EL PASO, Texas — Beto O’Rourke was running for the El Paso City Council in 2005 when he asked to meet with the illustrious real estate investor William Sanders.
Sanders had earned a fortune in Chicago before returning to his remote hometown on the West Texas-Mexico border. He thought O’Rourke wanted a donation.
But O’Rourke, now vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, was actually seeking permission to marry Sanders’ daughter Amy. And after he secured it, his future father-in-law began talking at length about her previous boyfriend.
“It was a very awkward — very, very awkward — conversation,” O’Rourke recalled in a phone interview.
Worth at least $500 million according to a conservative Forbes estimate, Sanders has helped make Beto and Amy O’Rourke millionaires. O’Rourke won his city council race and briefly supported an ambitious, though controversial and ultimately unsuccessful, plan to redevelop downtown El Paso that Sanders was leading. Later, Sanders’ timely donation helped transform his son-in-law from longshot primary challenger to congressman, setting him up to nearly upset U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz last year and catapult him into the presidential race.
O’Rourke’s campaign says Sanders plays no role. Still, O’Rourke might never have made it on the national stage without the help of the intensely private tycoon.
“I think Bill has always helped in the background,” said Mike Dipp Jr., an El Paso businessman who has known Sanders for years.
By the time O’Rourke came into his life, Sanders had already spent decades at the top of America’s real estate industry, a visionary who spotted trends before others, developed strategies to capitalize on them and built top-notch management teams to execute his plans.
Sanders founded Verde Realty in 2003 to focus on investments in the Southwest, where he believed cheap labor costs and a booming population would make the region thrive.
Journalist Steve Bergsman, who wrote about Sanders in a 2006 book, described him as a workaholic whose vision of making El Paso an industrial powerhouse “really laid the groundwork for Beto’s rise, even before he had probably met or heard of him.”
In the 1990s, Sanders had been dubbed the “Warren Buffett of real estate” for acquisitions and investments that put him in control of a massive portfolio of money-making commercial, industrial and residential properties and made him one of America’s largest landlords.
Investment partnerships tied to Sanders generated more than $780,000 in interest and dividend income for Beto and Amy O’Rourke over the last decade, tax returns show.
Sanders founded and built the company that became Chicago’s renowned La Salle Partners. It was a one-stop shop for some of America’s largest corporations for acquiring and managing buildings, land and property. He sold his stake in La Salle in 1989 and left for New Mexico.
In the 1990s, Sanders founded the Security Capital Group and built companies that owned warehouses, storage units, office buildings and parking garages. Sanders took a dim view of real estate moguls like Donald Trump who moved from one splashy deal to the next. Sanders purposely avoided skyscrapers in favor of less risky and lower maintenance properties that he considered more lucrative for shareholders.
“I don’t give a darn what a building looks like; I want to be very confident that it is a strategic asset,” he said in a rare 2006 interview with an industry magazine.
Sanders, who sold Security Capital for $2.1 billion in 2001, usually relished the low profile such ventures afforded him. That changed after O’Rourke joined the city council in 2005 and Sanders led a group of businesspeople who released a plan to redevelop downtown. O’Rourke initially voted to move it forward. But many low-income, immigrant residents said it raised the specter of El Paso using eminent domain to displace some of its most marginalized residents while benefiting developers.
The plan eventually stalled and O’Rourke has repeatedly denied conflict-of-interest complaints. Still, critics, including El Paso attorney Stephanie Townsend Allala, say O’Rourke consistently backed his father-in-law’s interests and “not once has he supported the grassroots side.”
“Beto’s standing was aided by his billionaire father-in-law, and the billionaire father-in-law was aided by Beto’s standing,” she said.
O’Rourke’s bid for election to the U.S. Congress began with a primary challenge to veteran Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes in 2012, and Sanders was again there to help. A super PAC, the Campaign for Primary Accountability, was co-founded by a Houston businessman and GOP donor that election cycle to target incumbents from both parties and try to send new faces to Congress. An investment trust controlled by Sanders gave $37,500 to the PAC in the months before the primary.
The donations were “probably 10 percent of what we spent,” PAC strategist Jeff Hewitt said.
The group worked to increase Reyes’ unfavorable ratings. O’Rourke says he won by simply outhustling Reyes, noting that he knocked on more than 15,000 doors. He prevailed by less than 3,000 votes — a feat Hewitt says would have been impossible if not for outside help.
“He’s the quintessential, ‘Woke up on third and thought he hit a triple’ guy,” Hewitt said of O’Rourke.