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Former Texas U.S. Rep. and Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke visited South Carolina State University's campus Friday afternoon, touting a message of ending corporate corruption, decriminalizing marijuana, ending racial and economic injustices, and pushing criminal justice reform.

"The democracy has been corrupted and captured by special interests, by corporations, by a concentration of wealth and privilege and power we have not seen in this country in more than 100 years," O'Rourke told a couple of hundred gathered at SCSU for his visit.

O'Rourke cited an "economy that works too well for too few" and a health care system that is failing despite the U.S. being the "wealthiest, most technologically, medically advanced country the world has ever known."

"We have failed to form the political will to deliver the care to those who need it," he said.

O'Rourke spoke against voter disenfranchisement from racially drawn congressional districts and voter identification laws.

"In Texas, you are able to use your permit to carry a firearm to show who you are at the ballot box, but in Texas you cannot use your ID ... to prove who you are at the ballot box," he said. "People have been drawn out of a congressional district and a reason to vote. Therefore, their democracy is based on the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their country of national origin."

O'Rourke said the criminal justice system is based on injustice and racism.

He called for the legalization of marijuana and said the black community is disproportionately targeted by law enforcement for the same crimes committed by white people. He cited the specific problem of opioid use.

The criminal justice system has failed to show any accountability to corporations that sold opioids and caused death and devastation in communities, he said. "We have to make sure no man, no woman, no corporation, no special interest is above the rule of law."

Several Orangeburg political leaders were in attendance, including Orangeburg Mayor Michael Butler and Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews. Both men met with O'Rourke and welcomed him to the area.

O'Rourke was also greeted by former Orangeburg County Democratic Party chair Betty Henderson.

Upon his arrival, the candidate was greeted by S.C. State President James Clark and immediately donned a white S.C. State Bulldogs cap.

Clark and O'Rourke had a private conversation, with Clark giving O'Rourke an overview of S.C. State and its history.

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Claflin University students were also in attendance and presented O'Rourke with a Claflin University Panthers cap, which he wore for a photo opportunity.

Media outlets in attendance included CNN, Bloomberg, The New York Times and Washington Examiner.

O'Rourke answered a number of questions related to police brutality, reducing college loans, the electoral college and immigration reform.

He said he would ensure there is help on the federal level for college students to receive assistance in paying down student loans. He said he supports additional funding for historically black colleges and universities. His comments received applause.

Regarding police brutality, O'Rourke said, "We need accountability from police officers."

"We must tie federal funds to local sheriff departments and police departments to full accountability, transparency and reporting for use of force," he said. "Many of these shootings seem to be violations of civil as well as human rights. There should be federal and civil rights investigations as well."

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On immigration, O'Rourke said he would "free Dreamers permanently from any fear of deportation and allow parents of Dreamers a path to citizenship.

"This is not something that has to divide us," O'Rourke said. "A 2,000-mile, 30-foot-high, $30 billion wall, sending the U.S. military to the border at a time of record low apprehensions ... none of that can be an answer to these challenges."

"Let us meet it with our confidence and our boldness with the best tradition of this country," he said.

On electoral college reform, O'Rourke said he still does not fully understand how "the loser got 3 million more votes than the winner" in the 2016 presidential election in which Hillary Clinton received more popular votes that Trump. 

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"It doesn't make sense to me," he said, noting he would support electors being selected proportionately based on the popular vote.

Shirley Davis, who described herself as a 63-year-old middle-class retired registered voter, expressed her concerns that the Democratic Party is "too divided."

"Divided we will fall, together we will stand," Davis said. "It is too much. I know the reason we are doing it to get the one that is in office out, but our camp is getting too divided and we got to stop. We are going to mess around and divide and divide and divide until we are going to lose just like we did when Trump won."

"Have you ever noticed that everyone goes in there with black hair comes out with gray hair?" Davis said of the presidency. 

O'Rourke said he is mentally prepared for the challenge and is ready to bring unity where President Donald Trump has brought division.

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"He seeks to divide us to stir paranoia anxiety and hatred," O'Rourke said. "We have an example to treat each other the way we expect the president of the United States to work and to see the best in one another and to not define ourselves by our differences."

The stop at S.C. State was a part of the Texas Democrat's first visit to a state where he was addressing a largely black electorate.

O'Rourke also held a meet-and-greet with voters in Rock Hill and Charleston and with students at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. The state has the first-in-the-South primary on Feb. 29, 2020.

As of mid-March, more than a dozen candidates have declared their candidacy for the Democratic nomination, with at least another 10 considering a run.

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Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.

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Staff Writer

Gene Zaleski is a reporter/staff writer with The Times and Democrat.

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