Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke made his first stop in Council Bluffs Saturday to kick off his third visit to the state.

O’Rourke, a former congressman from El Paso, Texas, spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of about 200 people in the Wilson Middle School gymnasium for about 45 minutes, then took time to answer questions and shake hands.

He said he would fight for equal rights for everyone. For each dollar paid to white men, women are paid 80 cents, African Americans are paid 60 cents and Latinos are paid 53 cents, he said. It’s time to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, he said.

O’Rourke said he favors universal background checks for firearms purchases.

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and a disproportionate number of people of color are imprisoned — often for nonviolent crimes, such as possession of marijuana, he said. Having that on their record can limit the possibilities for their future. He said the nation should end its ban on marijuana and expunge that charge from people’s records.

O’Rourke said the average global temperature has risen by one degree just since 1980, and it will continue to increase if changes aren’t made.

“If left unchecked, generations after us are in for a hell we can’t even imagine,” he said.

The effects of climate change have been seen in Hurricane Harvey, which dumped more than 50 inches of rain on parts of Texas in 2017, setting a new record for the amount of rain produced by a single storm; in last year’s devastating wildfires in California; and in this year’s flooding in Iowa, where floodwaters in Davenport have now surpassed the record levels of 1993, O’Rourke said.

The U.S. must transition to renewable energy, he said. Farmers should be given incentives to plant cover crops to reduce carbon dioxide levels.

O’Rourke released a plan Monday for the United States to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 that would start with a 10-year, $5 trillion effort. He says the $5 trillion investment would include private money leveraged by a $1.5 trillion infusion of federal funding.

No one thinks the nation’s health care system is “working fine,” O’Rourke said. Universal health care is needed.

“Universal health care has to be not just for primary health care, it has to be for mental health care,” he said. While it would be expensive, it would be cheaper than paying for health care through detention facilities, emergency rooms and lost human potential, he added. Health care should not necessarily be tied to a person’s job.

When O’Rourke began taking questions, one man thanked him for promising to stop the Keystone Pipeline. He said he can do that because he doesn’t accept contributions from Political Action Committees.

A woman asked O’Rourke a question about immigration and asked him to answer it both in English and Spanish, which he did. He said he favored citizenship for so-called Dreamers and said many undocumented immigrants are Americans “in every other respect.”

“Let’s rewrite our immigration laws to reflect the value they bring,” he said.

“Last year, 400,000 people were apprehended at our southern border with Mexico – and we know that many of them were kids,” he said. “We are increasingly seeing this because of historic drought” in El Salvador and other Central American nations.

O’Rourke called his city of El Paso, Texas one of the largest “binational” cities in the country.

“And El Paso, Texas is not just a strong, thriving city, it’s one of the safest cities in America,” he said.

Scott Punteney, chairman of the Pottawattamie County Democratic Party, said afterwards he liked O’Rourke but remained neutral on whom to support.

“There’s just so many out there right now,” he said. “I think, like most people, I’m waiting to see how things come out. We’re ready to fight and go to work for whoever our nominee is.”

Iowa Rep. Charlie McConkey, D-Council Bluffs, said he was impressed by O’Rourke’s remarks.

“I’m liking what I’m hearing, and he’s getting a good reaction out of the crowd,” he said.

Tom Lewis of Red Oak said he was impressed that O’Rourke is visiting southwest Iowa in the wake of the flood. He said he also appreciated O’Rourke’s passion.

“All these people, they throw their hats in the ring, and later you see there isn’t any passion,” he said. “They just wanted to say they ran for president.”

Robert Fairchild, a local Libertarian, pressed O’Rourke on his stand on firearms after the event, asking what he considered a weapon of war and whether that included AR-15 assault rifles.

“I was trying to explain why we should have weapons of war in our communities – to prevent Russia and China from invading the U.S.,” he said.

Fairchild, who had not checked in as a media representative, was livestreaming as he questioned O’Rourke. After repeated questions, he was led out of the gym.

O’Rourke, a resident of El Paso, Texas, served six years in the U.S. House of Representatives before running unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2018. Prior to that, he was a business owner and city councilman in El Paso. He entered the race for the Democratic nomination for president on March 14, becoming the 15th in a crowded field that has since ballooned to 22.

On Sunday, he will hold town hall meetings at 9 a.m. at the Cottonwood Pavilion at 1309 W. Ferguson Road in Shenandoah; at 11:15 a.m. at Chautauqua Park Pavilion at 907 E. Summit St. in Red Oak, at Sunnyside Park-Camblin Shelter at 1300 Sunnyside Lane in Atlantic and at the Fritz and Carol Kramer residence at 1304 S. Fourth Ave. W. in Newton.

On Monday, O’Rourke will make two stops in Des Moines and stops in Newton and Indianola. He will visit Adel, Boone, Waverly, Charles City and Fayette on Tuesday and Mason City on Wednesday.

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