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There have been 44 individuals, all men, who have been president of the United States of America in the country’s 243-year history. Four are still alive: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Of course, Donald J. Trump, current holder of the office, brings the total to only 45. That is why the U.S. presidency is often referred to as one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. Yet, aside from a difficult electoral process, it doesn’t require much to join. One merely needs be a natural born citizen, at least 35 years old and resident in the country at least 14 years.

Perhaps that is why a diverse group of two dozen men and women started jockeying for the Democratic Party nomination earlier this year. Although that number has been whittled to about 20, with more undoubtedly falling away soon, the power, glamour and glory of the office still exerts a siren call to those of big egos, big bucks and thick skins. One of them, Robert Francis O’Rourke, better known as “Beto” (a Spanish diminutive for Roberto), formerly representing the 16th Congressional District of Texas for three terms, made a quick “Coffee with Beto” stop at J’s Breakfast Club in Gary on Sept. 23. About 250 Betoniks and curiosity seekers, squeezed in. Space was rather tight so the largely white, out of towners, pretty much stood at attention for about an hour awaiting the candidate’s arrival.

Everyone kept sharp eyes on the front door. Then Beto Barrera, a Mexican immigrant residing in Portage, entered with a handmade sign reading “VIVA BETO!” with a small Mexican flag attached. This unlikely hero was cheered and assigned a prized spot next to where the real Beto would stand. Barrera acknowledged being thrilled with the candidate’s position on immigration and guns.

Finally, an hour late, Beto O’Rourke arrived, sidling almost unobtrusively through the back door. This caused momentary confusion since he was expected to enter from the front. He’s tall, but rather ordinary looking, lacking the aura and imposing presence of many public figures. He doesn’t possess the ability to, as they say, “suck the air out of the room” with his presence. That might have added to the confusion. A belated but vigorous chant of “Beto! Beto! Beto!” followed by “Hell, yes! Hell, yes! Hell, yes!” livened the place. The latter chant was in acknowledgement of the candidate’s declaration to confiscate all privately owned AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles. It might also have been a taunt to about a dozen anti-Beto demonstrators outside; one of whom carried a sign reading: “When you come for my guns … Bring yours!”

He was introduced by Indiana State Sen. Eddie Melton and hopped up on a makeshift dais. He’s a lanky guy with a Western movie Texas Ranger kinda look and the wingspan of a condor when waving his arms; something he’s noted for.

"Hello, Gary!” Beto said, waving his arms. “Gary is not just a city welcoming a candidate or political party. Your welcome is expressing something about America. Unlike the president, you represent what’s good about America. Trump has called vulnerable immigrants criminals and rapists. We must take no comfort that one man is making decisions instead of we, the people.” His greeting received tentative, guarded applause.

“I am running because our country needs change, real change,” he continued. “If elected I will legalize Dreamers and the 10 million undocumented persons in this country will have a clear path to citizenship. There are over 3 million, mostly minority, prisoners in our jails. We must change that.”

He gave his well-known spiel that health care should be available to everyone but union members could keep whatever package they negotiated; climate change is a real danger that must be addressed; helping unions to expand the middle class; lowering the disproportionate mortality rate of black women; and universal background checks for those who wish to buy guns, including red flagging purchasers with mental problems.

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“We must make sure our country works for everyone instead of just the elites,” he declared. “We must make sure that every American has a chance to succeed.”

Then he got down to serious business, announcing his need of at least 500 signatures of registered voters in each county to enable him to be on the ballot in Indiana and implored folks to be sure to contact a Beto Team member to sign the petitions. He next opened the floor for questions or comments, which resulted in about six queries concerning his policies.

Then Katie Tucker, an Army veteran from Tennessee, shocked the crowd with an emotional, expletive laden plea for help in her battle with the Veterans Administration. According to her, she’s dying from various ailments contracted during tours of duty in Iraq beginning in 2003 but is getting the run around by the V.A.

Beto appeared taken aback by her frankness. Visibly moved, he stepped down and hugged her.

“I’m not sure what effect it will have, but make sure you give me your information before I leave. I promise to have one of my aides contact the V.A. to look into your case," he said. 

Pauline Brandon of Springfield, Illinois, said she was unfamiliar with Beto, but was glad she attended the meeting because she had gotten a good understanding about what he stands for. She was especially impressed with his position on assault rifles.

As candidates go, Beto is fair to middling. He lost a close race to incumbent Texas Senator Ted Cruz in 2016. But does losing a senatorial race justify a leap to the presidency? He also made little impact during three national debates. But hey, Donald Trump has proven almost anyone can be president.

Depending on one’s perspective, Beto’s pit stop in Gary was either a sign of desperation or daring. Desperation because the city’s older demographics and heavy pro-union sentiments appear to favor established candidates such as Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. Daring because maybe he’s angling for the veep slot. Or probably more to the point, Beto, low in the polls and not getting much traction, is merely shilling Gary while laying the groundwork for the future.

Stafford A. Garbutt, of Gary, is a naturalized American citizen and native of Belize. The opinions are the writer's.

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