Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke may have made history Friday morning when he stopped in the diner at the Bland Square to talk to local supporters.
As far as anyone in attendance could remember, no presidential candidate has ever made a campaign stop in Bland County.
“I just can’t believe somebody showed up here,” said Bland democrat Traci Muncy, who serves as vice chair of the local democratic committee. “It was just nice to have somebody come here, locally, in such a red, red area.”
Travelling the campaign trail through South Carolina and North Carolina, the Texan made an unannounced stop at the Open Door Café in Wytheville on Thursday.
Friday, he took a message that encouraged voters to “connect the dots on how (President Donald) Trump’s recklessness and racism is harming the American people” to the deeply red Bland County. Home to 4,450 registered voters, Bland County backed Trump by 82.3 %.
“This is a big deal for us,” Bland Democratic Committee member Larry Newberry said as he introduced O’Rourke to the crowd of supporters crammed into the already small diner.
Campaigning in what would appear to be a very hostile territory is not odd for O’Rourke. During his unsuccessful but highly touted bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz last year, O’Rourke made it a point to visit every county in Texas, no matter how red.
During the Bland stop, O’Rourke said his senate campaign had taken him through “the reddest places, not in Texas, but in the United States of America, maybe on planet Earth.”
“We have you beat, Bland County,” he said, noting that 96% of King County, Texas voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
“But we showed up in King County and for the people in King County, because they’re every bit as deserving of being heard, of being listened to, of being fought for, of being served, and we have no ability to do that if we had not first shown up for them, listened to them and understood their expectations and then sought to perform them.”
During the Bland stop, O’Rourke talked about the need to work together and compromise with republicans on the important issues.
“I know that we can get this done and I know from my republican mother, who we convinced to vote for me in that last U.S. Senate election in Texas, that there’s a way to compel and convince our fellow Americans to see beyond party identifications and instead count themselves as Americans first, before they are anything else. “
The challenges we face today, he said, “will not be solved with half the country. That’s why we refuse to write anyone off, including the people of Bland . . . a county no presidential candidate had ever visited—until today.”
The stops in Wythe and Bland, O’Rourke said, is a way to make sure everyone is heard and that divides are healed. O’Rourke said that important things will be destroyed “if we allow this country to come apart at the seams.”
Nineteen-year-old Randy Brown said he was impressed with O’Rourke’s message.
“He doesn’t seem to care that he’s a democrat as much as he cares that he’s an American,” Brown said.
During the visit, O’Rourke briefly mentioned the lack of broadband internet in the area. Rebecca Clemons, also 19, said she was happy to hear someone on the national stage talk about issues that directly affected her community.
“It touched me to know that he’s talking about things that matter to us,” Clemons said.
Both teens look forward to casting votes in their first presidential election in 2020.
Muncy said that before the event she was leaning toward casting her vote for Joe Biden in the democratic primaries.
“But just by showing up here, he may have changed my mind,” she said, of O’Rourke. “I’m just really impressed that he came.”
While the stop in Wytheville didn’t garner much in the way of press, plenty turned out to the Friday meeting at Bland Square. Along with a handful of television crews, the Roanoke Times and the Washington Post sent reporters to cover the historic event.
The event also drew the attention of residents from Pulaski, Giles and Wythe counties.
Peggy Sutphin turned out to see O’Rourke in Bland County, saying she missed the candidate’s stop in Wytheville the previous day. Sutphin owns the Wohlfahrt Haus Dinner Theatre in Wytheville.
“I wanted to meet him,” she said. “He seems like a very down-to-earth person, and that’s what I admire.”
She compared O’Rourke to a John F. Kennedy and said he seems to relate to the average American.
“And that’s what we need.”