Calling for respect and unity that he said will lead to common ground, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke visited Penn State University Park on Tuesday and spoke to a crowd of hundreds about how he wants to serve the country.
The former congressman from El Paso, Texas, is the first declared presidential candidate for the 2020 race to host a public event in Pennsylvania. Coming from previous stops in critical swing states like Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan, O’Rourke said his “grassroots road trip” is really important to him.
“If we have any hope of winning, and if we have any prospect of delivering, we need to first show up with the humility of acknowledging that I don't know what’s important to the Happy Valley, to the students at Penn State, until I show up and listen to them first,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke kicked off his meet-and-greet by joining a group of students from the Penn State College Democrats for selfies at the Lion Shrine, where he told a student he is “not there” in terms of supporting free, four-year education at public universities. Rather, he said, he wants to address outstanding student loan debts by refinancing or forgiving some of them.
“I think the best place to start is debt free for education,” O’Rourke said. “To make sure that we are not just talking about four year universities [and] community colleges, but also trade schools and apprenticeships.”
O’Rourke announced his bid for the White House last Thursday, joining more than a dozen fellow Democratic candidates. His campaign said on Monday that O’Rourke raised a record-high $6.1 million online during the first 24 hours after his announcement.
In an auditorium in the Hub Robeson Center on he restated to the hundreds in attendance that he will not take campaign donations from political action committees, and, facing a question from the audience, said he will release the number of donors and the average donation amount to his campaign.
O’Rourke spoke about reforming the criminal justice system, expunging marijuana records, ensuring universal health care and making those implicated in the opioids crisis accountable.
He received the biggest cheers for promising action on climate change, saying that, if global temperature raises another celsius degree, “we’re screwed - that is the term that scientists use.”
“What that means is the climate change we’re already experiencing today... will become more severe and more frequent,” O’Rourke said. “[It] will undermine our ability to live in some of the communities that we call home today.”
O’Rourke wore a Penn State baseball cap and led a “We Are” chant as he left the HUB, which was packed with hundred more people who wouldn’t fit into the auditorium.
Mary Connors and her family drove from Hazleton and got to the event at 7 a.m. She said O’Rourke does not just appeal to young people.
“He has a more progressive stance on things like women’s issues and immigration, which are issues that are really important to me,” Connors said. “I’m really excited about him running and getting to know him as a candidate [and] seeing what he’s willing to do for the country.”
Katierose Epstein, president of the Penn State College Democrats, said O’Rourke reached out to arrange the visit on campus.
“He chose Penn State,” Epstein said. “Pennsylvania is kind of written off because their primaries are a little bit later, but it shouldn’t be. It’s battleground state, and, in order to win the presidency, they need to be in Pennsylvania. I’m really glad that he started this trend and I’m hoping a lot more presidential candidates come through.”
After the Penn State rally, O’Rourke headed to New Hampshire. He is scheduled to hold his official campaign kickoff in El Paso at the end of the month.