ATHENS, Texas (CBSDFW.COM/AP) — Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s mother is typically asked how her son got his name or if he was a troublemaker. But in a rural county Donald Trump overwhelmingly won in 2016, a supporter brings up different family history: Accusations her son pushed a project that would benefit his wealthy father-in-law.
It’s a decade-old accusation that Beto O’Rourke has denied and stems from his days on the El Paso City Council. An attorney who filed two ethics complaints against O’Rourke in 2006 over the project called recent attack ads misleading.
But Republican Ted Cruz has revived the accusations as he tries to defend his Senate seat against the Democratic congressman, who had said going into their first debate Friday that he won’t similarly go negative.
His family says they’re doing the same.
“Those things have all been addressed. This is something that is not new to us. Anything being brought up by Cruz has been brought up before,” said Charlotte O’Rourke, Beto’s sister, who was campaigning with their mother, Melissa, this month in solidly conservative East Texas. “But we know the truth.”
Starting in Dallas with the first of three televised debates in Texas, Cruz will likely try to show voters a version of O’Rourke beyond the third-term congressman who has rejected outside money, has no campaign pollster and visited all 254 Texas counties, many of which Democrats wrote off long ago.
National attention in the race has grown as O’Rourke has raised more money than Cruz, a 2016 presidential contender, and polls have suggested a tighter race than expected in a state where Republicans typically win in landslides. One poll by Quinnipac University this week, however, found Cruz ahead by 9 points.
“The ad hominem attacks on character and dredging things up from 20 years ago, I could go down that same road as well. And there’s a temptation to do that because that’s how politics have been carried out in this country for as long as I can remember,” O’Rourke said last week before speaking at a Dallas church. “But like so many people in this state, I’m sick of it.”
A second debate is planned for Sept. 30 in Houston, followed by a final debate in San Antonio on Oct. 16, which is three weeks before Election Day.
O’Rourke began running for Senate last year as a relative unknown outside his congressional district in far-flung El Paso. He jumped into a race that most deemed unwinnable in Texas, which hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1988. His path to victory would require a massive Democratic turnout and large gains in Texas’ conservative suburbs.
O’Rourke, whose father was a Republican county judge in El Paso, started his political career as a city councilman in 2005. He supported a downtown redevelopment plan in which his father, Bill Sanders, a wealthy El Paso developer, was an investor. The plan was fiercely opposed by some residents and business owners in an affected neighborhood called Segundo Barrio.
Cruz’s ad accused O’Rourke of trying to use eminent domain to push out residents and “benefit his own family.” Stuart Blaugrund, an attorney for opponents of the plan, filed two failed ethics complaints against O’Rourke alleging personal and financial conflicts, and O’Rourke ultimately recused himself from votes related to the project.
“He ultimately did the right thing,” said Blaugrund, who said he doesn’t plan to vote for either candidate.
Cruz also sought to draw attention earlier this year to a furniture store run by O’Rourke’s mother that paid a $250,000 fine in 2010 after the store was accused of manipulating financial records. The store was charged as a corporate entity, and Melissa O’Rourke was not charged as an individual. Beto O’Rourke told the El Paso Times that “the store made a mistake and the issue was resolved.”
At a restaurant in Henderson County this month, O’Rourke supporter Melody Belcher, 74, suggested to Melissa O’Rourke that the campaign should consider running ads refuting accusations she saw on conservative media. She was with her husband, who was holding O’Rourke yard signs, and Belcher said that even she still had questions about what she’s read.
“I feel very strongly he probably is what he says he is, just looking at his ads,” Belcher said of O’Rourke. “But people have been fooled before.”
The first debate between O’Rourke and Cruz and O’Rourke is scheduled for Friday on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)