Could race be propelling O’Rourke’s meteoric rise?

Valley Morning Star Editorials

SAN DIEGO — Robert Francis O’Rourke doesn’t claim to be Latino. But the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate goes by “Beto,” and he doesn’t seem to mind if you think he’s Latino.

When The Associated Press covered O’Rourke’s recent campaign-kickoff rally in El Paso, the reporter noted that the former congressman “spoke at length in his native Spanish.”

Since O’Rourke is a fourth-generation Irish American, the reporter must be talking about the Gaelic dialect of espanol.

Is this cultural appropriation, or just more evidence that the media is clueless about Mexican Americans, their culture and language? Both. The AP has issued a correction.

O’Rourke doesn’t do any correcting. When you run for president, you’re supposed to tell your story.

But the Texas Democrat would rather toss out catnip for the radical left — open borders, legalized marijuana, Medicare-for-all, etc. — than talk about his family’s journey from the Emerald Isle.

I think about that bit from John Leguizamo, the Colombian American comedian and actor. Hollywood casting directors, he recalls, would tell him: “We don’t want a Latino. We want someone who can play Latino.”

Imagine the opening credits: Starring Eli Wallach as the Mexican bandito Calvera in “The Magnificent Seven.”

Meanwhile, there is a real-life Latino vying for the Democratic nomination — Julian Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Once built up by the media as a “post-racial” rising star in the Democratic Party, the Mexican American can’t get on television to save his White House bid, and he’s stuck at 1 percent in Iowa polls.

No worries. We have a white male who can play Latino. Now casting Beto O’Rourke as the nation’s first Latino president?

Don’t act like you haven’t seen this movie before. As Bill Clinton taught us in the 1990s through his supposed familiarity with African Americans, white males always get to pick the best roles for themselves.

It’s the privilege, stupid.

How’s this for irony? Half of the immigration debate is driven by a fear shared by white people that Latinos will replace them. Yet, in the presidential race, white people are replacing Latinos.

This is like C-SPAN meets “The Twilight Zone.”

I have heard conservative radio hosts say that O’Rourke poses as a Latino because white males are out of fashion in a Democratic Party obsessed with identity politics.

But they are wrong about this — as they usually are about race or ethnicity, where they are out of their depth.

First, conservatives are just as obsessed with identity politics as liberals; it’s just that the identity the GOP worries most about these days is that of a threatened white male victim.

Second, the demise of white males in the Democratic Party — or any party — has been wildly exaggerated. They still get a lion’s share of the media and raise truckloads of money.

Notwithstanding the first-quarter fundraising acumen of California Sen. Kamala Harris ($12 million), the Democratic candidates grabbing headlines for their fundraising in the first quarter are all white males — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders ($18.2 million), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg ($7 million) and O’Rourke (who hasn’t released his first-quarter total yet, but did raise an impressive $6.1 million in the first 24 hours after entering the race).

Human-resources managers will tell you that, for all the talk about valuing diversity and thirsting for new blood, people still hire people they can relate to.

What if a similar dynamic is at work when TV network executives decide which candidates get airtime?

Or when donors decide who to support when they ink their checks? White males with money and power can probably relate to Sanders, Buttigieg and O’Rourke in a way that they can’t relate to — say, someone like Stacey Abrams.

Like O’Rourke, Abrams was the Democratic nominee in a crucial statewide race in 2018. While the El Paso native was running for a Senate seat in Texas, Abrams was vying to become the first African American and first female governor of Georgia.

Both ran good races, and both came closer to winning than observers predicted.

But, in defeat, they are not living the same lives. During a recent interview on MSNBC, Abrams — who has herself been mentioned as a potential presidential candidate — said that “race plays a part” in the fact that O’Rourke has enjoyed so much media fawning. The same can’t be said for her and Andrew Gillum, the African American Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for governor in Florida, she noted.

Abrams is right. I’ve been saying the same thing for weeks now — even if people didn’t want to hear it.

No matter which parts candidates choose for themselves, when the reviews come in, race always plays a major role.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available through every podcast app.