Politics

The Stakes of Texas Politics Have Never Been Higher

The Castro brothers on what the state needs now.

The Castro brothers.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts’ Noche de Gala.

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Texas politics is a rough business, and recent headlines prove that. The state has recently passed a highly restrictive voting law and an abortion law that invites citizens to spy on, report, and sue others who are performing the procedure. But despite a Republican lock on political power, Texas boasts an increasingly diverse population, and many progressive leaders who are making an impact on the state and the nation. That includes twins Julián and Joaquin Castro. Julián served as mayor of San Antonio and HUD secretary before running for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. And Joaquin currently represents the 20th District of Texas in the U.S. Congress after many, many years as a state legislator. The Castro brothers recently joined me as part of the Texas Tribune Festival to talk about the state, national politics, and their political futures. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, featured on this week’s episode of A Word. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Julián, you ran for president in 2020. You really, really champion issues like prisons and housing. And so, here we are, we’re eight months into the Biden administration. Where would you grade them on how they’ve addressed some of the things that you were passionate about when you were running in the primary last year?

Julián Castro: Well, I give President Biden high marks on taking care of business. He has done the things he most needed to do, which is to get shots in people’s arms and to focus on making sure our economy is good. There is still important unfinished business, whether we’re talking about the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act or immigration reform, that still needs to happen and, hopefully, will—partially, at least, in this reconciliation budget. So, I give the administration high marks for a lot of what they focused on and have accomplished. And there’s a world of difference between what Biden is doing and what Trump did in terms of competence and everything else, heart and compassion, and effectiveness.

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At the same time, I believe that we need to pursue a nation where everyone counts. And the fact is that too many people are still being left out in America. And so, this Congress and the president have still a lot of work to do to make sure that we get to an America where everyone counts.

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So Joaquin, you have a different perspective. You’re actually in Congress. Do you think the Biden administration is doing enough on things like pursuing the insurrectionists? Or, more specifically in Texas, doing something about voting rights? Do you think that there’s enough urgency on the part of your colleagues all the way up to the administration?

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Joaquin Castro: Let me start with the first one, the Jan. 6 insurrection. Early on as the FBI started investigating and arresting people, I thought that what they were doing was too light, actually. Now there are hundreds and hundreds of people that have been arrested, and there’s still these ongoing cases. So, in that sense, I think that the response has been more appropriate for what happened and for what the folks did. And I think not only was it insurrection, it was an attempted coup.

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On voting rights, I mean, look, the president has made it clear that he supports HR 1 and HR 4. I do think that he’s going to have to continue to really get in there and twist arms, so to speak. I know there’s a compromise now in the Senate that Joe Manchin has led; it’s kind of the Joe Manchin version of a voting rights act. And if they can get 10 Republican votes for that, that’ll be amazing. But, we know that’s also going to be very tough to make happen. I think they’re going to give a little bit of time to see if that’s even possible, but I’m very skeptical along with many others that that’s going to happen. And if it’s going to be a matter of changing the filibuster to get voting rights done, that’s where the president’s really going to have to step in and use all of his powers of persuasion, LBJ-style from the 1960s, where he was able to work with Democratic senators and get them to go along with his agenda on civil rights, on voting rights, on Medicare, all of it. But it’s going to be a real test for President Biden, I think, when we get to that moment, probably shortly.

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I always thought it was very key, when we looked at what Gov. Greg Abbott has been doing in Texas, that they attacked voting rights first; they suppressed the vote. And then, they went after abortion rights in order to almost make sure that they wouldn’t face consequences electorally next year.

What kinds of things are you hearing from advocates on the ground about abortion rights? What kinds of stories are you hearing? A lot of us who aren’t in Texas, we wonder about this.

Julián Castro: Well, they’ve tossed away 50 years of legal precedent, 50 years of a guaranteed right for a person to have an abortion. There’s a lot of fear out there, whether we’re talking about activists who, of course, are still resolved to push back, and to claw back this law. Or everyday people out there, that this right is being taken away and what that means for the ability of folks to control their own body. That is cause of a lot of fear.

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We hear companies now saying that they’re having problems recruiting employees to Texas, or keeping them in Texas. We hear companies saying that they’re not going to consider relocating to Texas, even though they were before. So, not only is it causing a lot of fear, and it’s affecting the ability of women to control their own bodies, it’s also hurting the Texas economy. And that’s becoming more and more clear. This SB 8, the abortion legislation, is going to cause a real backlash.

