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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Beto O’Rourke’s Chicago Connection: His Wife, Amy

The candidate’s spouse spent a chunk of her childhood in Hyde Park, the daughter of “Warren Buffett of real estate” Bill Sanders.

Amy and Beto in El Paso in November 2018.  Photo: Paul Ratja/AFP/Getty

Beto O’Rourke has morphed at warp speed from the golden boy of presidential politics to the butt of a thousand jokes — from political phenom to goofball.

Recall, less than a month ago, the breathless anticipation with which America awaited a campaign announcement from the three-term El Paso congressman, who came thisclose [2.6 points] to ejecting Ted Cruz from the Senate.

Now comes increasing speculation about what’s between Beto’s ears. Just about the only Beto trait that’s not in dispute is his fundraising prowess. In the first 24 hours after announcing on March 14, he raised a better-than-Bernie $6.1 million from 128,000 people across all 50 states in. (Kamala Harris, by comparison, raised $1.5 million.)

Also not in dispute is his sheer energy.  Just after announcing, Beto visited 15 cities in Iowa over three days and all 10 counties in New Hampshire over two days.

It’s been fun for me to watch: the lanky 6’4” lad in his sweat-stained blue shirt, whose youthful enthusiasm (he’s 46) propels him to jump onto restaurant countertops, waving his arms at packed rooms as he delivers what’s increasingly reported by the no-longer besotted press as drivel and bromides about his quest to bring the country together.

Still, he persists. And why not? He has no day job. He doesn’t need one. O’Rourke has a net worth of about $9 million, the result of inheriting an El Paso apartment complex and shopping center from his wealthy parents.

And he has a really rich wife. That would be Chicago-born, Lab School-educated Amy Sanders O’Rourke, 37, the daughter of Bill Sanders, 77, who founded Chicago’s LaSalle Partners, which eventually merged to become Chicago’s Jones Lang LaSalle. Often described as a billionaire, although Forbes pegs his wealth at $500 million, Sanders has been called “the Warren Buffett of real estate” (Bloomberg News) and “the richest man in El Paso” (Houston Chronicle).

Born in Minnesota and raised in El Paso, Sanders was in his 20s and living in Texas when, in 1966, he founded a real estate company called International Development Corp.

In 1968, then single, he moved himself and the company to Chicago. He eventually renamed the company, which then had about 30 employees, LaSalle Partners, with offices at 208 N. LaSalle St.

He married El Pasoan Louann “Cita” Feuille in 1974 and built a house in Barrington Hills, where they lived before moving their children (eventually five) to Hyde Park around 1982, when Bill was elected to the board of the University of Chicago. A former business associate of his told me that the university wanted him not because of old school ties — Bill’s degree is from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences — but because of his business brilliance. He was known, according to Forbes, as “the godfather of the modern Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT),” which would be useful to the U of C with its large real estate holdings. He was elected to a second term in 1987.

The Sanders lived in a large Hyde Park co-op at 5490 South Shore Dr. and the children all attended the Lab School.

“Cita was the best of the best,” recalls Harriet Meyer, whose daughters went to Lab School and ballet with the Sanders’ daughters. "Sweet and kind and gentle and never a phony.” Lucinda Lee Katz, a former director of the Laboratory Schools, recalls Cita as a person who wanted to “enhance the institution by volunteering for student-focused actives.” Cita also served on the Board of the Chicago Lying-in Hospital. She was an engaged mom, who drove the kids around in what her across-the-hall neighbor Janet Surkin recalls as “a huge van/truck that barely fit through our building’s covered passenger drop-off.”

Mary Rhodes, a fellow Lab parent, recalls that the five Sanders’ children “never reflected the privilege which surrounded them, and, among Lab students, they were most humble.”

Neighbors don’t remember much about Bill except that he worked and traveled a lot. He was, per one Chicagoan who knew him well, a “visionary and innovator." People who worked for him went on to run big companies … Bill’s hobby was building these companies.” And selling them.

In the late 1980s, Sanders sold his stake in LaSalle Partners for $65 million. In 1990, Bill and Cita sold the Hyde Park co-op and moved to their ranch in New Mexico. In 1991, Bill founded Security Capital Group. He sold it in 2002 to GE Finance for $5.4 billion. He kept the ranch but moved his primary residence back to El Paso, where he started other companies and began to buy community banks around the southwest.

Amy, a graduate of Williams College who has run a charter school and now consults part-time on education issues, met Beto on a blind date. They married in Santa Fe in 2005, the same year Beto, age 32, ran successfully for a seat on the El Paso city council.

Beto’s father-in law, although a Republican — he gave $10,000 to Ted Cruz in 2012 — helped finance Beto’s campaign for city council, and, when Beto was ready to move up, for Congress. 

