2020 Foresight: Julian Castro, The Heir to Obama’s America

As one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars that emerged during the Obama era, is Julian Castro ready to take up the mantle of leadership in an increasingly diverse, multicultural America? This article is part of a larger series exploring the prospects of Democratic presidential candidates in depth.

Amy KlobucharElizabeth WarrenJulian CastroCory Booker
Bernie SandersTim KaineSherrod BrownBeto O’Rourke
Joe Biden (VP Stacey Abrams) • Pete ButtigiegMike Gravel

Familiar Overtones

A relatively unknown yet charismatic politician takes the stage at the Democratic National Convention, selected by one of his party’s elder statesmen to deliver the keynote speech that will vault him into being considered as a future presidential contender. When the speech began, the audience wasn’t quite sure exactly who the speaker was. By the end of the speaker’s remarks, the audience couldn’t believe that such a talented politician had seemingly materialized out of thin air. Someone who captured the spirit of the diverse, multicultural America that the Democratic Party has come to embrace in recent years.

In 2004, this story played out for then-Senate candidate Barack Obama. Fast-forward to 2012, and Barack Obama himself selected a man who’s rapid ascent into national politics would mirror his own. Julian Castro grew up in San Antonio, Texas, where he would later serve as the city’s mayor, becoming the youngest mayor in the top 50 most populous American cities at the time of his election in 2009. Barack Obama would then nominate Mayor Julian Castro to serve as the Secretary Housing and Urban Development in 2014. If there is a single politician that Barack Obama actively worked to position as an eventual heir to his mantle, it was Julian Castro — not Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not Vice President Joe Biden.

Much like former President Barack Obama, Julian Castro’s biography and charisma give him the ability to speak poetically about the ideal of America as the vaunted land of opportunity. “My family’s story isn’t special, what’s special is the America that makes our story possible,” Julian Castro said in the 2012 keynote speech, after opening his remarks by recalling the story of his immigrant grandmother.

Fun fact, Julian Castro has an identical twin brother, Joaquin, who currently serves in the United States House of Representatives. The Castro brothers attribute their passion for public service to their mother, who helped create Partido Nacional de La Raza Unida. From their mother’s experience, the brothers were taught the value of grassroots organizing and public service that focused on the needs of the people. Maria Castro frequently took her sons to political rallies and organizing meetings. La Raza was originally inspired by a perception among Mexican-American activists that the Democratic Party was not adequately representing Chicano citizens by neglecting their fight against growing levels of inequality. Steeped in these values, Julian Castro has the opportunity to provide a breath of fresh air as a new face for the Democratic Party in 2020 — while harnessing the same style of emotional appeal that made Barack Obama so compelling in 2008.

Notable Policy Positions

  • As Mayor of San Antonio, Julian Castro implemented a new policy that gave homosexual married couples rights to the same benefits received by heterosexual married couples. This was four years prior to the national legalization of gay marriage by the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges.
  • With his experience as the HUD Secretary, expect Castro to make affordable housing issues and barriers to home ownership centerpieces of his messaging on economic opportunity.
  • He supports investment in mass transit as a form of economic stimulus.
  • One of his big initiatives as HUD Secretary was pushing a pilot project to connect low-income housing communities with free internet access; in speaking about this initiative, Castro emphasized the power of technology to combat generational inequality.
  • Julian Castro has voiced support for comprehensive immigration reform, but has been critical of Donald Trump’s child separation policy, his handling of asylum cases from South America, and his advocacy for “building the wall.”
  • In the past, Castro has supported the concept of using federal funding to jump start new jobs in clean energy. Could he be receptive to endorsing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal” agenda? He might be the only candidate to do so, which would distinguish him in the eyes of young voters that support Ocasio-Cortez’s agenda.

A Breath of Fresh Air? Or An Inexperienced Neophyte?

Castro is a relatively new face in the Democratic Party without a long record of policy positions; this can be both beneficial and detrimental, depending on how things play out in the coming months. To say that it is difficult to find public statements regarding his policy platform would be an understatement. On one hand, his somewhat amorphous political identity gives him the opportunity to carefully consider positions on many of the issues that will define the Democratic primary in 2020. On the other hand, a failure to define himself effectively and early would give his opponents the opportunity to define his candidacy.

A lack of foreign policy experience was a common attack from both conservatives and rival Democrats against Barack Obama in 2008. Obama could at least point to his work on nuclear arms reduction as a level of exposure to international affairs. Castro, however, has even less of a claim to foreign policy credentials. His only international experience is in regards to working with a “sister city” in South Korea as the Mayor of San Antonio, where Castro worked to establish trade relations. Obviously, this could be addressed in a general election the same way that Barack Obama addressed these concerns: by selecting an elder statesman with strong experience in the realm of foreign policy, a Joe Biden. Perhaps former Secretary of State John Kerry could be an ideal running mate? Maybe Tim Kaine could give a Vice Presidential candidacy another shot? Or Ben Cardin of Maryland, who has long served as a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs?

Questions of Castro’s inexperience will be omnipresent throughout his campaign — however long it may last. In addition to defining his policy platform, Castro will have to make the case early on that he is prepared and qualified to serve as President of the United States. This is another regard in which Castro’s political trajectory will closely mimic that of Barack Obama’s.

Path to Victory

Julian Castro’s path to victory, much like his candidacy, will be largely unconventional. There has never been a candidate that can appeal to the party’s latino base in the way that Castro can, and there has never been a candidate that made that population central to their nomination strategy. His viability centers around succeeding in Texas, California, Florida, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico — the top six states in terms of the percentage of hispanic residents. Between California, Texas, and Florida, these three states have the first, third, and fourth highest number of delegates respectively at the Democratic National Convention. Nevada is the third state in the primary process, which gives Julian Castro the ability to establish his viability with an early victory. Then comes the South Carolina primary, and after that is “Super Tuesday” on March 3rd, where California and Texas will simultaneously hold their presidential primaries. A win in Nevada, coupled with a win in Texas and a strong showing in California would put Julian Castro in the top-tier of candidates fairly early on in the nomination process.

If Julian Castro is chosen to compete in the general election against Donald Trump, the big question then becomes: can he make Texas into a swing state? Democrats feel emboldened after the surprising success of Beto O’Rourke’s campaign, which fell just a hair short of unseating Sen. Ted Cruz. Castro’s candidacy could change the calculus of the general election in a dramatic fashion. With Democrat Kyrsten Sinema’s recent Senate victory in Arizona, it is conceivable that both of the traditionally Republican southwestern states could become presidential battlegrounds with the right type of candidate.

Much of the Democratic Party’s conversation around “how to defeat Donald Trump” centers around winning back the rust belt states; Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan; that both Barack Obama and Donald Trump won in their respective campaigns. However, if Donald Trump managed to hold every single one of those states he would still lose if Julian Castro managed to win in Arizona and Texas. True leaders in politics are those who illuminate new paths forward that previously seemed impossible; Barack Obama won in states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana — states that nobody thought a Democrat had a reasonable shot at carrying in the 2008 general election. Should Democrats be looking back at the states that they’ve lost ground in? Or should they be looking forward at states, like Arizona and Texas, that they are actually gaining traction in? This paradigm sets up a fascinating debate about the future direction of the Democratic Party; a debate in which Julian Castro will be a central figure.

Trustee (Area 2) for the Woodland Joint Unified School District. Former Legislative Aide/Policy Analyst. Change is a process, not a conclusion.

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