The Mayor Makes His Move

For years, Julián Castro has been called a rising star and earned comparisons to a young Obama. Is it enough to propel him to the presidency?

Julián Castro
Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro speaks to students at Bell Gardens High School in Los Angeles County on Monday. Mario Tama/Getty Images

For a rising star in the Democratic Party and candidate for president, Julián Castro’s visit to Los Angeles on Monday was strikingly low-key. The former San Antonio mayor and secretary of Housing and Urban Development met with a small group of students at UCLA, where he received a warm welcome, and later sat with immigration-policy faculty at a conference room inside the Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Castro, who looks younger than 44, burst onto the national stage after delivering an impassioned keynote speech during the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Soon after, he joined Obama’s Cabinet and was considered a potential running mate for Hillary Clinton. When Clinton passed—and then lost—Castro was left without a formal platform from which to build a national profile. But that has not deterred him. He is now trying to be the Democratic presidential nominee despite never having won a statewide election.

I first met Castro in Las Vegas a few years back. He struck me as strangely mimetic of Obama: the same grave voice, long pauses, and careful delivery, dressed in an appropriately dark suit. The similarities are not coincidental. Like Obama, Castro has long been thought of as an ideal politician to reach across racial divides. In 2010, after he began his term as mayor of San Antonio, the country’s seventh-most-populous city, the New York Times hurried to label him “the post-Hispanic Hispanic politician.” Castro has relaxed since then: Gone are the ties and the Obama staccato. (He has also polished his Spanish since then. As a third-generation Mexican American from Texas, Castro was not fluent). But he still embraces the broader character that brought him national attention in the first place. When I asked Castro if he thought it indispensable for the Democratic Party to choose either a woman or a Latino politician like himself in 2020, Castro resisted the invitation to advocate for identity politics, instead explaining that the party should “first and foremost” ensure the nominee “is well-qualified, has great ideas for the future of the country, and can represent everybody.”

As we sat inside the office of Gary Segura, dean of the Luskin School and a well-known Latino vote expert and advocate, surrounded by books on immigration and Chicano studies, Castro spoke not of these issues but of a wider agenda that would attract voters far beyond the country’s Southwest. I asked Castro if he thought his candidacy could appeal to disaffected white voters in the Rust Belt. After acknowledging that the size of the Democratic field would be a daunting challenge, Castro described an “inclusive vision” with ambitious aims. “I can get support even from some people who voted for Donald Trump,” Castro said. “I believe I can go into Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and win those states back, that I can go get the electoral votes that we lost very closely in 2016.”

Castro told me he sees himself as the “antithesis” of Trump, particularly on immigration issues. He has called Trump’s border wall “the definition of insanity.” In Los Angeles, I asked him about Trump’s policy on Central American refugees and the willingness of the new government of Mexico to collaborate with the president’s punitive policies. “I was surprised that the Mexican government cooperated with President Trump,” Castro told me. “If a family has traveled thousands of miles, they never expected to end up in Mexico. I believe they should have the opportunity to seek asylum under national and international law and to do that in the United States.”

On other foreign policy matters, Castro fell into a familiar trap among Democratic progressive politicians. When I asked him whether he recognized Juan Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela, he vacillated. “I think that the people of Venezuela should have the opportunity to recognize Guaidó and that he has, under the Constitution, this sort of interim status,“ he told me. The same thing happened when I asked Castro if he considered Nicolás Maduro a dictator. “He has failed the people of Venezuela. I’m not shedding a tear for Maduro,” Castro replied.

When I pushed back, asking for clarification on whether Maduro should indeed be regarded plainly as a dictator, Castro tiptoed around the definition, much like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have in recent weeks. “I believe he has acted like a dictator. I have no love for Maduro,” Castro said.

Julián Castro’s identity as an inclusive, progressive politician who can appeal to voters beyond the Latino community will face its two biggest tests in Iowa and New Hampshire, less than a year from now. If Castro’s candidacy survives those contests, where the Hispanic share of the electorate is still small, he will get a chance to come back south, to Nevada, and, crucially, California, where he will face steep competition from, among others, Sen. Kamala Harris, who’s vying to become the first-ever Democratic candidate from the country’s most populous and most immigrant-rich state. If Castro somehow manages to sneak past Harris, his improbable journey might yet continue.