Why Julián Castro’s Candidacy Matters

The big storyline coming out of this week’s Democratic debates is the way candidates challenged each other’s history and policy proposals. But there was an extraordinary moment in Wednesday night’s debate that has gone unnoticed by commentators. It came right after Bennet made the case against impeaching Trump because Democrats need to focus on a policy agenda and Trump would only be exonerated in the Senate. Here is how Julián Castro responded.

Democratic partisans loved the fact that Castro threw in a reference to #MoscowMitch. But did you notice what happened at the end of that exchange? Castro’s argument was so persuasive that Bennet changed his position and said “that’s what we should do.” Has that ever happened at a presidential debate before?

To the extent that Castro is mentioned during analysis of the debates, pundits always note that he has performed extremely well in both of them. But that hasn’t had much impact on his standing in the polls, which will partially determine whether or not his candidacy continues. For the debates in September, eight candidates have now qualified.

  • Biden
  • Booker
  • Buttigieg
  • Harris
  • Klobuchar
  • O’Rourke
  • Sanders
  • Warren

Castro is very close to qualifying, having already met the small donor fundraising criteria and coming in at two percent or above in three of the four polls necessary to participate. There are several reasons why his continued candidacy is important for Democrats.

The most obvious is that his proposal on immigration reform has set the bar for the rest of the candidates. Elizabeth Warren acknowledged that a while ago.

In terms of other policy proposals, he has covered ground that no other candidate is addressing with plans for universal pre-K, lead abatement, police reform, and most recently, a plan to address the disparities affecting Native American Communities.

As an aside, you’ve got to love the fact that the introduction to the issues page on Castro’s web site quotes Audre Lorde.

Audre Lorde once said “there is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

This idea lies at the core of my People First policy agenda. In order to make impactful change, we need to reform and reimagine entire systems, which requires a comprehensive approach.

We will propose thoughtful plans to solve serious problems and put forth policies that connect to form a single vision for the future of this country. Because no problem confronting Americans operates in a vacuum, we will fight for solutions that place these issues in context, and understand how they intersect with each each other.

Castro’s candidacy got a huge boost on Thursday when he was endorsed by the Latino Victory Fund, primarily based on the policy proposals he has put forward.

While some may see the endorsement as logical, since Castro is the only Latino in the race, polls have shown Hispanic voters, like white voters, have divided their loyalties among the many Democratic candidates…

In making the endorsement, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Latino Victory Fund interim president, said in a statement provided to NBC News that Castro is a dedicated, experienced leader who will restore dignity to the White House and who has an “inclusive vision for all Americans.”

“He was the first candidate to propose an immigration plan, the first to propose a detailed police reform plan, and the first to propose a major policy platform for the Native American community. His actions make one thing clear: Julián is the resolute leader we need in the Oval Office in January 2021,” Mark-Viverito said.

While some centrist Democrats are concerned that Castro’s immigration proposals are too radical for voters, far-left groups launched an attack on him back when the Clinton campaign was considering him as a running mate. Their goal was to publicly discredit Castro as a progressive. That is precisely why I suggested that the traditional left-to-right continuum doesn’t capture the perspective of many people of color.

In writing about Castro for the Texas Tribune, Alexa Ura told a story about his journey to adulthood that is significant in capturing his unique approach.

“I’ve tried my entire life to make the most out of this first chance that I had,” Castro said in a recent interview with The Texas Tribune. “Most people who came from where I came from didn’t necessarily get a second chance.”

Castro avoided trouble and kept his head in the books so as to not derail the trajectory he saw for himself. He knew there was little room for error when you’re a Latino growing up on his side of town. But now he finds himself regularly addressing the dissonance between his disciplined, cautious persona and the tone of today’s presidential politics.

“This has come up in the conversation of people saying, ‘Oh, you know, you’re boring,’ or that I don’t drink or I haven’t gotten in trouble or whatever,” Castro said. “Well, no shit. I was trying to make sure that I could take advantage of this first chance because I didn’t think I was going to have a second chance.”

That is the story of many people of color in this country today: a recognition that they have to keep their heads down and work twice as hard because they know that, if they make a mistake, they won’t get a second chance.

Finally, Julián Castro is running for president during a time when the man who currently holds that office is relentlessly attacking people who share his background in the Latino community. He is very aware of the significance of the moment.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a public remark by Castro in which he says that quiet part out loud. But he does appreciate the gravity of his candidacy.

“No matter what happens in this race, I hope that there are a whole bunch of little Latina girls and Latino boys out there that when I’m on that debate stage or, hopefully … on that big stage in January 2021, that they can look and see that it’s not true what this president has said, that we can be anything and we can do anything and we can achieve our dreams and we’re as good as anybody else,” Castro said at a recent presidential candidate forum.

But it isn’t merely little Latina girls and Latino boys who will be impacted by his candidacy (emphasis mine).

“There’s always a group that has to go out in front and blaze a trail or cut the path for subsequent generations,” said Henry Flores, a political science professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, who was part of the same group of Chicano activists as Rosie Castro.

In doing so, they expose white voters to a different type of candidate to the benefit of future candidates of color, Flores said. He was referring to the work Rosie Castro and her contemporaries did in San Antonio to open doors for people of color by getting the white community, which typically votes in a bloc, accustomed to seeing people who don’t look like them hold power.

But soon after, Flores discerned that — regardless of how far Julián Castro makes it in the race — he could end up doing for others what his mom did for him.

“For me, this was a major step forward,” Flores said. “This is great because now people will see we’ve got a national presence. People will see who we are.”

None of this is meant to suggest anything about Castro’s chances of winning the nomination. Dan Solomon at the Texas Monthly got it right.

[W]ith six months to go before anyone casts a ballot or does whatever it is people do at caucuses—he’s a longshot, but we might as well let people vote before we rule him out completely.

Given his performance so far, Castro should be better than a long shot. But regardless of what happens in this primary, his candidacy matters.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.