportedly sold her shares for less than $500,000 in 2017. O'Rourke reportedly had a net worth of about $9 million as of last year, though much of that stems from real estate, some of which he inherited from his family.

Today, O'Rourke has three children between the ages of 8 and 12, and his family still lives in El Paso, where he has a music room, not necessarily to play punk music, but where he and his children can jam on drums, guitars and a keyboard.

Meanwhile, O'Rourke is one of the hottest names in politics, especially after the country waited for months to see if he would throw his hat into the ring for the 2020 presidential election. And even though O'Rourke has already faced some backlash to his candidacy from critics who question his credentials after just three terms as a congressman and a failed senate bid, O'Rourke argued that 2020 is a high-stakes election for Democrats and he believes he'd make a strong candidate.

"I think I'd be good at it," O'Rourke tells Vanity Fair. "This is the fight of our lives, not the fight-of-my-political-life kind of crap."

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