EL PASO, Texas – Romelia Mendoza remembers seeing a young, amicable Beto O’Rourke ambling through her neighborhood, heading to meetings downtown or his nearby office.
That’s why she’s baffled – and more than a little miffed – that the Democratic presidential candidate has been so muted on saving her neighborhood from the wrecking ball.
“The way he would come through here, it was like he was a resident,” said Mendoza, 66. “But he’s turned his back on us. There’s been no support from him at all.”
Across El Paso, O’Rourke is widely considered a beloved celebrity, the hometown rocker-turned-presidential-hopeful who has fought President Donald Trump’s negative portrayal of his border city, heralded immigrants’ rights and stood by residents after last month's deadly mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart.
But to some here, O'Rourke is remembered as someone who sided with developers while on the City Council and was ready to displace dozens of Latino residents in the name of redevelopment – a far cry from the progressive persona he exudes on the campaign trail. Others say he has simply lost some of the sheen he radiated when he ran against Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz last year.
His support of a 2006 city plan, which would have revitalized 300 acres of downtown, including the iconic Segundo Barrio area, sparked immediate resistance because of questions about how land and property would be acquired and whether current, mostly Latino residents would be displaced.
O’Rourke also faced criticism because his father-in-law, prominent real estate developer Bill Sanders, was a driving force of the project.
“How can you go on national TV and claim to be the ‘people’s candidate’ when you’re trying to do away with those very immigrants you’re talking about?” said Gilbert Guillen, president the of the Union Plaza Property Owner’s Association, which represents some of the buildings slated to be demolished.
O’Rourke declined to be interviewed for this article, and campaign officials did not answer specific questions. At a town hall meeting in 2017, O'Rourke defended his position and said he supported downtown residents.
"Those are my neighbors, those are my friends, those are the people that I care about," he said then, according to the Associated Press.
O’Rourke, an El Paso native, has struggled for months to stay near the top of the crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates. In recent polls, O’Rourke ranks seventh among those candidates at just under 3%.
He seemed to gain some momentum Thursday during the Democratic presidential debate when he was asked about his proposal to buy back military-style weapons. “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said in an impassioned response that trended on Twitter.
Many El Pasoans praise the way O'Rourke kept his hometown in the spotlight and brought national attention to issues such as immigration and gun control, said Lyda Ness-Garcia, an El Paso attorney and community activist. Recent trips to a Border Patrol facility in nearby Tornillo, Texas, and to El Paso in the wake of the Walmart shooting, which killed 22 people, further bolstered his likability, she said.
In El Paso County, which is 83% Latino, O'Rourke beat out Cruz in last year's U.S. Senate race, 74%-25%.
“Beto is extraordinarily popular in our community,” Ness-Garcia said. “Any attention he’s brought onto El Paso has been a positive one. For that, we’re grateful.”
But some of that zeal, which carried him to within 2.5 percentage points of beating Cruz, may be waning. On Thursday, a debate watch party organized by the El Paso Young Democrats at a downtown bar drew only the organizers. One of them, Miguel Venegas, 24, a senior at the University of Texas-El Paso, said he recalled when "BETO" T-shirts dotted campus and volunteers registered voters. It was an era Venegas described as "Betomania."
That has largely vanished, he said. Instead, some of those former supporters don't like how O'Rourke's positions have became more moderate as a presidential candidate or that he spent more time in Iowa than El Paso, Venegas said. Venegas himself is supporting Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.
O'Rourke "still has charisma," Venegas said. "It's just not the charisma I'm looking for."
That trend seems to be spreading across Texas. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey showed O'Rourke in third place among Democratic voters in his home state, behind former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
But in El Paso, some residents, activists and preservationists still smart over O'Rourke's positions while on the City Council. Starting in 2006, he backed a downtown redevelopment plan by a consortium known as the Paso del Norte Group, or PDNG, led by Sanders, O'Rourke's father-in-law.
Faced with criticism, Sanders declared he wouldn’t profit from the project, and O’Rourke recused himself from key votes on the project.
