Beto O’Rourke touts his oft-overlooked background — small-business owner — as Greg Abbott attacks him as job-killer

Beto ORourke was a co-founder of Stanton Street Technology Group, an El Paso web-design company that he owned for more than a decade. The former El Paso congressman has been increasingly discussing the experience on the campaign trail. (Eli Hartman For The Texas Tribune, Eli Hartman For The Texas Tribune)

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Facing Republican attacks that he is a threat to the Texas economy, Beto O’Rourke is playing up a part of his background that has gotten little attention since he burst on the statewide scene: small-business owner.

With GOP Gov. Greg Abbott attacking O’Rourke as a job-killing socialist, the former El Paso congressman has been increasingly discussing the experience on the campaign trail, and it is the subject of his campaign’s first significant paid media. O’Rourke co-founded Stanton Street Technology Group, an El Paso web-design company, in 1999, and owned it for over a decade.

“So Greg Abbott and Beto O’Rourke — only one of them has started a small business and met a payroll every single week for 15 years,” O’Rourke says in a new digital ad, part of an initial $50,000 buy that starts Wednesday.

The economy is a top issue for Abbott, and he has argued O’Rourke would be disastrous given his support for things like a $15 minimum wage.

“From raising corporate taxes to creating a European-style labor market that kills jobs, extreme liberal Beto O’Rourke’s policies would destroy the Texas Miracle,” Abbott campaign spokesperson Mark Miner said in a recent statement.

O’Rourke has been campaigning on a plan by the Texas AFL-CIO to create more than 1 million jobs in the renewable-energy industry. He regularly emphasizes that the plan would not put fossil-fuel workers out of work, looking to preempt GOP criticism that he is a danger to the state’s oil-and-gas economy.

But beyond that, O’Rourke is hoping voters will take notice of a contrast in the backgrounds of the two candidates. He brought it up during a campaign stop Thursday in Vernon, a small town near the Oklahoma border, where an attendee asked him how supporters can combat GOP efforts to brand O’Rourke as a socialist.

Referring to Abbott, O’Rourke said, “This guy has been on the public payroll — nothing wrong with that — but if there’s someone who knows what capitalism is and understands the power of the market and creating jobs and how critical those jobs are to communities like Vernon, like my hometown of El Paso, I’m the guy.”

Abbott has held elected office for most of the past three decades, starting as a district judge in Houston in 1993 and going on to serve as Texas Supreme Court justice and attorney general before becoming governor in 2015. O’Rourke first entered politics in 2005 as an El Paso City Council member.

O’Rourke did not talk much about his business experience in his 2018 and 2020 campaigns. It came up in media reports as he became more of a national figure, but until now it has not prominently factored into his regular pitch to voters outside El Paso.

He started Stanton Street Technology Group in 1999, amid the dot-com boom, and owned it until heading to Congress in 2013, according to his campaign. The company employed dozens of people over the years.

O’Rourke helped start the business months after moving home to El Paso from New York, where he had been doing odd jobs since graduating from Columbia University in 1995. His parents ​​“lent him about $19,000 in start-up money,” according a 2019 New York Times report, and he moved back in with them so he could devote as much money as possible to the company, he said.

Stanton Street Technology Group built websites for local businesses and groups, including e-commerce sites for those trying to find customers outside El Paso. By 2000, it had “about 20 clients” and was charging $10,000 to $50,000 for an e-commerce package, according to the El Paso Times.

O’Rourke used the company for an endeavor that was a bigger passion: an online magazine, StantonStreet.com. He said its inspiration was his father, the late El Paso politician Pat O’Rourke, and he set out to provide an alternative voice to the local media. But it was short-lived, lasting only 15 issues and going bankrupt, as he would later recall on the campaign trail.

O’Rourke’s wife, Amy O’Rourke, took ownership of Stanton Street Technology Group when he ran for Congress for the first time, according to the El Paso Times. She sold the company to its CEO, Brian Wancho, in 2017, around the time her husband began his U.S. Senate campaign.

Disclosure: El Paso Times and The New York Times have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.