CHARLOTTESVILLE — Beto O’Rourke said Saturday that he believes Charlottesville “has an incredibly powerful story to tell” about America.
“It’s an incredibly important community, not just to Virginia, but to the country,” the Democratic presidential candidate said during a campaign event in the city. “And we’ve got to make sure that everyone in America knows that they count, and the only way to demonstrate that is by showing up.”
O’Rourke has twice visited Charlottesville, a city impacted by white supremacist violence that has been seen by many as a turning point in American history. But he didn’t talk about the Democrat who has made the Summer of Hate a central part of his campaign: former Vice President Joe Biden.
Some in the city have been perturbed that Biden — who cited the 2017 rally as a key moment in his decision to run for president when he launched his campaign and during a recent fundraiser in Richmond — hasn’t come to Charlottesville.
O’Rourke, a former congressman from Texas and alumnus of the Woodberry Forest boarding school in Madison County, is the only 2020 presidential candidate who has visited the city. In April, he campaigned at the University of Virginia.
“Charlottesville has an incredibly powerful story to tell, not just about that racism and that violence ... but the way in which this community has sought to overcome that,” he said.
O’Rourke’s support has dropped off since his last visit. He was at 9% support and third place during his April visit, according to RealClearPolitics, but he now sits at around 2%.
His spot in the polls allowed him to squeak into the third Democratic debate, ranking eighth out of the 10 candidates in terms of support. They will square off Sept. 12.
O’Rourke’s first stop Saturday was to speak with about 100 people outside Champion Brewing Co. and kick off a canvass for Democrat Amy Laufer.
The former Charlottesville School Board member hopes to unseat Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, whose 17th District includes parts of Albemarle County.
At the event, O’Rourke put an emphasis on local races and supported several typical Democratic stances, including gun control measures, combating climate change, expanding health care and improving teacher pay.
He reiterated his plan to support a mandatory gun buyback program for assault rifles. The call came within the past two weeks after a gunman killed 24 and wounded 22 on Aug. 3. The shooting, at a Walmart in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso, Texas, targeted Hispanic people.
“As long as we have millions of these assault weapons, these instruments of war, they are potential instruments of terror,” he said. “We just shouldn’t have these weapons on the street.”
After leaving Champion, O’Rourke traveled down the road to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, where he learned the history of Vinegar Hill, a historically black neighborhood that the city razed in the 1960s, displacing hundreds. He then held a discussion with African American residents and community leaders about issues in the city, covering racism, affordable housing and the aftermath of the Aug. 12, 2017, rally.
“The decisions that were made are reverberating today,” said Ridge Schuyler, dean of community self-sufficiency programs at Piedmont Virginia Community College. “So I think every single one of us around this table are committed to reversing that damage.”
Waki Wynn, a Charlottesville real estate agent, said the racism shown in 2017 needs to be challenged and extinguished.
“It is a cancer on our society. It’s keeping our country from being as great as it can be,” he said.
Speaking with the media after the discussion, O’Rourke said Confederate statues need to be taken down or moved to locations and given more historical context.
“We cannot wonder how racism continues to be perpetuated in this country when we have elevated racists,” he said.
After the event at the Jefferson School, O’Rourke attended a private fundraiser Saturday at the home of Abby and Lance Kimbrough, who rent the home from big-time Democratic donors Michael Bills and Sonjia Smith. Tickets ranged from $0 to $2,800.
On Friday, O’Rourke spoke to Southwest Virginia voters in Bland County, where he told a group of Democrats he was there “to make sure that we write nobody off, to take no one for granted, involve every single person in this election and this campaign and the future of this country.”