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Beto O'Rourke takes a photo at Starbucks with two baristas before a listening stop at Pueblo Community College in January 2019.

Steel City Meets Campaign Town, Maybe

Beto O’Rourke’s surprising visit to Pueblo could be a precursor to more Democrats to take back Colorado’s Steel Belt.

Robbie Salazar Jr., a Starbucks barista, asked former Texas Congressman and Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke if it was really him — the Democrat who captured the nation’s attention for his biting speeches, seemingly cool attitude, and close race with Sen. Ted Cruz last year — that was ordering coffee in Pueblo last month.

It was.

O’Rourke’s name has been on the tip of politicos’ tongues since he was defeated for U.S. Senate. He could run for the highest office, analysts hypothesize. There was no early candidate announcement from O’Rourke, but a mysterious road trip across the country has analysts watching closely, especially at where the potential Democratic hopeful is popping up.

Some found themselves asking why O’Rourke would be in Pueblo, just as they asked why President Donald Trump campaigned here in 2016. The simple answer is Southern Colorado’s recent political history, a lagging economy and voters in Pueblo, Huerfano and Las Animas Counties who opted for Trump in the last presidential election that could swing back blue in 2020.

In Colorado, Pueblo is a kind of a no-brainer, said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver. The Steel City narrowly went for Donald Trump in 2016, a fact that still rattles many who have long deemed Pueblo city limits union territory, and thus a strong hold for Democrats.

“Pueblo is important for a couple of different reasons. It has a long standing history and importance of being a substantial union town and it has a substantial latino population, which Democrats see important to winning the state,” Masket said. “Particularly in what’s shaping up to be a crowded Democratic primary where lots of different candidates will make inroads to different states for the early contest, I figure if O’Rourke has some way of getting in there (in Pueblo) it might give him an advantage that other candidates don’t have. But there might be a couple of candidates from Colorado, too, which might make that difficult.”

A blog O’Rourke wrote about his visit to the Steel City details his conversations and his hope for the country.

“I pulled into Pueblo ahead of schedule. I was going to meet some people at the community college at 5:30 and it was only 5:00,” he wrote. “I stopped in at a Starbucks near the college to charge my phone which was out of juice. Must be a fuse blown in the truck, the cigarette lighter would no longer charge the phone through the adapter.”

At Pueblo Community College O’Rourke wrote that he talked with students who shared their lives: their struggles about being a working student, dealing with the city’s opioid epidemic, making a living where the median average income is nearly $20,000 less than the state average and raising a family.

“Many of the students I met were professionals – already working as teachers, police officers, EMTs. Their observations and ideas came from experience,” O’Rourke wrote, highlighting the stories of the people there with him that evening.

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“The student body president sitting up front with her son talked about leading with love and compassion instead of hatred and intolerance. I don’t know how to write this in a way that does justice to what she said and how she said it. It wasn’t hokey or naive. It was powerful and strong. That began a conversation about how to ensure that all that we were talking about in this library could become part of how we fix the country, bring people together, end so much of the division that keeps us from joining forces to get stuff done.”

O’Rourke eventually made his way to the Shamrock for fish and chips and beer. He said on his blog that Puebloans were welcoming and reminded him that if he was to need anything while in town to let them know.

The visit was unrushed, unlike the typical campaign visits Pueblo has seen in the last half-decade with presidential contenders and their big name stumpers. Even when former President Barack Obama stopped off to eat at Romero’s Cafe in 2012, the visit was calculated and precise.

Masket described the visit as strategical, that O’Rourke, like many of the candidates who could soon roll through town, are looking for ways to connect with voters.

The city also becomes an important stop in Colorado because it shares qualities with Rust Belt cities of the Midwest, having had a collapsed steel industry in the mid-80s and a tough time recovering from the 2008 recession.

Pueblo’s status as Colorado’s Rust Belt town — having a much lower average median income for the rest of the state, a brain drain and focus on industrial jobs —  could be an early indicator of where Democrats are putting their focus this year, Masket said.

“A lot of Democrats will focus on (those cities) because they see that as a key to the victory,” he said. “If he can do well in a place like Pueblo, he can make a reasonable play in other Rust Belt communities in the country, and win back those other states that Clinton lost.”

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