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Joaquin, so some company that you’re talking to, to try and negotiate to bring to your district, to bring to Texas, they’re calling you now saying, “What the heck? We have people who want to leave now.” What are you saying when you’re getting these phone calls?

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Joaquin Castro: It’s a combination of things. First, the federal response in trying to stop SB 8 from fully taking effect, that’s one part. But really part of it is a plea in the long term for companies and people that have a different vision for the state’s politics to actually stay in Texas, and fight back, and stand up to this. Because, in a sense, these far-right folks who have passed this law, they win if everybody that disagrees with it leaves. For them, that’s a twofer because not only have they enacted their policies, but they’ve discouraged people from sticking around or from coming.

That said, we saw Salesforce recently that said it was willing to relocate any of its Texas folks who wanted to leave because of SB 8. You asked Julián about what the average person thinks, and I just think the average person thinks that it’s overkill. The idea that if somebody rapes you and you’re going to be made to have that person’s child, I think most people think that that’s right-wing overkill.

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Julián, I want to go back to—since we talked about this when I had you on the podcast about a month or so ago—how COVID is also contributing to another crisis that we’re facing, this housing crisis. Can you talk a little bit about how that looks in Texas with COVID rates still rising and people not having places to stay, and no eviction moratoriums.

Julián Castro: Yeah, it’s a perfect storm for misery. Rising COVID rates, the lapsing of the eviction moratorium. Also, the cutoff of unemployment insurance. Now, the boost cutoff had happened for Texas some time ago, but many folks are losing their benefits overall. And so, there are a lot of people either who have become homeless, or are living on the edge, perhaps they’re doubling up with a family member, or friends, or people living in their car. And we had a rental affordability crisis well before this pandemic.

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Ultimately the answer is that, as a country, we need to get much more serious about truly investing in housing that’s affordable to the middle class and to lower-income people. There’s a little bit of hope on the horizon, the reconciliation budget included over $300 billion of investment in affordable housing. That would be the biggest investment that we’ve made in generations. So, that’s a long-term solution. In the meantime, states, including Texas, need to be as good as possible at enacting local or statewide eviction moratoriums, where they can. And making sure that the rental assistance that Congress provided for, $47 billion, gets into the hands of renters and landlords that need it.

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Joaquin, you did an op-ed in Variety talking about one of the reasons that we see such disconnects between the government and Latino community is the lack of effective and diverse representation of Latinos out of Hollywood. You mentioned statistics. Only about 5 percent of Latinos ever get speaking roles. Half the times, they’re criminals, or monsters, or something else like that. And this is something that I’m very passionate about for all communities.

So first, I want to talk about this with both of you guys from a micro level. When it comes to programming, how do you guys find programming that you think is a positive representation of Latino people for your children?

Joaquin Castro: They, of course, watch the Dora the Explorer movie and the cartoon. And some of the children’s shows, I think over the years, have gotten better about presenting a more diverse cast of characters. So, that’s good. But it’s still a big challenge. And you’re right, Jason, when we talk about this, anytime you mentioned Hollywood, people kind of think that’s fluffy. It’s not a hard issue, like health care, or immigration, or “Medicare for all,” or some issue like that. But I actually think that this issue is a foundational issue for many communities, including the Latino community because Hollywood, although there are competitors now like social media, is still, in the United States, the main image, defining and narrative creating institution about groups of people.

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And so, I really started this work in earnest after what happened in El Paso, Texas, in 2019, where you had a guy that drove 10 hours and killed 23 people because he said he considered them, “Hispanic invaders to Texas.” And I thought about, where does a guy like that get these ideas? And the more I looked at it, and thought about it, and researched it, the more I realized you had this very dangerous overlap between the traditional stereotypes of Latinos that have come out of media over the years and from Hollywood as lazy as drug dealers, as illegal. And then, the political world where you had people like Donald Trump and other politicians, even more now, that will abuse those stereotypes for their own political gain. And the reason that they’re able to do that, in large part, is because the Latino narrative in the United States is missing. There’s a void there.

And, by the way, it’s not just for the Latino community. It’s been dangerous over the years for the African American community, especially the stereotyping. It’s dangerous for the Muslim American community over the years, especially after 9/11—too often when you see them on television, or on film, they’re cast as terrorists, or evil people. The Asian American community, I think, has been going through some of that as well, particularly on the political end—all those hate crimes because the president called it all those different viruses and so forth. So, there are many communities that are confronting this issue. And unless we change the institutions that create the images and drive the narrative, then people are going to continue to be profiled in a dangerous way.

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