The last Democratic presidential candidate from Texas — and the only Latino — has stepped off the political field, nearly one year since the former secretary of U.S. Housing and Urban Development and San Antonio mayor first entered the race.
Julián Castro said he was dropping out with a heavy heart.
“But with only a month until the Iowa caucuses, and given the circumstances of this campaign season, I have determined that it simply isn’t our time,” he said in a video and in a statement to supporters. “I know this news hurts — but I’m not done fighting. I’m going to keep working to build an America where everyone counts, and where Democrats win races up and down the ballot.”
Castro strongly advocated for immigration reform. He qualified for the first four debates. And although he met donor thresholds set by the Democratic National Committee, he failed to reach polling requirements in order to make the last two debate stages.
The party’s seventh debate is set for Jan. 14.
It’s with profound gratitude to all of our supporters that I suspend my campaign for president today.— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) January 2, 2020
I’m so proud of everything we’ve accomplished together. I’m going to keep fighting for an America where everyone counts—I hope you’ll join me in that fight. pic.twitter.com/jXQLJa3AdC
Castro supporter and San Antonio high school teacher James Hamric reacted to the announcement Thursday with disappointment but not surprise.
“I’d kind of resigned myself to him not being the nominee,” he said, “just because he hadn’t made the past couple of debates, and overall polling averages and stuff like that. But to have it be official was kind of a blow.”
Hamric said Castro was an important voice in the Democratic primary because he acted on the party’s principle of inclusion and “brought issues that may not have been comfortable to talk about, like police violence and homelessness.”
Hamric also said Castro’s run for the White House meant a lot to his students, especially his Latino students.
“They have a new found inspiration. Just having someone who looked like them and came from their own background and rising to the level of running for president, and speaking to those issues with authenticity—it seemed to make things more possible,” Hamric said.
Castro walked a path blazed in part by another former San Antonio mayor and HUD secretary, Henry Cisneros.
He says the Castro campaign was an important one for many reasons, but was a long shot to begin with in the era of big money politics.
“So we had to know from the beginning it was a tough slog,” he said, “but [Castro] acquitted himself very well, and in this era, when [an inexperienced and relatively unknown candidate like] Pete Buttigieg can project themselves as president, then … all the rules are changed.”
Cisneros said that it was unfortunate the campaign didn’t last until the Iowa caucus. But he felt Castro’s future is still very bright in Democratic politics, and he hoped Castro will continue his public service in some way.
He said the race meant a lot to the city’s profile as a player on the national scene as well as an incubator of talent. But, Cisneros added, it meant even more to the residents of the West Side and others born without privilege.
“Only in America can a young man grow up in tough circumstances and fight his way through the best colleges in the country and gain experience to become the leader of his community and then run for the president of the United States,” Cisneros said.
Cisneros has a long history with Castro family. He attended primary school with Castro’s mother, Rosie, and watched Julián and his brother Joaquin grow up.
He said he hopes Julián Castro continues in public service.
Castro’s announcement came two months after former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke made a similar decision. On Thursday, other political experts analyzed how their departures may resonate across the political landscape as the 2020 election storm clouds build on the horizon.
Lydia Camarillo, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project — the largest Latino voter participation organization in the U.S. — said both Castro and O’Rourke can still have an impact on voter turnout numbers across the state.
“Making sure that there’s an investment in Texas by them calling out to their donors to support groups that are doing the work like ours,” she said, could lead to “tax-deductible dollars will help mobilize the Latino electorate in ways that we haven’t seen before.”
Camarillo said Latinos are expected to make up nearly 25 percent of this year’s primary election results.
In that light, she said the polling process in early voting states, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, is flawed.
“First of all, it’s almost a 100% white communities,” she said. “There’s very few Iowans that are Latino, and we’re not being polled.”
While Castro consistently scored in the low single digits in most national polls, he fared better in Univision polls of likely Latino voters, polling as high as 18 percent in September.
Camarillo says Southwest Voter will continue its efforts in Texas to increase voter turnout this year, but an investment in resources across the state is critical.
Henry Flores, a political science professor emeritus at St. Mary’s University, said he hoped this was not Castro’s last bid.
“This was a good … training ground for him in the future,” Flores explained. “Because he’s got name recognition now, he knows what kind of national organization is required, he knows how much money is absolutely required to put one together, he knows what he needs to say, he knows what he cannot say.”
Flores said he believed Castro’s candidacy opened the prospects for Latinos to seek higher political offices.
