Summer is coming to an end, but stumping season is starting. 

2020 Democratic Presidential candidate and former Texas Congressman, Beto O’Rourke returned to Charlottesville on Saturday for a second time to speak at a canvassing gathering for state senate candidate Amy Laufer and commonwealth attorney candidate Jim Hingeley. 

A crowd of about 100 gathered outside Champion Brewing Company where O’Rourke energized participants ahead of a canvassing session

Ahead of O’Rourke’s speech, Laufer pointed to local government candidates in the crowd, democrat city council candidates Sena Magill and Lloyd Snook. Also in attendance was state senate candidate Elliott Harding, an independent who is challenging the democratic incumbent, Sen. Creigh Deeds for the Senate’s 25th district. 

“The road to 2020, an incredibly important year, runs through 2019,” O’Rourke said. “The road to a better America runs through the Commonwealth of Virginia. The road to a majority in the Senate here, is the road that we’re on right now.” 

As he energized the crowd, O’Rourke reflected on the efficacy of knocking on doors in his first campaign against an incumbent, where he went on to become a U.S. Congressman in 2012.

“The common courtesy of showing up and the simple respect of asking for that vote or involving them in the conversation made all the difference in the world,” O’Rourke said. “Those connections one person at a time is how we made this democracy work.”

O’Rourke recalls his successful run for Congress in 2012 and the role canvassing played in his win. Credit: Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods Charlottesville Tomorrow Credit: Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods Charlottesville Tomorrow

The El Paso resident gained more widespread national attention in the spring of 2017 when he embarked on the “#BipartisanRoadTrip” with Rep. Will  Hurd, R-TX-23, and then in 2018 when he narrowly lost to republican senator, Ted Cruz and attracted endorsements from public figures around the country. 

Also in his speech, O’Rourke addressed confronting climate change, expanding health care, teacher pay,  and gun reform, with a reference to Virginia’s special legislative session. In July, the General Assembly reconvened for a session on gun violence, and state legislators voted to adjourn until after the election and send proposed bills to the state crime commission for study. 

“She [Laufer] understands red flag laws, universal background checks, and ending the sale of these high-capacity magazines, and then making sure that when a special session is called, that we stay there, do our job, and listen to one another and get something done for those who are counting on it,” O’Rourke said. 

In the wake of a mass shooting targeting Hispanic people in El Paso, O’Rourke’s hometown, he reiterated his plans to support buy-back programs for assault rifles, as several mass shootings have involved AR-15s. 

Since attaching Charlottesville and the Unite the Right rally to his campaign announcement, presidential candidate and former vice president, Joe Biden, has yet to visit.  Meanwhile, city council candidate Sena Magill appreciates O’Rourke’s approach when visiting Charlottesville. 

“This is an amazing event that a presidential candidate in the primary chooses Charlottesville, not for our 2017 anniversary, but instead to support an important state senate seat because he recognizes that the local, state, and federal are all important,” Magill said. 

While Laufer, a former school board member, previously ran unsuccessfully for city council in 2017, Magill feels it is important that Laufer unseat her republican opponent, Sen. Bryce Reeves. 

“Amy Laufer is an amazing person. She would have done great things on city council, but in some ways, it’s almost like fate stepped in and said ‘no’ because we need her so much in Bryce’s [Sen. Reeves] seat,” Magill said. “To have a presidential candidate come down here, and even just a Congressman from another state coming down here to say ‘hey Purple District, let’s flip. We can do this.’ It’s pretty impressive and a great thing right now.”

Some members of the crowd have previously canvassed for other democratic candidates, as many in the region are pushing to flip state seats blue in the House and Senate. 

Ellie Powell and her mother Helene live in the House’s 25th district and have canvassed for its democratic candidate, Jennifer Kitchen, as well as Tim Hickey in the House’s 59th district. 

The Powells say they enjoy when candidates and elected officials from various forms of government support each other or unify on causes. 

“I’ll meet people and they won’t know what the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] is or something like that,” Ellie Powell said. “But if you find a lot of local government candidates that support it, if they were able to bond together with a state candidate or a federal candidate, that would be good.”

Democratic city council candidate Sena Magill shakes hands with O’Rourke and tells him that she is running for local office. Credit: Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods Charlottesville Tomorrow Credit: Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods Charlottesville Tomorrow

O’Rourke takes notes

O’Rourke learns about the razing of Vinegar Hill’s African American-owned homes and businesses in the 1960s. Credit: Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods Charlottesville Tomorrow Credit: Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods Charlottesville Tomorrow

By mid-morning, Laufer and Hingeley canvassers were on their way to knock on doors, and O’Rourke drove his van to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center where he participated in a roundtable discussion on racial history and equitable policies.

O’Rourke took notes as participants discussed economic policies that can positively affect African American communities. He heard local perspectives about the events of August 2017 and learned about the razing of Vinegar Hill’s African American-owned homes and businesses in the 1960s. 

Participant Waki Wynn noted that while 2017’s Unite the Right rally lured various hate groups into Charlottesville, he had seen a couple of locals he recognized.

“Yes it was an invasion of outsiders, but I don’t want the fact that it was an invasion of outsiders for people to believe that we did not have those problems,” Wynn said. 

 He went on to describe Charlottesville as a fish tank. 

“When you walk by a fish tank you can see clean glass. It looks nice and clean, but when the Nazis came, they hit the rot,” he said. “All of a sudden, all of the filth and dirt that existed in this neighborhood was brought to the surface for people to discover that ‘hey  we have a serious problem in this community and it has to be addressed.”

O’Rourke listens to Joy Johnson during a round table discussion at the Jefferson School. Credit: Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods Charlottesville Tomorrow Credit: Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods Charlottesville Tomorrow

Another topic of discussion was how some residents have had to decline raises in their jobs because they would make too much to qualify for public housing, while not making enough to live elsewhere.

Joy Johnson,board chairwoman for Public Housing Association of Residents spoke to O’Rourke about how she feels often, politicians forget the issues discussed with constituents after their campaign trail ends, and she critiqued other levels of government as well.

“Federal impacts, but it’s the state and local that really impacts.” Johnson said. “Charlottesville could be an exceptional city, if they would just change their mindset to be the example. I’m not just blaming federal government, but I’m blaming local elected officials.”

“You need people to keep heat under the seat,” said participant Quentin Harrell as he motioned to Johnson. “If you get into office, I guarantee you need to hear from this lady [Johnson] to keep the heat under your seat so you don’t forget the conversations that you had when you were going around the country.”

Throughout the discussion, O’Rourke continued to scribble in a notebook. 

After the event, O’Rourke spoke with members of the media and was asked about his stance on Confederate Monuments. 

“Let’s allow the community to decide if it’s in a museum where historical context can be applied, or if the statue is destroyed all together,” O’Rourke said. “But we cannot wonder how racism continues to be perpetuated in this country when we’ve elevated racists like Robert E. Lee or Benjamin Tillman into these places of honor in power over our lives.”

Tillman, who served as in the U.S. Senate and as Governor of South Carolina, worked to suppress African American liberties during his tenure in the Reconstruction era.

He stated that Confederate monuments can display a “distorted” view of American history.

“We have to take those steps and I would love for that to be lead at the community level,” O’Rourke said. “I’m grateful for those communities that have stepped up to the challenge to do the right thing.”


I was Charlottesville Tomorrow’s government reporter from 2019 to 2022. Thanks for letting me be your resident nerd on how local and state governments serve us. Keep up with me @charlottewords on Twitter. If you haven’t yet, consider subscribing to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s FREE newsletter to get updates from the newsroom on the things you want to know.