Born to a family that has lived in El Paso for four generations, O’Rourke’s roots in the district run deep. His grandmother opened a furniture store there in 1950 which his mother now owns, and his father, also a Democrat, served on the El Paso County Commissioners Court and as the county judge in the 1980s. A self-described “bookish” teenager, O’Rourke said in an interview that during high school he spent much of his time in the library. “I had a real fascination with books and learning,” he said. He attended Woodberry Forest, a preparatory school for boys in Virginia, on a full scholarship and worked in the school library as part of his financial-aid package.
During his college years at Columbia University in New York, where he majored in English, O’Rourke worked a number of odd jobs to help pay his way, including delivering newspapers and washing windows. During that period, O’Rourke also played guitar in a rock band called Foss. The band did tours, and was part of the emerging do-it-yourself punk movement. O’Rourke and his bandmates scheduled their own shows, and often were dependent on the goodwill of club owners and nearby residents for meals and places to sleep. He describes it as an “absolutely magical” time in his life. “We met wonderful people involved in that culture of rock ’n’ roll and in their community,” he said. “It was just awesome.”
After getting his undergraduate degree in 1995, O’Rourke landed a job in the then-developing Web technology field. He spent three years working in Manhattan, but then decided to move back to El Paso to start his own company. New York City by then had a number of technology startups but El Paso had barely any. Stanton Street Technology Group began in O’Rourke’s apartment, with O’Rourke and a couple of his friends doing HTML and coding work for local websites. Today, the company employs more than a dozen people and provides Internet services throughout El Paso and nationally.
As he built his business, O’Rourke became increasingly involved in civic work, fueled by his interest in helping to reverse a trend of young people moving out of El Paso. With an economy dependent on low-wage, low-skill jobs, the city was “not a place you wanted to be,” he said. Many jobs had been outsourced to Mexico, and bridges from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, into El Paso had some of the longest waiting times along the U.S. border, potentially threatening tens of thousands of local jobs.
O’Rourke ran for the City Council and served two terms, from 2005 to 2011. One of his projects was working to save Sun Metro, the primary form of public transportation in El Paso, from a fiscal meltdown. The Metro was later named Outstanding Transit System of 2011 by the Association of Public Transit Agencies, and the same year, Newsweek named El Paso the No. 1 “Can-Do City” for its civic progress.
In challenging Silvestre Reyes for his House seat in the 2012 primary, O’Rourke argued that the incumbent had accomplished little in 10 years on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and failed to work on a solution to reduce bridge traffic. Reyes attacked O’Rourke for his position in favor of legalizing marijuana and painted him as unfit for office based on his arrest for drunken driving 16 years earlier. The charge was later dismissed.
O’Rourke defeated Reyes 50.5 percent to 44.4 percent in the June primary, assuring his victory in the fall in the heavily Democratic district.