So did Sanders’s friends and business associates, many of them also RepublicansAccording to the New York Times, when Beto first ran for Congress, “One of [Bill Sanders’s] companies contributed $37,500 to a PAC that, in turn, spent $240,000 to defeat Mr. O’Rourke’s opponent, the eight-term Democratic congressman Silvestre Reyes.”

Beto’s run for the U.S. Senate also benefited from contributions by “Sanders’-owned entities,” a former business associate told me. “Bill developed many relationships — a who’s-who of Chicago, which benefited Beto,” one friend said. A Chicago woman involved in hosting a “house party" for Beto in 2018 describes Bill Sanders’s contacts as “quite far ranging.”

The connection wasn’t always helpful. In 2006, during his second year on the city council, Beto was hit with conflict of interest charges for “pushing an urban renewal plan” involving one of Sanders’s companies, the Houston Chronicle reported. “The plan called for redeveloping a blighted part of downtown El Paso, including a largely Hispanic residential area called Segundo Barrio,” they wrote. 

Residents — El Paso is 80 percent Hispanic — feared losing their homes through eminent domain, and called the plan “urban removal.” A New York Times reporter quoted a local historian: “Mr. O’Rourke was basically the pretty face of this very ugly plan against our most vulnerable neighborhoods.” 

Beto, who represented that area on the city council, eventually recused himself from a key vote and won reelection. The project stalled in the real estate recession.

Amy is quiet, serious, and not thrilled about her husband running, according to a hagiographic suck-up profile with pretty pictures by Annie Leibovitz in the current issue of Vanity Fair, timed to boost Beto’s launch and carrying the tag line “I’m just born to be in it.” 

On the Iowa trail Beto joked that his wife stays home to raise their three children “sometimes with my help.” When the line provoked laughter, he repeated it. Later, at Amy’s urging — she called it “flip” — he apologized and suggested he’d select one of the women running against him as VP.

Um, Elizabeth Warren? Amy Klobuchar? Kamala Harris? As VP to Beto? That would be like a 2008 GOP ticket with Sarah Palin as president and John McCain as her No. 2.

Friends describe Amy as hyper-competitive, not liking to lose. Per the Washington Post, she cried when Beto lost to Cruz. For sure, there will be more tears to come: The road to 2020 will be far rockier than any the couple has traveled.

Beto presents as your average generation X-er: a former bass player in a punk band, a profane skateboarder, a single-speed bike rider, a rented Dodge Caravan solo road–tripper.

In reality, Beto attended Woodberry Forest, an exclusive all-male prep school in the Virginian countryside. From there, he went to Columbia University, where he majored in English. He graduated in 1995 and stayed in New York working odd jobs before returning to El Paso in 1998, when, at age 26, he was arrested for drunken driving, allegedly jumping the median into oncoming traffic. A witness testified that Beto fled the scene, a charge he denies.

When asked specific policy questions, Beto calls for debate — for letting the American people decide. Recently pressed on immigration by the Washington Post (he did, after all, represent a border city) Beto replied:

“That’s a problem when you’re like, ‘It will be a wall,’ or ‘It will be this … The genius is we can nonviolently resolve our differences … I, working with you, will get to something better than what we have today.”

Now Beto’s stuck in a crowded primary against Democrats who are serious thinkers with actual positions (not to mention juicy oppo research). On top of the DUI, there’s some strange creative writing, published in e-zines during high school as a member of the hacker group Cult of the Dead Cow, including an erotic poem to a cow and a short story that imagines running children over with a car. 

Current weirdness includes a tale in which, while one of his young children was in diapers, Beto “collected an especially verdant turd … and put it in a bowl, telling Amy it was avocado.” (Pressed to confirm the anecdote, Beto balked, but admitted it sounds like something he might do.)

Even this year, months before his announcement, Beto live-streamed his own teeth cleaning; later, he gave this oddball account to Vanity Fair of giving a speech while running against Ted Cruz: 

“I don’t ever prepare a speech … Like, by some greater force, which was just the people there. Everything that I said, I was, like, watching myself, being like, How am I saying this stuff? Where is this coming from?”

In the decades I’ve covered politics, I’ve often concluded that the candidate’s wife was way smarter and more grounded than the candidate — so why isn’t she running? Increasingly, I’m asking myself the same question about Beto and Amy.

It’s unlikely that Amy found any of the aforementioned antics amusing. What is likely is that as this tough, over-subscribed campaign lurches forward, Amy will perfect the arched eyebrow and subtle frown that reminds her husband he’s engaged in serious business.

Amy could become the nation’s fourth Chicago-born first lady (after Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Betty Ford). A fifth, Nancy Reagan, was born in New York but raised in Chicago. Already, Amy is becoming a celebrity, after her role in Beto’s three and a half–minute launch video went viral earlier this month.

In it, Amy smiles at her husband, saying not a word while he talks and talks, failing to express a single idea about fixing the problems he enumerates.

She does play a role, however, holding his hand to restrict by half his gesticulating arms. That’s a start.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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