The son of San Antonio’s presidential campaign never quite took off, but he still left an indelible impression.
Nearly one year ago, Julián Castro stood before a crowd of supporters on San Antonio’s West Side—just blocks from where he grew up—and announced his presidential bid. It wasn’t a surprising move. Ever since the 2012 Democratic National Convention, where Castro became the first Hispanic to deliver the keynote address, he has been viewed as a potential torchbearer for the nation’s emerging new majority.
Castro’s campaign looked promising on paper: he announced earlier than most, had notability among the base, was the sole Latino candidate, and carved out progressive stances that could energize voting blocs. And yet, on the second day of 2020—just one month away from the Iowa caucus—Castro announced that he was ending his campaign.
“I’ve determined that it simply isn’t our time,” Castro said in a video announcement.
The former San Antonio mayor and secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development was plagued by single-digit polling numbers and stagnant fundraising for most of his run, but he was one of the more influential candidates in the crowded field. Although he took up the mantle of popular progressive policies such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, he most persistently elevated matters of racial, immigrant, and economic justice.
Castro made a point of spotlighting the people and issues that don’t usually draw much attention on the presidential stage. At campaign events around the country (and in his video announcing the end of his run), he named prominent victims of police violence—Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald—and put forward perhaps the boldest plan of all the candidates to overhaul policing in the United States. He visited Los Angeles’ Skid Row and the underground tunnels of Las Vegas to meet with the homeless and advocated for unprecedented levels of federal aid to help the unhoused.
But Castro’s most indelible mark on the presidential race was his stance on immigration. In an early debate, he planted a stake when he called for the repeal of Section 1325, which makes it a criminal misdemeanor to illegally cross the border into the United States. Castro challenged fellow Democrats to join him in his pledge to end the policy, which he said criminalized desperation and fueled the migrant detention crisis. Quite memorably, he ate Beto O’Rourke’s lunch when the former Senate candidate balked at Castro’s proposal, leading to a heated exchange between the two Texans in which Castro told O’Rourke: “You should do your homework.”
This viral moment prompted a majority of the field to back Castro’s call to repeal the obscure provision and embrace the decriminalization of border crossings. It was a seemingly radical proposition that likely would never have been broached if not for Castro. On immigration, he managed to both shift the window of political possibility while also making it far less enticing for Democratic candidates to go soft on the issue.
Still, longtime followers of Castro’s career found themselves a little confused by his hard tack to the left. Cynics and critics questioned if Castro was simply leveraging the political moment to carve out a left lane on the national stage. The native son of San Antonio hadn’t always been a beacon of progressivism, particularly on matters of affordable housing in San Antonio and from his post in Obama’s administration. And unlike Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, he didn’t always show the strongest grasp on issues of economics and power on the trail. At the Netroots Nation presidential forum, a former Toys ‘R Us worker who lost her job after the retailer was decimated by private equity looters asked Castro what he would do to stop the hostile takeovers of companies by private equity firms. He didn’t have a good answer.
But despite the skeptics and occasional missteps, Castro stayed true to the spirit of his campaign. He could have played it a little safer, treaded lightly, and avoided topics that could unfairly get him tagged as simply the brown candidate. But instead of pivoting to the milquetoast middle, he continued to emphasize matters of poverty, mass incarceration, and the plight of migrants at the border. He was also the only candidate to call for Democrats to change their nominating process so that two of the whitest states in the union—Iowa and New Hampshire—don’t determine the outcome.
Although Castro perpetually loomed in the background of the race, he served as something of a quiet conscience of the field. In a different world, a qualified candidate like Castro would have been a top-tier contender, drawing scrutiny from the press and broadsides from his opponents. Instead, that role is filled by the now-former mayor of an Indiana city 15 times smaller than San Antonio who has no statewide or federal experience.
But politics hardly ever indulges the narratives of destiny and inevitability. Instead, Castro could easily find himself in a prominent cabinet position of a Democratic presidency, or even on the ticket with a nominee like his pal Warren. (He was considered a favorite for Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016.) But though his presidential campaign is over, his influence within the race will likely be felt as he pokes and prods from the sidelines.
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