A line of people stretched along the sidewalk from the Pimenta restaurant storefront and wrapped around the corner early Wednesday morning.
On Caroline Street in front of the restaurant, police blocked one lane and directed traffic. Men peddled T-shirts, hats and buttons.
“Is it the Beatles?” one passerby quipped.
The crowd of more than 100 did not come to see the Beatles.
They came to see Beto O’Rourke, a 46-year-old Texan and Democratic presidential hopeful who made a stop in Fredericksburg as he continued a two-day swing through Virginia.
Kristen McKnight and her 10-year-old daughter, Laila, were among those waiting in line to get inside the restaurant.
“I missed when Obama came through and I regretted it ever since,” Kristen McKnight said, adding that she liked what she’s heard from O’Rourke so far. “I’m hoping to cement that feeling.”
After the speech, McKnight said she “liked what I heard.”
O’Rourke joined 28th District House of Delegates candidate Joshua Cole at the event, and gave an energetic speech to a hyped crowd packed into Pimenta. The crowd eclipsed the restaurant’s 150-person capacity and the overflow watched a live stream of the event at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library just down the block.
Cole got things started by introducing several other local candidates and emphasizing the importance of this year’s elections in Virginia, where Republicans hold narrow edges in the House and Senate. He reminded the crowd he lost his 2017 bid for the 28th District seat by 73 votes, “after 147 people were given the wrong ballots.”
O’Rourke, a three-term Texas congressman who narrowly lost his bid for U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz last year, then entered to raucous cheers, and spent about 45 minutes touching on the keys to his campaign and changes he thinks the country needs.
His voice hoarse from talking so much this week, O’Rourke started by emphasizing the Virginia elections and lending support to Cole. He also said there is a need for a new voting rights act and other changes to the system to avoid problems such as Cole faced in 2017, along with “racial, ethnic and political gerrymandering in the United States of America.”
He cited the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and the need for universal background checks. “The future of the commonwealth and this country hangs in the balance,” he said.
O’Rourke, one of at least 18 Democrats who have announced plans to run for president, told the crowd that no matter who earns the Democratic nod, “we do everything we can do to defeat Donald Trump.” He then dug into the major topics of his campaign: immigration, revamping the criminal justice system, health care, climate and equal rights.
The genius of America is that it has incorporated people from all other countries, he said, adding that President Trump’s immigration policy runs counter to that. “Immigrants add, do not take from, this economy, in ways we cannot measure,” he told the crowd.
He added that the country must also confront problems in its criminal justice system and get rid of the “for-profit” prison system, which he said incarcerates too many for nonviolent crimes, including marijuana convictions. He called for repealing laws against marijuana and expunging arrest records for many of those caught up in the war on drugs.
Fixing such problems should start in schools, where young minorities also are targeted unfairly, O’Rourke said. He also noted that minorities deserve better access to health care, something many of them can’t afford.
These problems in particular, he added, are the result of a country “built on the backs of” slaves.
“We must have the truth, tell our shared story, accept the facts and then make the decisions going forward to ensure that we repair the damage and stop visiting these injustices on our fellow Americans,” he said.
O’Rourke also emphasized his belief in universal health care. He told the crowd “pharmaceutical companies are getting rich pricing [medications] out of reach of our fellow Americans.”
Addressing climate change is another key to the country’s future, the candidate said, citing increased flooding, droughts and wildfires in recent years. “It’s bad now. It is only going to get much worse,” he said in calling for wind and solar energy to replace fossil fuels and for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.
O’Rourke also answered a handful of questions from the crowd, including one on infrastructure problems. He said the country has $4 trillion in infrastructure needs, but Trump “cut a $2 trillion tax break that flowed to corporations and the very wealthiest in this country,” widening a divide between the rich and poor. “I want to make sure we reverse the worst of those cuts,” he said.
“We’re trying to find the common ground and the common path to do the common good for this country,” he said.
Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, said O’Rourke’s visit was as much about Virginia elections as his presidential campaign.
“Virginia Democrats can stand a little help right now,” he said, citing the controversies involving the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. “Beto can generate enthusiasm and money in a way the governor can’t right now.”
With so many Democratic candidates already in the fold, it “will be a long slog” for O’Rourke, Farnsworth said. “So it makes sense to think about the campaign a few moves ahead.”
Farnsworth said polls put Bernie Sanders as the top candidate right now, along with former Vice President Joe Biden, if he decides to run. O’Rourke is among a small group of second-tier candidates.
If Democrats succeed in flipping power in the General Assembly, the Virginia trip could prove fruitful for O’Rourke, he added.
“This,” he said, “has the potential for a high visibility reward.”