Orphaned seven-year old Victoria Castro came to the United States from Mexico in 1922. She only attended school through fourth grade, having to go to work to help her family. She made her living cleaning houses, cooking and babysitting. And her story is the American dream. Because her daughter, Rosie, went on to be a high school valedictorian, graduated from college, has been active in Democratic politics and civil rights activism all her adult life, and completed her Master’s Degree before becoming a college Dean. And then, a mere two generations after Victoria Castro emigrated to the United States, her twin grandsons were able to attend Stanford University and Harvard Law School. And today, her grandson Julián is running to be president of the United States.
Julián Castro is no mere “identity politics” choice though. He’s got a really impressive resume. After graduating from law school in 2000, he became the youngest-ever San Antonio city council member in 2001, at age 26. In 2009, he was elected mayor of San Antonio—a city with a population of one and a half million (compare this to the 102,000 population of South Bend, where Mayor Pete serves—it “could almost fit into our Alamodome,” Castro says); he was re-elected handily in 2011 and 2013. As mayor, he focused on urban revitalization, including initiating “The Decade of Downtown” to increase housing and employment in the city center, and fighting for federal grants and Promise Zone designation for the East Side neighborhood to create jobs and affordable housing there. In 2011, San Antonio was rated the best performing large city by the Milken Institute. (Side note: I actually worked at the Milken Institute after college for a few years!)
In 2012, Castro gave the DNC Keynote Address, the first Hispanic to do so, and made the case for re-electing President Obama.
“We all understand that freedom isn’t free. What Romney and Ryan don’t understand is that neither is opportunity. We have to invest in it…Barack Obama gets it. He understands that when we invest in people we’re investing in our shared prosperity. And when we neglect that responsibility, we risk our promise as a nation.”
In 2014, Castro was nominated by President Obama to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He continued the work of the previous Secretary to stabilize the housing market following the 2009 crisis, reduced mortgage insurance premiums, oversaw implementation of the new National Housing Trust Fund to build affordable housing, developed a policy to strengthen protections for anyone living in HUD-assisted housing who becomes the victim of domestic violence, and countless other initiatives. I’m old enough to remember when Cabinet Secretaries didn’t have widespread name recognition, because they just went along doing the work of the people, and weren’t actually embroiled in scandals, indictments, and resignations.
It was widely rumored that Hillary Clinton was considering Castro as her Vice Presidential pick, and when asked directly, she stated that “I am going to really look hard at him for anything because that’s how good he is.” But ultimately, it’s likely that the rise of Trump in the Republican primary that made it seem less important for Clinton to woo Latino voters by picking Castro, and she instead ended up picking Tim Kaine (who speaks Spanish). In January of this year, Castro officially announced he was running for president “to make sure that the opportunities that I had are available to every American.”
But in a crowded field, Castro’s had a hard time so far breaking out. With most national media focused on dramatic stories about the frontrunners, the debate stage has been one of the only opportunities for trailing candidates to make their mark. In the June debate, Castro sparred with fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke over immigration policy, with Castro pushing a more progressive position to decriminalize border crossing. In the July debate, he told Vice President Biden about his record on immigration that “what we need are politicians that actually have some guts on this issue.” And then in the September debate, he seemed to imply that Biden was too old for the job, mockingly asking, “are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” But even these moments haven’t been enough to keep Castro in the limelight for more than a moment—and now he has failed to make the November debate stage and seems unlikely to qualify for the upcoming December one as well.
It’s a shame, though, that Castro isn’t getting traction with voters or the media. Because he’s one of the only candidates (along with Cory Booker, who Lowell discussed) who pushes the Democratic primary to discussions of issues critical to minority Americans and to those living in urban, inner-city areas; and who really focuses on the intersectionality between these discussions and other major policy issues like the environment, the economy, health care, etc. For example, Castro has plans to address over-aggressive policing and police relations (and he repeatedly speaks the names of victims of police shootings to remind the public about these injustices); to eliminate exposure to lead poisoning; to strengthen tribal sovereignty and invest in education and economic opportunities for Indigenous communities; to protect the health, safety and civil rights of farmworkers and invest in farm communities; to keep children out of the foster care system by preventing child neglect and abuse and to invest in the success of those who do go through the foster care system. These are issues barely touched on by the frontrunners, if at all. The value of having candidates representing diverse communities in the Democratic primary is not so that they don’t all look like white old men when they stand together on the debate stage—it’s so that these issues so desperately critical to so many Americans are discussed and prioritized.
Julián Castro has a really hard path to the presidency as things stand. But with Kamala Harris dropping out recently, the field needs him to stay in even more. He has–rightly (in my opinion)– complained that the media treated Kamala unfairly and held her to a higher standard, and that the focus on “electability” by its very nature pushes aside candidates of color. He has also been critical of the DNC order of primaries and caucuses, with the two bellwethers that hold the first primary and caucus in the nation both being states that are not reflective of the United States population as a whole—saying, if Democrats don’t elevate voters of color, “why the hell are we Democrats in the first place?” Ultimately the Democratic Party needs to seriously consider whether it can win in 2020 without building a coalition of voters that includes people of color from Midwest urban areas like Pittsburgh and Detroit whose low turnout for Hillary Clinton likely caused her to lose those states. Ultimately we need to figure out if we’re ready to commit to the American dream coming true.