A cool, air-conditioned space at The Tap Room in Council Bluffs, Iowa, quickly warmed up as around 150 voters gathered to hear Julián Castro speak July 7. Seats at the event filled up well before start time, and 30 or more people stood for close to two hours to hear the former mayor of San Antonio, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and current 2020 Democratic candidate plead his case for the presidential nomination.
There has been a clear group of front-runners in the race so far. This includes former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren and, depending on what poll you look at, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Everyone else, including Castro, is grouped at the bottom. Castro was shown in one poll to be crawling out of the lower tier of candidates, but he has a way to go before earning front-runner status and its corresponding news coverage.
Although Castro has struggled to grab the media’s attention in a crowded field, he makes it clear on the campaign trail that he believes he will be chosen to defeat President Trump in 2020. Whether or not voters are more captivated than news outlets will determine if he can stand out.
According to recent polls, many Americans started tuning in to Castro after his first-round debate performance, during which he initiated an argument with fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke over decriminalizing illegal immigration. O’Rourke was put on defense, while Castro argued that making border crossers criminals is what has enabled Trump’s family-separation policies. Following the debates, Castro raised $1 million and rose to 4% in the polls, separating him from the bottom tier of candidates.
“I have to admit when I went into politics I never thought that I would be celebrating 4%,” Castro told his supporters in Council Bluffs. “But when you have 25 candidates in the race . . . we see momentum, we support growing out there.”
Castro was raised in San Antonio, which was evident before he mentioned his Texas roots six minutes into his speech because he had already said y’all eight times. His grandmother emigrated from Mexico, and his mother ran for city council in San Antonio in the 1970s. Castro was elected mayor of the city in 2009 and served until 2014 when he became HUD Secretary.
Castro covered a litany of topics in his speech: education, health care, policing, affordable housing and immigration — all elements of his “dream for America.”
“I am convinced that our destiny as Americans in the years to come is to be the smartest, the healthiest, the fairest and most prosperous land on earth,” he said.
On education, Castro said he is a “proud product of the public schools of San Antonio” and advocated “paying teachers what they deserve” and instituting a teacher tax credit of up to $10,000. Along with increased funding for public education, Castro supports universal pre-k and free tuition at public and community colleges and trade schools.
To earn the title of healthiest nation on earth, Castro, along with the majority of Democratic candidates, supports a Medicare for All plan. But he differs from front-runners Warren and Sanders because he wants to allow citizens to keep their private insurance. When addressing his health care plan, Castro received loud cheers after declaring that he would put an end to the separation of mental and physical health care.
Castro stands out from the other candidates with an extensive policy proposal on policing. To address what he calls “a national crisis in public safety,” Castro pledges to end over-aggressive and racially discriminatory policing, while holding police accountable and starting “the healing process between communities and law enforcement.” He said his passion for the issue was sparked after police apprehended Dylann Roof, a white man who murdered eight people in a South Carolina church, without incident.
“It made me think, ‘Well, what about Eric Garner, and what about Laquan McDonald, what about Pamela Turner, and Sandra Bland, and Jason Pero, and Stephon Clark, and Walter Scott, and Tamir Rice, and Michael Bland?” All names of young Americans of color who, unlike Dylann Roof, were not arrested, but killed by police. Respectful applause from the crowd grew as Castro recited each name from memory.
On immigration, Castro presented a long list of promises if elected: put undocumented immigrants who haven’t committed serious crimes on a path to citizenship, fix the legal immigration system, increase the number of visas, increase port staff, take up to 110,000 refugees yearly, create an independent immigration court system and invest in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Castro did not address his opponents or President Trump until the last minutes of his speech when he fantasized about inauguration day in 2020 and saying, “adios to Trump.”
After his speech, Castro spent more than half an hour answering audience questions. He ignored the signals from an event staffer telling him to answer only one more question, more than once. Even after pushing through a mic malfunction and answering questions about gerrymandering, Mitch McConnell, abortion, felon voting rights, reparations, sexual assault and winning back small-town voters, hands were still raised by voters eager to ask their questions.
Eventually, Castro stopped taking questions to leave time for selfies. There was no doubt whether or not he had the crowd’s attention.