Above: U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro looks on as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi makes a statement during the House Foreign Affairs Committee in July.
San Antonio U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro is vying to become chair of one of the most powerful committees in Washington: the House Foreign Affairs Committee. But to do so, he’ll have to overcome the centrist and pro-military forces in the Democratic Party that currently rule the committee and stand to stymie progressives’ foreign policy plans.
The current chair of the committee is New York Congressman Eliot Engel, a centrist hawk, who was ousted by Jamaal Bowman, an insurgent challenger, in June’s Democratic primary election. The upset quickly prompted a behind-the-scenes power struggle over who would succeed him, and thus hold immense sway over the Democrats’ foreign policy agenda, in 2021—assuming the party maintains its House majority.
Castro announced his campaign for the chairmanship in July. He says that if elected, he will champion a progressive foreign policy vision that has been stifled by party leaders who seek to escalate conflict with other countries instead of squashing it. As he told the Washington Post, “Our foreign affairs committee needs to catch up with where Democrats are in terms of foreign policy.” That, he says, includes putting diplomacy above the prevailing foreign policy tactics of military intervention and economic sanctions, along with elevating other issues, such as Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, a problem that has found little traction in the past.
Political jockeying for committee chair positions usually takes place behind the scenes, and the decisions are typically based on seniority. There are two more-senior Democratic members of the committee who also are vying for the chair post—California Representative Brad Sherman, who is hawkish on foreign policy, and New York Representative Gregory Meeks, a mainstream Democrat—and they are seen as the likely front-runners for the post.
But Castro, who was first elected to Congress in 2012, contends that policy should trump seniority and wants the chairmanship process to play out in public, not in backrooms. The final vote isn’t until January 2021, but the race will surely heat up in the coming months.
While he isn’t as progressive as firebrands such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Castro is trying to tap into the energy of progressives who want to push the Democratic Party further to the left. So far, that has mostly happened through primary challenges against entrenched incumbents like Engel, but committee chairmanships could be the next target. After Engel’s primary defeat, a coalition of 60 progressive foreign policy and peace organizations released a letter calling on Democrats to elect a member “who will lead the committee in advancing a vision of restraint and progressive realism in U.S. foreign policy.”
Many Texas political observers were surprised when Castro dithered and then ultimately declined to make a run against GOP Senator John Cornyn this election cycle. But there is a logic to staying in the House: While he’s long been overshadowed by his brother, Julián, Castro has quietly become a power in his own right. Most recently, he was elected chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
If he can pull off his underdog bid for the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, that power will be further cemented.