From Underdog to Icon: Julián’s True Achievement
When no one believed that a Latino could make it to the White House, the former secretary of housing showed that this is not just a nomination, but the future of the country.
The last twelve months have seen names appear and disappear in the race for the Democratic nomination to compete against Donald Trump this November.
Starting out as the most diverse race in history, the Democratic primary once again settled on a handful of white candidates. But those who fought for the support of the Democratic machine achieved just as much, if not more than those who were left in the final stretch.
Among them is Julián Castro, former secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and former mayor of San Antonio — the only Latino in the race and the candidate who showed that the United States is not really ready for radical change.
Julián Castro was born in 1974 in San Antonio, Texas, to Mexican-American parents. He completed his law degree with honors at Stanford and Harvard Universities between 1996 and 2000, and at age 26 he became the youngest elected councilman in San Antonio's history. In 2009, he also became the youngest elected mayor of major cities in the United States.
His political work has focused on implementing a vision of economic growth while raising the quality of life of its citizens. Castro has also worked in community service with associations such as Family Services and has taught courses at the University of Texas.
Julián Castro made his appearance on the national scene when he entered Hillary Clinton's list of potential running mates for 2016, and later when he was one of the guest speakers for the New Hampshire Young Democrats 2018 Granite Slate Awards Dinner, where he was promoted as "a rising national star of the Democratic Party.”
Although Castro had not made any public statements regarding his intentions to run for president at the time, he eventually "fanned the flames" by forming a Political Action Committee (better known as PAC) under the title "Opportunity First".
In an interview with NBC, the young politician said his goal was "to help elected Democrats win seats in state legislatures and help the party regain a majority in Congress.”
For Castro, the immediate job was to "expand Democratic control at the state and federal level" in a country where Donald Trump sits in the White House.
"This guy is taking the country in a completely wrong direction and is hurting people along the way," he said. "I have a completely different view of the country and this seems to be an important time to turn things around.”
But the work that needs to be done before launching a campaign platform is hard.
As Castro explained to NBC during his interview, "It's not enough not to have Donald Trump. We need a positive vision of the future of the country," he said, with regard to the possible reelection of the current president. "I can assure you that in 2020 the American people will be looking for a new generation of leadership.”
During the 2018 midterm elections, Castro spoke with Rolling Stone about his vision for the country, his perspective on the mistakes made in the 2016 elections and the changes needed to set the nation on a new course.
"I have a strong vision for the country," he said. "I believe our country is going in the opposite direction and that it needs new leadership.”
Castro echoes the slogan he has coined for the past six years about "always going forward," a stance that connects directly to his grandmother's journey as an immigrant in the country, and represents the "optimism" typical of those who seek to move in the opposite direction from that which causes them to stagnate.
"The story of many vulnerable communities over the years has been that there are more and more opportunities to move forward," he explained. "We don't want to go backwards, and that's what we seem to be doing now.”
Having raised the possibility of a presidential candidacy earlier this year, Castro eventually gained enough support to take the matter seriously.
"The Americans are ready to come out of this darkness. We are ready to keep our promises and we are not going to wait. We are going to work," the former mayor of San Antonio said in a video released by his committee.
"That's why I'm exploring a candidacy for president of the United States in 2020," he added.
Castro began to echo his vision on issues of national debate, such as a Medicare for All, the importance of access to education and taxes for the wealthy.
It was the first time the community saw "one of its own" in the race: a grandson of an immigrant, an activist with first-hand experience of what it means to emerge from below in a country like the United States.
At the time of joining the race for the Democratic nomination, Castro was facing competition with up to 18 candidates. Making a difference was the most important challenge as his campaign took off.
While American political traditionalism means that all candidates make a pilgrimage to Iowa once they have decided to seek the presidency, Castro decided to break with the pattern and travel first to the island of Puerto Rico.
"I want the people of Puerto Rico to know this," Castro said during his visit. "If I am elected president, I will work every day to make sure that [the island] will not only recover, but also prosper, be respected and count.”
This gesture set the tone for the rest of his campaign, an odyssey where the former San Antonio mayor has had to maintain a balance between the weight of his ethnic background and the value of his political proposals.
After countless interviews and public appearances, the candidate drew up his road map and outlined what he would do if elected president.
Among his proposals were: support for free trade, an energy strategy that includes fossil fuels, respect for the LGBTQ+ community, and free choice regarding abortion.
The vast majority of Democratic candidates were then more or less considering all of these options. However, there are a few issues that only Castro brought to the table:
The only immigration proposal
Castro insisted during his campaign that "cruelty is not the solution" to the migration problem, as the Trump administration put it.
Making frequent references to his family history, the candidate always made the distinction between a functioning immigration system and the radical anti-immigrant campaign.