But critics point to important votes O’Rourke did cast, including the October 2006 vote to implement the plan and a January 2008 vote to narrowly defeat an ordinance thatwould have limited the city’s use of eminent domain. O’Rourke left City Hall in 2012 after being elected to Congress.
“It’s extremely hypocritical,” said David Dorado Romo, a local author and historian. “To set himself up as protector and savior of the El Paso Mexican community when he was ready to displace so many people – it's very problematic.”
Steve Ortega, a friend of O’Rourke's and fellow council member at the time, said he and other supporters of the plan were trying to revitalize downtown, create jobs and stem the flow of young, talented people leaving the city for better prospects elsewhere.
Even as the plan faced stiff opposition, O'Rourke still was reelected, supported by voters who lived in the areas targeted for redevelopment, Ortega said.
"He won overwhelmingly in each of those precincts," he said. "In El Paso, he's the most popular person in the community."
One of the more controversial moments of the downtown project was a marketing study commissioned by city leaders to envision the city’s future. The 129-page presentation became instantly infamous for its depiction of an “Old Cowboy” next to a photo of an elderly Latino man in a cowboy hat with descriptors like “gritty,” “dirty” and “lazy,” while the more favorable “New West” was paired with photos of actors Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz and adjectives like “entrepreneurial” and “educated.”
A national conservative group, Club for Growth, used O'Rourke's involvement with the plan and his connections to Sanders in an attack ad during last year's Senate race against Cruz.
The project never came to fruition. But in 2016, city leaders launched another plan to develop 15 acres of the Union Plaza area of downtown, where Mendoza currently lives, into a sports arena.
That neighborhood, also known as Duranguito, is a grouping of low-slung brick-and stucco tenement buildings, empty lots and turn-of-the-century red-brick structures and home to generations of Latinos. The city has acquired 17 structures it plans to demolish, and residents have decamped to other parts of town. Mendoza is the lone remaining homeowner who hasn’t sold to the city.
Green-mesh fencing surrounds the blocks slated for demolition. A Quick Mart on the corner, just outside the designated area, sells coffee and breakfast burritos. A Greyhound bus station nearby continually disgorges newcomers and transients to the city. Color-splashed murals on nearby Leon Street depict barrio culture, including portraits of Benito Juárez, Mexico's first indigenous president. Statuettes of La Virgen de Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, stand sentry outside homes.
Local historian Max Grossman said some of the city’s most historically significant buildings sit in the zone slated for demolition, including a 19th-century Queen Anne Victorian style building that once housed the attorney of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and a single-story, load-bearing brick building that was once a Chinese laundry and is the last remaining structure built by the Chinese in their early period in El Paso. Grossman, an associate professor of art history at UTEP, is leading the legal fight against the Union Plaza project, backed by J.P. Bryan, a Houston-based retired oilman and preservationist.
The arena plan stems from the original PDNG plan O'Rourke supported, according to documents obtained by his legal team, Grossman said. Some residents still bristle at O’Rourke’s role in the plans, he said.
“He has never come clean,” Grossman said. “He has never apologized.”
Guillen, the association president, said O’Rourke could use his political clout to appear before the City Council and dissuade members from razing Duranguito, but he hasn't.
"He needs to make a stance either way," Guillen said. "The only stance he’s taken is against these neighborhoods."
Some feel the ire over the redevelopment plans is overblown. Given the host of issues facing El Paso – such as immigration reform and the 2020 presidential election – O’Rourke’s role in revitalization plans doesn't rank high on most El Pasoans' minds, said Jaime Abeytia, a popular political blogger here.
“His popularity hasn’t waned here by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.
Not everyone agrees. Mendoza, the sole Duranguito holdout, said she won't be voting for O'Rourke, even if he wins the Democratic nomination.
"I wouldn't give him my vote even if (the general election) came down to one vote," she said.
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2020 candidates: Beto O'Rourke's record has some Latinos troubled