“With Julián’s arrival on the national stage — on the debate stage — and getting TV time as a legitimate presidential contender it was a personification of that inclusion. So finally we had arrived at a point where we’ve got individuals in our community who have the stature and the background who can be president in the United States.”
Flores said Castro could potentially be a vice presidential pick for the eventual Democratic presidential nominee.
‘I didn’t grow up a frontrunner’
Julián Castro’s presidential campaign began with an announcement in mid-December 2018 that he had formed an exploratory committee. By that point, some pundits considered him a rising star in the Democratic Party. He had national experience as HUD secretary in the Obama administration, and he made it to the short-list of potential running mates for Hillary Clinton during her 2016 presidential campaign.
“I believe we can make a promise to people with black and brown skin, people that wear turbans and hijabs and yamakas, that you can walk down the street in your community, in any community and feel safe,” Castro said.
Castro eventually had to face the white-hot popularity of O’Rourke, the fellow Texan fresh off his failed campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. But in the Trump era, optimism was in the air.
“Americans are ready to climb out of this darkness, and we’re not going to wait. We’re going to work. That’s why I’m exploring a candidacy for president in 2020,” Castro said in his announcement. Later, speaking to reporters in San Antonio, he said he welcomed a large field of Democratic presidential candidates.
“The thing is, this year you’re going to have a very talented field of people,” he said. “There might be two dozen people from all over the United States that are running,” he said. “I think that is fantastic, not only for Democrats but for the country.”
Castro acknowledged the long road ahead for him, and he accepted the challenge.
“I didn’t grow up a frontrunner,” he said. “I can’t think of a time in my life where I started out as a frontrunner in life. There’s a lot of people today in America who don’t feel like frontrunners, and I’m going to speak to them and I believe I can win the nomination.”
On Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019, in one of San Antonio’s oldest Hispanic communities, Castro, 44, stood in the shadow of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church and formally entered the 2020 presidential race.
“This is a special place for all of us, this West Side of San Antonio,” he said. “This is the place where my grandmother Victoria came in 1922 when she immigrated from Mexico as a 7-year-old orphan. This is the place where my mother became an activist, working to improve the life of her own community.”
His speech referenced his mother, Rosie Castro, a one-time member of the La Raza civil rights movement.
“You see, I learned from my mother so many years ago in this community that when we want change, we don’t wait for change, we work for it,” he said. “When my grandmother got here almost 100 years ago, I’m sure she never could’ve imagined that one of her grandsons would be standing with you here today to say these words: ‘I am a candidate for president of the United States of America,’ ” Castro said.
After her son’s announcement, Rosie Castro was asked why 2020 should be the year America elects its first Latino president.
“Many of us would agree that [President Donald Trump] has done everything he can to make Latinos, Mexican-Americans, to talk about us in a negative way,” she said. “We don’t believe in that in this country. I think Julián will be able to bring us back to values that are really American values.”
During an interview with TPR, Castro was asked how he planned to entice those who may have supported Trump’s candidacy and nationalist movement in 2016.
“I think it’s swinging back in the other direction now because people realize that immigrants are not the problem in this country, whether documented or undocumented,” he said. “Being there at the Ursula Processing Center near McAllen, which is a processing center where they were separating children from their families as part of Trump’s policy, many of the activists there did not have the color of my skin.”
That message of inclusion was the central topic of Castro’s announcement speech and has also been a running theme throughout his political career.
Castro graduated from Stanford University and Harvard Law School. In 2001, the 26-year-old became the youngest city council member in San Antonio’s history.
In 2009, Castro was elected mayor of San Antonio and spearheaded community improvement efforts like SA2020, a collective effort of how San Antonians want their city to appear in 2020.
Then, in 2012, Mayor Castro led a $30 million voter-approved tax referendum aimed at providing pre-K education to anyone in the city. The program was called PreK4SA.
“Here in San Antonio I made PreK4SA happen. As president, I will make pre-K for the USA happen — universal pre-K for all parents who want it,” Castro said.
That same year, Castro was the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, a role reserved for the party’s rising stars. Four years later, Castro found himself on a short list of potential running mates for Clinton’s presidential campaign against Trump, the eventual Republican victor.
Once on the field as a presidential candidate himself, Castro was asked how he would compete in a crowded Democratic field. He was pragmatic but also optimistic.
