MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who is running for Texas governor, said he wanted his first big campaign swing to be through the South Texas border to bring attention to the region and to highlight the region’s importance to him.

O’Rourke, a former Democratic congressman from the West Texas border town of El Paso, said the border is in his blood and he wants the rest of the state, and world, to realize its unique cultures, community bonds, and rich trade opportunities.

“The border is very important to me and it’s no accident that I started the campaign on the border in my hometown of El Paso, that I was in Laredo, Texas, last night and I’m here with you today,” O’Rourke said in response to a question from Border Report.

O’Rourke launched his campaign Monday, and on Tuesday visited the South Texas border town of Laredo before heading to the Rio Grande Valley on Wednesday.

“I love coming back to McAllen, the Rio Grande Valley, Mission and this will not be the last time that you see me, and the fact that the first time you see me within this campaign is within two and a half days of having launched this, that is very intentional,” he told media on Wednesday afternoon after his second stop in the region to meet Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez at his Mission home.

Beto O’Rourke met with Hidalgo County officials in Mission, Texas, on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“We have so much to offer the rest of the world and I want to make sure, as a border resident, and someone who is running to serve the border, along with the rest of Texas, that we share that pride in these really positive stories that we see here. This is a place that has shown: We can do it. We have a challenge we’re going to come together and overcome it,” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke requested the meeting with Melendez, whose first responders were among the most challenged in the nation in the summer of 2020 as coronavirus rates soared and hospital beds were full. Patients were put in hallways and hospital breakrooms were turned into emergency care clinics.

Hidalgo County has had 118,644 coronavirus cases and 3,484 deaths including one death on Wednesday, but that is down from the dozens of fatalities that occurred daily in June and July of 2020.

Melendez told Border Report that O’Rourke requested to meet to discuss the county’s COVID-19 response and how emergency officials handled the surge of cases and deaths north of the border as Mexico was struggling to contain cases south of the border.

Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez, far left, hosted Democratic former Congressman Beto O’Rourke who is running for Texas governor on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, at his residence in Mission, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“Our COVID-19 team is recognized among the state as being an example of how to respond to COVID in a positive way,” Melendez said. “They want input on how we did it and how it worked. What didn’t work and recommendations for the future.”

Earlier Wednesday, O’Rourke met with educators from Edinburg Independent School District.

He praised public educators on the border and said the annual salary of teachers in Texas is $10,000 less than elsewhere in the nation, and he wants to raise that amount.

He capped the day with a meet and greet with local residents in downtown McAllen that drew about 1,000 people to a tiny outdoor restaurant facility. It is located just blocks from the Humanitarian Respite Center where thousands of migrants who crossed this summer were helped by volunteers.

There, for the first time in his budding gubernatorial campaign, he said he believes marijuana should be legalized in Texas. This drew cheers from many in the crowd.

“These are some of the things that we can do to bring us together that are popular in the state of Texas that allow us not only to make one another proud but to make this country proud.” O’Rourke said.

But during his failed Democratic presidential bid, he was repeatedly criticized for taking this position — one he has long championed since his days on the El Paso City Council.

Integrating positive information on immigration and border communities and what they contribute is key to this race, said Danny Diaz, a local community activist, who attended Wednesday night’s event.

“He’s got a good economic and a good message around health care,” Diaz told Border Report after O’Rourke’s 20-minute speech. “Abbott is making immigration a center point of this race. He’s going to try to make that a wedge issue and we’re excited that Beto is really going to talk about the aspirational part of being from the border. The border still having some of the safest cities in the country. The border being key to international commerce with Latin America and the rest of the world.”

After O’Rourke spoke, the crowd started cheering “Si se puede” (Yes you can). And several people said they associated with his flawless Spanish and approachable personality.

“I love Beto. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. And my husband also loves him, too” said Josie Mitchell, of Edinburg, who although she had a hurt knee was packed in the evening McAllen crowd to get a glimpse of O’Rourke.

“We’re for Beto all the way,” said Alma Garcia of Mission said. “We have to get Abbott out.”

“He’s centrist, liberal-leaning, far better than Abbott,” said Isidro Leal, 33, of McAllen, who brought his 12-year-old child Xan.

Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke addressed a crowd of about 1,000 in downtown McAllen, Texas, on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021 at an outdoor restaurant, the Gremlin. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

One place he did not visit was on Wednesday was the border wall, which he has repeatedly criticized Abbott for supporting.

During his failed bid for U.S. Senate against Ted Cruz, he visited the area several times in the summer of 2017 and brought attention to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, an area that Congress eventually exempted from border wall funding.

On Wednesday, O’Rourke claimed that Abbott only visits “for photo ops” at the border wall and “la frontera” (the border), he said in Spanish.

Abbott this week has hit back with campaign ads comparing O’Rourke to President Joe Biden in billboard advertisements he has placed throughout the state.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s reelection campaign this week launched billboard advertisements against Beto O’Rourke throughout the state. (Abbott Campaign Photo)

“As Beto O’Rourke begins his campaign to reinvent himself, he won’t be able to run from his extreme liberal policies that are wrong for Texas,” Mark Miner, communications director for Texans for Greg Abbott, said in a statement Wednesday. “The Beto-Biden agenda of open borders, defunding the police, and killing oil and gas jobs is divisive and will move Texas in the wrong direction.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.