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National Opinion

BJORK: Rising Star or Shooting Star: Castro Capitalizes on the First Debate

Why Consider Julián Castro

Once regarded as the Democratic party’s next big star, Julián Castro is one of the many lesser known candidates in this crowded field. Even before President Donald Trump’s tirades against immigrants came to dominate American politics, immigration had been one of Castro’s signature issues. His focus on immigration, coupled with his strong performance in the first Democratic debate, make him a candidate worth listening to. 

Background

Castro grew up in San Antonio, Texas, raised by a single mother who had a background in Chicana activism. His grandmother immigrated to the U.S. at the age of seven, and even though she stopped attending school after fourth grade, she was able to make a livelihood cleaning houses. Castro tells this story often on the campaign trail, demonstrating how the American Dream has been a reality for his family. Like his grandmother and mother before him, Castro and his twin brother Joaquin grew up on the West Side, a poorer and predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood of San Antonio. Nonetheless, Castro did not learn Spanish until he was an adult (which is fairly common among second generation immigrants). 

As a boy, Castro was painfully shy and did not enjoy the fact that his mother dragged him to numerous political events. He has recently said, however, that it was this early exposure to political life that convinced him to pursue politics as his career. Along with Joaquin, Castro attended Stanford University and then Harvard Law School, returning to San Antonio to win a seat on the city council at the age of 26—becoming San Antonio’s youngest council member ever. Although he lost his first bid for mayor in a runoff in 2005, Castro won his second mayoral race, becoming the youngest mayor among the 50 largest American cities. By leading successful urban development initiatives that focused on reinvesting in downtown San Antonio and in historic neighborhoods—one of which attracted $350 million worth of private investment—Castro gained recognition as one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders. 

In 2012, Castro gained a seat on the national stage by delivering the keynote address at the 2012 Democratic party convention. This publicity led several outlets to forecast that Castro could be “the next Obama,” largely because of his inspiring personal narrative. (Additionally, Castro was an early supporter of then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008, becoming a co-chair on his campaign.) In 2014, President Obama nominated Castro to be his secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). As secretary, Castro reduced veteran homelessness and helped families in affordable housing obtain internet access.

After he was nominated as HUD secretary, many reporters speculated that Castro could become Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016, though this did not ultimately come to pass. 

While the national media has been quick to latch onto Castro as a promising Hispanic politician, he has been reluctant to let his ethnicity define his reputation. As mayor, his message was focused on economic developments rather than representing the city’s significant Latinx population. In a 2002 profile, Castro said he wished that politicians could be judged on their ideas while also representing their background meaningfully, a sentiment that he has expressed since

Key Issues 

Immigration reform: While many Democratic candidates, including Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and fellow Texan, former Representative Beto O’Rourke, have made immigration reform a priority in their campaigns, Castro’s policies are more radical and more specific. Central to his plan is repealing section 1325 of the United States Code (a compilation of federal statutes) which makes illegal entry into the U.S. a federal crime. With Castro’s proposed changes, entering the U.S. illegally would be a civil infraction instead of a criminal one, thus removing the twisted justification the Trump administration has used to explain family separation. Although entering illegally has been a crime since 1929, it was not widely prosecuted until the Bush administration; now, immigration crimes are the most common convictions in U.S. federal courts. If the U.S. were to repeal section 1325, immigrants would not be detained or apprehended at the border and would instead be given a date in immigration court and then released into the U.S.

Pre-kindergarten: As the mayor of San Antonio, Castro persuaded the city council to adopt an incremental tax increase that nonetheless brought the city up to the maximum tax rate allowed  in Texas. With this revenue, he established pre-kindergarten centers that were not tied to existing school districts and that provided free education to low-income families, while allowing middle class families to pay on a sliding scale. Universal pre-kindergarten has been a central part of Castro’s campaign thus far. 

Polling and criminal justice reform: On his website, Castro lays out policy proposals to restrict the use of deadly force, demilitarize police forces, and hold police accountable. He also includes a proposal to combat the school to prison pipeline, a trend of harsh school discipline policies that disproportionately affect young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, often leading to incarceration. Additionally, as HUD secretary, Castro expanded the guidance surrounding fair housing for those who were previously incarcerated. 

Controversies

Some progressive activists have attacked Castro for being too sympathetic to Wall Street and the mortgage industry while he was HUD secretary. They claim that his agency was too quick to sell mortgages to Wall Street, without providing proper oversight. After this criticism, HUD changed its policies, claiming the new guidelines had already been planned. 

During the 2016 campaign, a federal investigator found Castro in violation of the Hatch Act for expressing his political views during an interview he gave within his official capacity as HUD secretary. Castro acknowledged the error and the Obama Administration declined to enforce any penalties.

Furthermore, despite his stated opposition to political action committees, Castro does have one, Opportunity First. Castro established the committee in 2017 and has used it to finance some of his campaign costs and to funnel money to young progressives running for state and federal offices. 

An emblematic anecdote

While mayor of San Antonio, Castro was invited to an economic opportunity forum at the White House. He was one of a handful of mayors, and noticeably the youngest. When Castro got up to speak, Obama commented: ““I thought he was on our staff. I thought he was an intern. This guy’s a mayor?” The table full of dignitaries laughed, but Castro smiled easily, unfazed as usual.

Fiercest competitor

Because they are both young politicians with exciting backgrounds, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Castro overlap considerably as candidates. Both have served as mayors from red states, with largely successful tenures, and both are running based partially on an argument for generational change. Fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke is another competitor of Castro’s, and the two clashed over immigration during the June 26 debate

State of the race

Like many of the candidates, Castro is battling his way out of obscurity—with some success. For months, Castro promised supporters that the debate would be his first big chance to introduce himself, and several Texans agreed that he did that well. During the debate, Google searches for Castro surged 2,400%, and O’Rourke received many follow-up questions after Castro accused him of lacking knowledge about the U.S. Code. Castro’s campaign said that June 27, the day of the debate, was his best day of fundraising since he launched his campaign in January. He also experienced a 20-point boost in favorability ratings after the first debate—the largest increase of any candidate. And in a press conference shortly after the debate, Castro told reporters that fellow presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) called to congratulate him on his performance. Like Warren, Castro’s website contains detailed policy proposals (on policing, education, immigration, housing, and reducing lead).

Fun facts

Castro and his twin, Joaquin, did once impersonate each other, in their junior year English class. While Julián Castro was running for mayor, the announcer of a local parade announced his name—and it was Joaquin who waved from the float. The brothers said it was simply a mistake on the part of the announcer, who had not realized that Julián had decided to attend a different event instead. 

Even if Castro does not end up on the ticket in 2020, he likely will remain a rising star within the party, especially as Texas trends more Democratic.