“I think you’re right, it’s going to be crowded; we don’t know everyone that’s going to get in but probably a lot of folks. Look, I’ve always believed that you need to give people a sense of your vision, and I’m going to go out there and make the case about my vision and my passion and see what happens,” he said.
Geoffrey Skelley, an elections analyst with the website FiveThirtyEight, spoke to TPR in April 2019. He said Castro had some key attributes that set him apart as a candidate.
“On paper, Julian Castro makes an interesting case,” he said. “Castro is a young Latino with experience in the Obama administration. That could appeal to millennials, party loyalists and voters of color. … That’s sort of how you see Castro’s potential as a candidate,” Skelley said, “but so far I would say that it seems like he has not really broken through.”
The Democratic field
By late June, Democrats prepared to face off in their first debate in Miami in late June, and Castro was already struggling, hardly getting above one percent in the polls. He faced so many opponents that Democrats had to schedule two separate debates on two nights so every qualifying candidate could be heard.
And more popular candidates, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, were already easily eclipsing Castro.
Some analysts and reporters considered Castro to be little more than a potential running mate for someone like Warren. But Castro declined to entertain that perspective. “I’ve enjoyed my conversations with Sen. Warren, and I’m looking forward to seeing her on the debate stage as well,” he said, “but right now I’m focused on myself.”
His strategy was to distinguish himself from the other candidates with his immigration reform plan, which he unveiled ahead of the other candidates.
“The challenge is to make sure I capitalize on that and then do well in the debate and let people know about my ideas so that we can have a more prosperous United States,” Castro said.
His ideas included providing a pathway to citizenship, decriminalizing illegal crossings and redesigning the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.
Castro appeared in the first debate, and his group of candidates included O’Rourke. When moderators asked about immigration, sparks flew between the Texans.
Castro wanted to decriminalize crossing the U.S.-Mexico border for undocumented people. He said by eliminating Section 1325 of the U.S. code he would change illegal border crossing from a misdemeanor crime to a civil offense. He called out O’Rourke for not supporting a repeal of the federal law that criminalized border crossings.
“The reason they are separating these little children from their families is that they are using Section 1325 of that act, which criminalizes coming across the border to incarcerate the parents and then separate them,” Castro said. “Some of us have called to end that section of the law to terminate. Some, like Congressman O’Rourke, have not.”
O’Rourke fired back saying his plan covers more than just one aspect of immigration reform.
“You’re looking at just one small part of this, I’m talking about a comprehensive rewrite of our immigration laws,” he said.
The exchange resonated with debate audiences, and it was a breakout moment for Castro. According to Google Trends, Google searches for “Julián Castro” spiked 2400% during the debate in Miami.
Castro also defended himself when fellow candidate Joe Biden, the vice president to President Barack Obama, claimed he never heard Castro push this policy when Castro was HUD secretary.
“Mr. Vice President, it looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past. One of us hasn’t,” Castro responded.
Moderators also asked Castro about an Associated Press photo of a Central American dad and his 23-month-old daughter lying face down on the banks of the Rio Grande after they died while trying to cross the Texas-Mexico border.
“Watching that imagine of Oscar and Valeria is heartbreaking,” Castro said. “It should also piss us all off.”
Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston, said after the debate that Castro’s expertise on immigration helped him stand out from the crowd.
“I thought he showed a perfect amount of passion and policy expertise,” he said. “This is going to be a big issue for him. This is going to be a big issue for all the candidates going forward, and he really owns this issue now in a way that he didn’t before.”
But he added a prescient warning: “This will be a one-day story. This will be a one ‘pop’ for him.”
When President Trump visited San Antonio in mid-April 2019, Castro held a counter-rally hours later. During his speech, he shared a daydream with his audience. He imagined the moment he would usher the defeated Republican incumbent out of the White House in 2021.
“We will be on the White House lawn,” Castro said, “and the helicopter will be right there in the distance. And right before he leaves — right before he walks away to the helicopter — I’m going to tell him, ‘Adios!'”
Castro’s campaign ended just a day after one of his signature achievements as mayor — the Decade of Downtown — came to an end. The idea spawned a program that revitalized the city’s core, added incentives for builders and changed the skyline through the addition of the new Frost Bank Tower. It spurred dozens of projects that created more than 6,000 apartments in the urban core.
But the program has also come under increased scrutiny. Neighborhoods across the city have seen higher property values, taxes and speculators waterfall onto their streets, leaving them with a big shrug and the question, “What about us?”