In Julián Castro’s less than widely read, cookie-cutter autobiography, My Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from the American Dream, the former mayor and cabinet official begins with a story of driving four hours to an immigration processing center in McAllen, Texas, this past June to join a protest against the Trump administration’s policy of separating parents from children. Castro shares thoughts about his immigrant grandmother, about his keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and about how calling the administration’s policy “state-sponsored child abuse” was, in his opinion, “not hyperbole.”
Castro writes that he told a Border Patrol official through an intercom that he wanted to leave letters and stuffed animals for the children. The official responded, “Okay, yeah, we’ll send somebody out there.” Castro lamented that “the box of toys and letters was still sitting outside the facility when I left more than an hour later.”
This opening anecdote shows that Castro drove eight hours that day to join a protest for an hour, and as far as he can tell, his letters and toys never made it to the children inside. Good intentions, but no real effect on what was going on — which is a metaphor perhaps more apt than Castro intended.
Castro signed his book deal in 2012 after he catapulted to national stardom with a widely praised keynote address at the Democratic convention, in a role played in previous cycles by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Back then, a lot of Democrats thought Castro, a media-friendly mayor, could end up as Hillary Clinton’s running mate down the road. ABC News, New York magazine, the BBC, and The Week all labeled him “the Latino Obama.”
But the 2020 cycle begins with Castro in a much worse position than seemed imaginable then, as the candidate of tomorrow suddenly finds himself the candidate of yesterday without ever having been the candidate of today. He spent two years as the secretary of housing and urban development, perhaps the least prominent of cabinet positions. In his home state of Texas, former congressman Beto O’Rourke is the rising star generating buzz among Democrats.
“On the merits, Julián Castro should be a third-tier Democratic presidential candidate in 2020,” says Texas-based Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak. “He has no discernible path to the nomination. In Texas, he has been surpassed by Beto O’Rourke in every way. If Julián runs, he will have difficulty getting much national attention or raising sufficient money.”
But there is a wrinkle that suggests Castro can’t be immediately dismissed as an also-ran: He could very well be the only Latino on that crowded debate stage, in a party that appears to be growing more focused on identity politics. Right before Election Day 2016, after Donald Trump had run a campaign that Democrats believed was pure electoral poison among Latinos, Vox declared, “The Latino ‘sleeping giant’ is finally rustling awake.” Then Trump won, in large part because the sleeping giant didn’t awaken. Latinos were 10 percent of the electorate in 2012 . . . and 11 percent in 2016. Hillary Clinton underperformed Obama’s 2012 showing among Hispanics by five points — 71 percent for Obama, 66 percent for Clinton. If Democrats want to see that long-expected surge of Latino-voter turnout in 2020, they might need a Latino on the ticket.
As of this writing, Castro is the only Latino in the vast Democratic field, and he would probably be the youngest face on the stage for a Democratic debate likely to feature more senior citizens than the cast of Cocoon. The bad news is that Castro’s résumé is . . . thin, at least by the standards of presidents before Donald Trump.
Clearly, at one point Castro thought he could run on his biography and the “journey” he described in his memoir. He and his twin brother, Joaquín — today a congressman from San Antonio — were largely raised by his grandmother and their mother after their parents separated. In his autobiography, Castro paints a loving but complicated portrait of his mother as sometimes drinking too heavily and perhaps too lenient, but also determined to treat her children as mature young men, able and expected to help out with her local activism.
Rosie Castro was involved in the Chicano political party La Raza Unida, whose leaders Castro describes as “young, determined, and idealistic.” That’s one way of characterizing them. A 1971 New York Times article about their rise makes them sound a lot more radical, racialist, and separatist:
Albert Gurule, the party’s candidate for Governor of Colorado in the 1970 elections, told the meeting that there were only two political parties in the United States: La Raza Unida and the “gringo-controlled” parties.
“We don’t need the red necks,” he said.
. . . The [party’s] plan was outlined in March, 1969, at its youth awareness congress in Denver: “Aztlan belongs to those that plant the seeds, water the fields and gather the crops and not to the foreign Europeans. We do not recognize capricious frontiers on the bronze continent.”
In 2012, Rosie Castro caused her son a bit of a headache when she told The New York Times Magazine that the Texans at the Alamo were “a bunch of drunks and crooks and slaveholding imperialists who conquered land that didn’t belong to them. . . . I can truly say that I hate that place and everything it stands for.” It’s not often you see a mayor’s mother trashing the city’s most famous historical site.
