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Cruz, O’Rourke set to debate tonight

September 22, 2018

HOUSTON — When Texas voters cast ballots in the U.S. Senate race this fall, they won’t see the names Rafael Edward Cruz or Robert Francis O’Rourke. Neither goes by his birth name.

But only one has attacked the other’s authenticity for going by a nickname.

“Liberal Robert wanted to fit in, so he changed his name to Beto and hid it with a grin,” was a line in the jingle the Ted Cruz campaign unveiled the night of the March primaries.

Beto O’Rourke’s wordless rebuttal: He tweeted out a class photo. He’s the young lad on the right, wearing a sweater with “Beto” stitched on the front.

But that hardly put the issue to rest.

Some Republicans feel that O’Rourke is guilty of cultural misappropriation and of crass identity politics, projecting a false persona to attract more Latino votes by presenting himself as “Beto.” Some detractors call it “Hispandering.”

“I don’t see it. In my family we’ve grown up with nicknames that match,” said teacher Angela Philips, a Latina whose married name belies her ethnicity.

“In my opinion, he’s pulling the wool over the Latinos,” she said at a recent Cruz town hall. “Our name is who we are. Just use your real name and be legit.”

Of the two candidates, only one is fluent in Spanish, and it’s not the Calgary, Canada-born son of a Cuban immigrant.

O’Rourke, born and raised along the border, has been called “Beto” since before his parents took him home from the hospital.

“Something each of us has to deal with over our lives — the name that our parents choose for us,” the three-term congressman said after a Houston rally. “I was called Beto from Day 1. And you know, in El Paso it’s not so odd. There are so many Albertos or Umbertos or Hilbertos or Robertos who are called Beto.

“You know, your mailman is called Beto. The guy who serves you at the diner is Beto. Your member of Congress is Beto. It’s just very common in El Paso. It’s just a reflection of where I’m from, and also the decision that my parents made 46 years ago. So you’d have to ask them,” he said.

Family friends attest to the claim.

Mary Polk lived a block and a half away from the O’Rourke family for nearly two decades, starting in 1972 — the year the congressman was born. She and her husband were close friends with the future congressman’s parents, Melissa and Pat O’Rourke, with daughters a year younger than Beto and his sister.

Polk recounted going to visit Melissa O’Rourke in the maternity ward shortly after the birth. Pat O’Rourke — a future El Paso County judge who died in 2001 — was standing in the doorway.

“We knew he was going to be Robert Francis O’Rourke,” Polk recounted recently. “And so I said to Pat, ‘What are you going to call him?’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘He’s Beto.’”

Polk called it odd that anyone would attack the congressman over a moniker he’s used since he was in diapers.

“I wish someone had asked me. I could’ve told them about that nickname,” she said. “Almost as soon as he was born, he was going to be Beto.”

By contrast, Cruz started going by “Ted” as a teenager in Houston because he was tired of being taunted as “Frito Felito.”

In his 2016 campaign autobiography “A Time for Truth,” Cruz recounted the decision to change his name. He’d gone by “Felito” most of his life and was trying to reshape his image as a somewhat unpopular nerd.

“The problem with that name was that it seemed to rhyme with every major corn chip on the market. Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos and Tostitos — a fact that other young children were quite happy to point out,” Cruz wrote. “My father was furious with the decision. He viewed it as a rejection of him and his heritage, which was not my intention.”

Nicknames make a difference, on the playground and in politics.

Voters of a certain age may remember Dwight Eisenhower’s slogan. “I like Ike” had a better ring to it than “I like Dwight.”

After Cruz’s primary-night ad mocking his opponent’s name, CNN’s Chris Cuomo challenged Cruz by noting that he, too, goes by a nickname. The senator readily conceded the point.

“I’m the son of Rafael Cruz, an immigrant from Cuba who came to Texas with nothing and had $100 in his underwear. … That’s the American story.”

The gambit seemed to be designed as a win-win: Plant seeds of doubt about O’Rourke’s authenticity, and create an opening to remind voters that Cruz has genuine Latinoc roots.

“It is just kind of a sense of humor,” Cruz told Cuomo.

Cruz’s campaign manager, Jeff Roe, pushed the attack further, asserting online that O’Rourke had used “Robert” in college.

Rebuttals came fast and furious.

One Twitter response showed a copy of the Harvard Latino Law Review that listed “Rafael E. Cruz” as one of the 30 general editors.

On the stump, Cruz refers to his opponent by the name he uses, as in: “My opponent, Congressman Beto O’Rourke, is running hard, hard left. Like Bernie Sanders.”

And “for anyone in the oil and gas industry you would have to be out of your mind to vote for Beto O’Rourke. Not only has he voted multiple times in support of a carbon tax, he voted supporting a $10 a barrel tax on oil.”

And, “Beto O’Rourke is a passionate supporter of President Obama’s Paris climate accord.”

But Cruz supporters eagerly mock the congressman’s name. At the recent Cruz town hall near Houston, he was going through a riff on the very short list of Democrats from Texas who had voted against a bill to provide tax breaks for victims of Hurricane Harvey when mocking shouts broke out.

“One was the congressman from El Paso named Beto O’Rourke,” Cruz told the crowd, triggering boos sprinkled with shouts of “Robert Francis!” and “His real name’s Robert!”

O’Rourke defends that vote, saying he wanted to use the bill as a vehicle to extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

In the crowd, feelings ran deep about Cruz’s challenger. But when it comes to him going by Ted, Philips and others were fine with that.

“His last name is Cruz. That’s legit. He’s part Cuban,” she said. “It’s nice to have a true Latino in politics.”

Tommy Cook, 76, a retired chemical engineer who also turned out to see Cruz, agreed that the senator’s chosen nickname is perfectly acceptable. It’s a common nickname for Edward, he noted. And he averred that it’s not Beto’s name, but his politics that he finds objectionable.

“I don’t care what his name is. I care what he stands for. … I don’t see any character in him,” he said, noting O’Rourke’s drunken driving charge from 20 years ago, which was dropped. “I see a narcissist.”

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