The Interview: Joaquin Castro Says Texas Democrats are Poised for a Comeback

A Q&A with Congressman Joaquin Castro on the future of the Democratic Party in Texas, Trump, Ted Cruz and tacos.


A version of this story ran in the April 2017 issue.

Since Joaquin Castro was elected to the Texas Legislature as a 28-year-old in 2002, he has never received less than 58 percent of the vote in an election. He and his twin brother, Julían, a former mayor of San Antonio who served as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama, have repeatedly been called “rising Democratic stars” by national news outlets since at least 2012, when Joaquin was elected to Congress.

But ambitious Democrats in blood-red Texas have been limited to two options for decades: Run in safe, gerrymandered districts or commit political suicide by campaigning for statewide office. Now, the second-generation Mexican American from San Antonio’s largely Hispanic West Side says he’s considering a run against U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, who has already drawn one Democratic challenger in Congressman Beto O’Rourke. Castro spoke with the Observer about Cruz, Trump, the Texas Democratic Party’s shortcomings and two of San Antonio’s national treasures: tacos and the Spurs.

Q: Less than three weeks into Trump’s presidency, you filed a resolution calling for an investigation that could’ve led to an impeachment. Do you believe Trump will complete his first term?

Castro: That depends on how he goes about the duties of the presidency. My resolution asked for an investigation into whether President Trump ordered federal agencies to disobey the court’s stay on his travel ban. If he did, then I would ask Congress to censure him as a warning, and if he were to do it again, then Congress would have no choice other than to move to remove the president.

This has to do with the separation of powers and checks and balances that are set up in our Constitution. For a president to purposely disobey the courts, an equal branch of government, and attempt to usurp their power, that’s significant, and unacceptable in American democracy.

After failing under the last two presidents, what are the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform under Trump?

A lot of the chaos that we see now with respect to immigration policy is a direct result of Congress’ failure to pass an immigration reform bill within the last few years. But we’re getting mixed signals from the White House. During his recent address to a joint session of Congress, he indicated he was open to compromise, and the next day his spokesperson said it was a misdirection ploy. So that’s typical of what we’re seeing from the White House now. On any controversial issue, you get four or five different answers, depending on who you’re talking to.

Texas Democrats have been shut out in statewide races for more than two decades, longer than any other major state party in the United States. Is the Democratic Party here in disarray?

No, it’s in a comeback mode. And the comeback period is obviously a long one. But, I think we’re poised to pick up many seats in the state Legislature and in counties across the state in 2018.

Texas Democrats have traditionally fared worse in non-presidential elections. Why do you think that trend will change?

Ordinarily, the president’s party takes a hit in the midterm. Texas has not seen a non-Texan Republican president since Ronald Reagan. Both [presidents Bush] were Texan and so the electoral impact of their [mistakes] at the time was mitigated by the fact that they had deep roots in Texas. That’s not the case with Donald Trump. Also, Republicans in the state government have moved so far to the right that they’re pursuing things like the “bathroom bill” rather than attending to things like health care, education and child welfare. They have turned Texas into the shame of the nation in how we treat our children.

What are Texas Democrats doing wrong?

We have to talk to more people, even people who disagree with us, and we have to make our way across larger parts of the state. Part of the challenge of getting organized in Texas is that the state is so large. You have 20 media markets and a massive amount of land to cover. A lot of the organizing efforts have focused on the big cities, but for us to truly come back, we’ve got to go out and talk to everybody in each part of the state.

Is there a vacuum of Democratic infrastructure in rural Texas?

We need to build up an infrastructure of outreach and support in rural counties and talk to folks about the issues they care about there. There’s a temptation, I think, when you’re campaigning across a large state like Texas to fly in and out of the big cities because it’s quick and easy. But you need to take time to go and reach into smaller communities, who often don’t get to see elected officials from outside their area — Republican or Democrat.

How do you turn 50,000 people marching for women’s rights into primary or midterm voters?

First, you have to harness that energy to get all those folks organized, and you’re seeing that going on now. The Democratic Party continues to do its work, but you also see these organic groups that have come about since the election, such as the women’s marchers, the Indivisible movement and Our Revolution. These are groups that aren’t necessarily attached to the party but are doing very valuable work on getting people engaged and focusing on the next election.

In terms of getting more people out to vote, because Texas consistently ranks in the bottom three states for voter participation, there are no easy solutions. This is going to be a person-to-person endeavor where each of us has to get the people around us in our lives who don’t vote to actually go and vote.

What makes you think you, or any other Democrat, can beat Ted Cruz?

Texans are hungry for change. Ted Cruz went to Washington and made it worse. He went to Washington to run for president. There’s so many people across the state, from all walks of life, who have asked for his help and not gotten it. Most recently, Cruz has supported the border tax, the proposal to slap a new tax on imports from Mexico, which would cripple thousands and thousands of Texas businesses. That would mean a loss of jobs in Texas. Texas does the most trade of any state in the nation, period, but we also do the most trade with Mexico.

Texans want a senator who is going to focus on the things they care about that make a difference in their life. Whether it’s improving their kids’ schools, or making college more affordable or making sure they can afford health care, all of these are things that people think about on a daily basis. They’re not sending you to Washington for your personal ambitions, they’re sending you there because they think you will be able to help them.

Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has been active in Democratic politics. Do you think he’d ever run?

I wish he would run. I think he would make a great candidate. But I can’t say I have any inside intelligence into his plans for any political future.

Which city has the best tacos in Texas?

San Antonio, of course. I’m a big fan of chef Johnny Hernandez and I like his bistec tacos at La Gloria, but you can never go wrong with a simple bean and cheese taco from just about anywhere in San Antonio.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This article appears in the April 2017 issue of the Texas Observer. Read more from the issue or become a member now to see our reporting before it’s published online.