Both Castro brothers were good students, but Julián is open about having been accepted to Stanford University because of affirmative action. He sees himself as one of its success stories: “Joaquín and I got into Stanford because of affirmative action,” he told the New York Times in 2010. “I scored 1210 on my SATs, which was lower than the median matriculating student. But I did fine in college and in law school. So did Joaquín. I’m a strong supporter of affirmative action because I’ve seen it work in my own life.”
If the American people still yearn for a political outsider, Castro’s life story may turn out to be a liability, as he was, indisputably, politically ambitious at a young age. He was elected to the Stanford student senate — he admits that he and his brother put so many campaign posters in campus men’s rooms that they earned the nickname “the Stall Twins” — and interned in the White House in 1994.
He was accepted to Harvard Law School, and at age 24, while still in Massachusetts, he began setting up a campaign for San Antonio city council. Castro’s slogan was “Cast your vote for the future.” One of his primary rivals posted a yard sign saying “Experience.” Fueled by his old neighborhood friends and his mother’s activist allies, Castro won by a wide margin. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor at age 30 in 2005 but ran again in 2009 and won. In An Unlikely Journey, Castro claims he never thought about running for mayor until, after a heated city-council vote over a housing development, supporters spontaneously started writing in red marker on posters, “Integrity, Character, Promise: Julian Castro for Mayor.”
The wunderkind star mayor that shows up in Castro’s media profiles is not quite the whole story. San Antonio operates under a city-manager system — the mayor is elected, but the eleven-member city council hires a manager who “carries out the actions and policies of the council by overseeing the day-to-day operation of the organization.” In 2014, a local radio station compiled a list of the most powerful figures in the city and ranked Castro fourth, behind the incumbent mayor and two coaches of professional sports teams, while Kriston Capps of the website CityLab examined Castro’s record and concluded that “the city’s strengths (and weaknesses) have relatively less to do with the mayor compared to other major U.S. cities.”
One change that Castro deserves some credit for is “Pre-K 4 SA,” a program for preschool in the city, funded by a one-eighth-cent sales tax that was approved by referendum in 2012. “I am willing to stake my entire mayoral tenure on the need to invest in these young people,” Castro said.
Nearly 8,000 students have participated in the program in its four education centers since 2013. The good news is that it’s popular with parents, and teacher evaluation of the students generally shows improvement. The bad news is that the share of San Antonio third-graders, the first class to enjoy the benefits of Pre-K 4 SA, who performed at or above grade level on state tests increased from 21 percent in 2012 to only 24 percent in 2018 — about the state’s average. El Paso, Dallas, and Fort Worth saw bigger improvements.
An anecdote that made its way into almost every profile of Castro is that in December 2009 he attended a White House event and President Obama joked that he looked young enough to be an intern. But clearly the Obama administration liked the young mayor a lot, as he started appearing at the White House with surprising frequency: In April 2011, he was invited to discuss immigration with the president; in October 2011, he met with Obama at the White House to talk about transportation projects. Then he attended a White House state dinner for President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea. In January 2012, Castro attended Obama’s State of the Union address, with a seat in first lady Michelle Obama’s box.
Castro went to HUD in July 2014 and lamented that it had half the employees it had had in 1981. In April 2016, Castro’s HUD ruled that landlords couldn’t reject tenants because of a previous arrest and that, in the case of convicted criminals, landlords would have to prove that the exclusion was justified and consider factors such as the nature and severity of the crime. Castro tried to increase subsidies to help poorer urbanites move into the suburbs, a move that New York Post columnist Paul Sperry called “punish[ing] the suburbs for being too white and too wealthy.” A similar program had been enacted during Bill Clinton’s presidency, but a 2011 review found surprisingly bad results: no change in welfare dependency, no change in school performance, and slightly higher arrests among young men. When Ben Carson took over at HUD, he scuttled the program.
Democrats could do worse than Castro in 2020, and they probably will. The long-delayed book reflects how quickly and dramatically our politics changed since he addressed the Democratic convention in 2012. Neither party is all that hungry for inspiring stories of children of single mothers rising to the top and celebrating the power of education to offer the American dream to everyone. Democrats are livid about the cosmic injustice of the 2016 election and want a candidate who can metaphorically punch President Trump in the mouth.
Fervently anti-Trump New York Times columnist Charles Blow met with Castro in December and came away underwhelmed: “I’m listening for something enlightening, something arresting, a vision and a vocabulary that will rally and inspire. It never fully manifests.”
It’s odd that a candidate who looks so young could feel so past his prime.