WASHINGTON — It’s not uncommon for struggling presidential candidates to blast their party’s nominating process, especially the decision to let Iowa and New Hampshire host the all-important opening two contests of the primary campaign.
The latest candidate to take aim at Iowa and New Hampshire — states with overwhelmingly white populations — is Julián Castro. The Texas Democrat and former Housing and Urban Development secretary has run one of the most progressive campaigns of any Democrat in the field. He released sweeping plans to tackle immigration and police brutality. He was the first candidate to visit Puerto Rico. And he’s built his message around elevating the voices of the marginalized and the poor, visiting homeless encampments in underground drainage tunnels in Las Vegas and touring a jail in Washington, D.C., to highlight criminal justice reform efforts.
Yet Castro, 45, has struggled to break out since he announced his presidential bid almost a year ago. He registered in the single digits in recent polls, announced a last-ditch fundraising blitz to keep his campaign running, and failed to qualify for the November debate. Despite saying in a fundraising email that missing the debate would mean the “end of my campaign,” Castro isn’t going away. And he’s taking aim at his own party.
Last week, Castro, the sole Latino in the 2020 Democratic field, railed against Iowa and New Hampshire’s coveted first and second slots on the primary calendar, calling it antiquated and out of sync with an increasingly diverse party. In a rare joint op-ed, the two chairmen of the Iowa Democratic and Republican parties fired back at Castro. “Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status isn’t about party affiliation or identity politics,” they wrote. “It’s about the uniqueness of retail politics, and its ability to get the future president to connect with Americans in a way few primaries can.”
“There’s something seriously wrong with that,” Castro said by phone on Sunday. “If we’re not going to fight for everybody having a place at the table, why the hell are we Democrats in the first place?” Castro spoke with Rolling Stone about why he’s calling for a shake-up in the Democratic nominating process, why his candidacy hasn’t caught fire, and what’s next for his campaign with opening contests in the primary just around the corner.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why are you now making this argument about Iowa and New Hampshire?
I’ve been running for 11 months, and been to almost 30 states. Spent a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire as well as many other states. I have that experience under my belt of running for president so I feel more qualified to comment about the process.
There’s a hypocrisy about the values that we profess as Democrats in terms of being inclusive and depending on especially African American women to power our party, and yet at the same time starting our presidential nominating process in states that hardly have any black people or people of color. And in the case of Iowa, with the caucus that diminishes the ability of people with disabilities and working people who can’t just show up at one time on one night for several hours. It diminishes the ability of working people to participate.
It doesn’t make sense to do it this way. We could do it a lot better.
Do you hear this from people you’ve met on the campaign trail, or are you speaking mostly on a personal level?
I’ve met people who agree with that, who voiced the same concern. In fact, a lot of them spoke out on Twitter after my remarks. And by this I mean a lot of people from Iowa and people from New Hampshire spoke out to say even though they like the access they get to presidential candidates, they recognize that there’s a better way to do this.
You’re hardly the first candidate to criticize Iowa and New Hampshire for their first-in-the-nation status. What do you tell people who say you’re speaking out like this because you’re not doing as well as you’d hoped?
It’s nothing new for me to speak truth to power in this campaign. I’ve been touching on subjects that many other candidates haven’t talked about. I was the first to release my own immigration plan. I’ve spoken up on the debate stage consistently about police brutality. I have talked about lifting up not only the middle class but also the poor because we’ve forgotten to talk about the poor over the last 30 years as Democrats.
When Iowa became the first state to vote in 1972, people of color hardly had any kind of voice in politics. We’d just gone through the civil rights movement and I find it ironic that right after we went through the civil rights movement — and African Americans started voting primarily as Democrats — then the nominating process for president goes to two states that have the least number of African Americans in them. It doesn’t make any sense.
In an op-ed, the leaders of Iowa Democratic and Republican parties wrote that “Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status isn’t about party affiliation or identity politics.” The use of “identity politics” there jumped out at me. What’s your reaction?
It was very disappointing that Democrats would parrot the language of Republicans to call the concern for better representation in this nominating process “identity politics” when all people are asking for is a process reflects who we are as Democrats and Americans. There’s something seriously wrong with that. If we’re not going to fight for everybody having a place at the table, why the hell are we Democrats in the first place?
It should tell people something that Iowa Republicans won’t work on expanding Medicaid or improving education, but they’ll rush to join Democrats to defend an antiquated caucus system that diminishes the votes of people of color, with disabilities, and working people.
You’ve been running 11 months now, but you’re not climbing in the polls and you didn’t qualify for the November debate. What more can you do to try to break through?
I’m focused on beating expectations in Iowa and then going from there deeper in the primary calendar. Most of the delegates are going to be awarded after the first four states. We’re working hard to strengthen our organizing on the ground in Iowa and Nevada, and looking at California and Texas on Super Tuesday. Working hard to get on the debate stage in December.
Either way I’ve already shaped the debate for 2020. If there’s a housing question that gets asked, it’ll be in part because I’ve loudly asked for housing questions because we have a rental affordability crisis in our country. I’ve already move the debate on immigration. I’ve shown a light on issues like police brutality that have sparked a conversation in our party. I’ve already shaped that debate whether I’m on that stage or not. We’re gonna be creative, we’re gonna work hard, use every opportunity to deliver that message, alternative media, smaller media, and the mainstream media.
In certain respects, you’ve led the pack. First candidate to visit Puerto Rico, first candidate to release a major immigration reform plan and a police brutality plan. Why do you think those efforts haven’t been rewarded with more support from voters?
It seems as though a lot of voters believe this year are equating electability with a certain profile of candidate that will get a certain profile of voter: a white candidate that can get a white voter in the Midwest. What I believe is that we need a candidate who can get voters from across the spectrum — white, black, brown, Asian American. We need to excite the coalition that Barack Obama did in 2008. That’s how we’re gonna defeat Donald Trump, and that’s what I think I can do.
At the same time, it’s clear that a lot of people are only slowly recognizing that. I do feel like momentum is building, especially among young people of color for this campaign. More young people are finding the campaign and supporting my candidacy. So I see that with time and with resources that I can build that support and that’s why we’re working hard to raise the money and use our time as wisely as we can to build that support.
What happens if that mentality you say you’re seeing — that narrow definition of electability — carries the day in the Democratic nomination battle?
The risk is that 2020 is a replay of 2016. Black turnout fell. Latino turnout fell. If we want to win Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, we need to excite people in Detroit, in Milwaukee, and in Philadelphia. These voters should not be taken for granted.