"Yes, we need to have border security, but there is a smart and humane way to do it," he said in his inaugural campaign speech. "And there is no way in this world that locking up babies is a smart, good or right way to do it. We say 'no' to building a wall and 'yes' to building community.”
His ideas were later merged into his "People First Immigration Policy" project, where he described the priorities for the country:
- Reforming the immigration system to include: a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who have made a life in the country, modernizing the visa system, and reversing the radical changes instituted by the Trump administration (such as immigration bans or citizen denaturalization systems).
- A "humane border" policy, which would return to the classification of illegal border crossing as a civil offense rather than a criminal one, and thus prevent the separation of families, and stop the private prison industry from continuing to profit from the suffering of immigrant families.
- Reconstitute the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE).
- Establish a 21st century Marshall Plan for Central America that includes modernization of diplomacy, high standards of governance, transparency and anti-corruption campaigns, thus improving the conditions which have forced many Central Americans to flee to the U.S. border.
While his Democratic opponents highlighted health care or the minimum wage, and overlooked this issue, Castro decided to confront the Republican discourse and retake control of the immigration narrative from the perspective of those who know first hand what being an immigrant means.
"If I don't make it to the next phase of debates, we will not be able to hold a campaign that reaches Iowa in February," former Housing Secretary Julian Castro's campaign told supporters in an email during October 2019.
"My presidential campaign urgently needs financial resources to continue," he added.
Despite being one of the few candidates with solid and feasible proposals in the race for the Democratic nomination, recent polls placed him in the 1% range of potential Democratic voters.
In order to boost his campaign in key states and turn this trend around, his team urgently needed funds.
"All the progress we've made is in serious jeopardy," the candidate said. "I started this campaign with a very small budget in the neighborhood where I grew up. I didn't start out as a frontrunner. I had no personal wealth to inject into this race, and we have built this campaign without a penny of Political Action Committees or billionaires.”
For Maya Rupert, Castro's campaign manager, this is her biggest challenge.
"Secretary Castro ran a historic campaign that changed the nature of the election for 2020 and pressed the Democratic Party on a number of big ideas," she said in a statement. "Unfortunately, we do not see a path to victory that does not include reaching the debate stage in November, and without a significant increase in our fundraising, we will not be able to reach that debate.”
Although it was known it could happen at any time, the announcement that Julian Castro was withdrawing from the Democratic primary was a major blow to those closely watching his trajectory.
In a message on Twitter, the former HUD secretary and former mayor of San Antonio announced "with deep gratitude to all our supporters" that he was suspending his campaign for the presidency.
"I am very proud of all that we have accomplished together," he added. "I will continue to fight for an America where everyone counts. I hope you will join me in this fight.”
As politics teaches us in terms of paradoxes, Castro was one of the few candidates of color in the primaries, representing the largest ethnic minority in the country today, and yet his efforts failed to propel him further in the nomination process.
Always speaking from his experience as a second-generation immigrant, Castro traveled across the entire country with his plan, which included the disabled, immigrants and people of color, using dignity as a banner.
Even though he was one of the candidates with a solid, feasible and inclusive program that left no community behind, Castro was devoured by the Democratic system, where it seems that being male and white is still the preferred route for those who do not understand that the country is ready to see a change.
His struggle, however, has left a deep mark on the country, after his participation in the national debate put on the table the names of victims of police violence, racial inequality and lack of representation in the political system.
"I am going to tell the truth. It is time for the Democratic Party to change the way we do our presidential nomination process," Castro said in his farewell speech. "I am very proud of the campaign we have run together. We have shaped the conversation on so many important issues in this race, we have stood up for the most vulnerable people and we have given a voice to those who are often forgotten.”
Castro's promise to "continue the struggle" was soon fulfilled.
The only Latino candidate in the Democratic nomination race announced that he would endorse Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in her quest for the White House.
In a message posted on Twitter, Castro said he was proud to support Warren.
"Elizabeth and I share a vision of America where everyone counts," he said. "An America where the people, not the rich or well-connected, are put first. I'm proud to join her in fighting for great structural change.”
Castro's support comes at a key time for Warren, who has lagged in the polls in recent weeks, following closely behind Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden.
While Sanders has the support of another heavyweight Latino in national politics in New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Castro's endorsement of Warren could represent a major shift in the profile of the Democratic primary.
"There is one candidate that I see who is not afraid to fight like anyone else to make sure that the promise of the United States belongs to everyone," Castro said in a video accompanying her announcement. "Mrs. Warren will make sure that no matter where you live or where your family comes from, you too have a path to opportunity.”
For her part, the Massachusetts senator thanked her former opponent for his support, saying she felt honored by his endorsement.
"Together we will fight to ensure that every family in America has a path to opportunity," she added in a Twitter message.
Although Castro is no longer on the ballot for the primary, his sleeves are still rolled up and his hands are still working for what really matters: the future of the country.