WASHINGTON — Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and secretary of Housing and Urban Development for President Obama whose 2012 Democratic National Convention speech transformed him into a national leader overnight, is a hard man to keep track of.
For months, the 44-year-old Castro has been hopscotching between Nevada, Florida, Arizona and other battleground states to campaign for Democrats ahead of the 2018 midterms. He dutifully trekked to the Iowa State Fair in August for a turn on the famous political soapbox. Last weekend, Castro was back in Iowa to stump for Democrat J.D. Scholten, who is challenging alt-right-winger and neo-Nazi sympathizer Rep. Steve King (R-IA). On the eve of his visit, King lashed out at Castro and his twin brother, Joaquin, a congressman who represents San Antonio, tweeting that they “took Spanish lessons to qualify as retroactive Hispanics.” Castro brushed off the vitriol. “He knows that a lot of folks are dissatisfied with the job he’s doing. He’s just reaching for anything he can to distract from that.”
Somewhere in all of this Castro is promoting a new book, An Unlikely Journey: Waking up from My American Dream, the sort of get-to-know-me memoir widely seen as a prerequisite for a presidential run. Castro spoke with Rolling Stone for an hour and a half about his life story so far, why Latino voters aren’t fired up to vote in 2018 and why the Democratic Party must change to survive.
On the subject of his presidential aspirations, he gave the clearest indication yet about his plans for 2020. “I’m likely to do it,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I’ll make a final decision after November, but I’m inclined to do it.”
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The title of your new book is An Unlikely Journey, which is a line from your 2012 convention speech. You were the first Latino to give a keynote address, and it’s probably the thing you’re known most for. There’s an optimism in that speech — “No matter who you are or where you come from, the path is always forward” — that feels almost like a relic from the past when there’s so much anger and cynicism in politics today.
It represented the optimism of the times when we had a president that had a strong vision for making sure everybody had opportunity. There was an optimism and a can-do attitude that’s very different from today.
Today, there is a darker sense. And for a lot of folks, when Donald Trump says that he wants to make our country something again, that ain’t a good thing. The story of a lot of vulnerable communities through the years has been there was more and more opportunity going forward. We don’t want to go backward, and that’s what it seems like we’re doing now.
You begin the book by describing a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border to join a protest of Trump’s family separation policy. The next chapter describes your grandmother coming to America from Mexico as an orphaned little girl almost 100 years ago. What would’ve happened to her if she had been trying to make that same passage if today’s immigration policies were in place?
It’s an important question for a lot of us whose families made that journey. Whether they were coming from Mexico, or from Ireland, or from Germany, or anywhere, it’s worth stopping and thinking for a moment about where you and I would be if we had an administration that was as hell-bent on keeping certain people out in the same way with the same cruelty 100 years ago.
Now, there clearly have been times where that was the case as well. There was the Chinese Exclusion Act. There was Operation Wetback. But there were also periods where families from different countries were able to avail themselves of the greatness of the United States. And to think about where we would be if this kind of cruel, myopic policy were in place is scary.
Do you think you’d be here today if those kinds of policies were in place when your grandmother came here?
Probably not. My grandmother and her sister got their papers at that time, but if we had the same mentality back then, I would imagine they would’ve clamped down on a lot of the legal immigration, too.
The other thing that strikes me about the immigration debate we’re having is how short-sighted it is about the value of immigrants. It’s not just the impact that the person who immigrates makes, but it’s the impact of that family line. My grandmother had grandsons who became the mayor and the congressman, and then a member of the president’s cabinet. Whether it’s all of the fantastic startups in Silicon Valley that are due to immigrants or their children, or the great nonprofits that had been founded, or the work of public servants, the impact not only of the immigrant but of their progeny is tremendous.
The subtitle of the book is “Waking Up From My American Dream,” which suggests a reality check or a rude awakening of some kind.
My family has lived the American dream over the generations, and each generation in their own way woke up and realized that the American dream doesn’t just happen, but that you have to work for it. I write about my grandmother coming to a Texas where you still saw shop windows that said, “No dogs or Negroes or Mexicans allowed.”
My mother also saw limits and she rebelled against that. She became a Chicana activist to try and push back and make sure her community could progress and by extension, country. And Joaquin and I felt compelled to use our time and energy to try and improve things for our community for San Antonio, for the Latino community, and to try and improve the nation.
Today, I’m convinced that a lot of young people are waking up, realizing that their generation has this new burden to choose light and optimism and expanding opportunity instead of a dark, pessimistic, divisive vision for the country that Trump and others have embraced. That’s the charge of the new generation.
You’ve said that in early 2019 you’re going to make a decision about running for president.
My daughter’s nine and my son is three. My wife, Erica, has been wonderful throughout my time in public service. We’re going to take a long, hard look at what that kind of commitment would mean. And as I travel between now and Election Day, I’m getting a better and better sense of where the country is at. I don’t feel compelled to make a rushed decision.
However, I’m likely to do it. I have a strong vision for the country. I believe that our country’s going in the wrong direction and that it needs new leadership. I’ll make a final decision after November, but I’m inclined to do it.
You were a finalist to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016. Now that we’ve got some distance from that campaign, where did she go wrong?
It was always going to be hard to keep the presidency for a third term in the same party. However, I think a number of people who were a part of the campaign are very proud that she won the popular vote by nearly three million votes and, at the same time, if it could be done over, would acknowledge more focus in certain states.
There’s nothing that we can do about 2016 except learn from it. And what we learned was that we can’t take anything for granted — that you have to campaign hard all the way through the finish line even in the states that you might think you have. I’m confident that in the 2020 cycle, Democrats are going to robustly campaign in every single state and not take anything for granted.
It seems like 2020 is going to be a fight for the soul and the future of the Democratic Party. There was sort of a bottoming-out with losing to Donald Trump, and for the past couple of years, the party has largely been in an oppositional, resistance mode. How should the party change to survive and to win going forward?
It’s going to be cathartic for the party to go through a process where everybody gets to show what they’ve got. Where you have debates with over a dozen people and every wing of the party is represented.
We need to go through that to get over 2016, and we’re going to come out of the 2020 primary, I’m convinced, in a much stronger position. The nominee will be stronger for it and be better prepared to win in November of 2020. I’m hopeful, and I think realistically hopeful, about what this very contested, long, drawn-out process is going to mean. Most of the time a party wants to avoid that kind of process, but in this case, that’s our salvation.
What’s missing from the Democratic Party message now?
I’m convinced that people need to know what your plan is to make things better for them and their family in a way that reflects the times that we live in, when people are worried about losing their job to automation or worried about the impact of this erratic trade war that Donald Trump is engaged in, worried about the escalating cost of going to college.
Each of the folks who has won as a Democrat in the modern era — whether it was Kennedy or Carter or Clinton or Obama — articulated a powerful vision for the future. The 2020 Democratic nominee will have to do that. You’re not going to get that outside of a presidential race. That kind of leadership is not necessarily going to come out of Washington, D.C. That’s not the business of the DSCC or the DCCC or even the DNC. It’s not going to come from there. It’s going to come out of this 2020 process.
There are these two big conversations happening within the Democratic Party and on the left. There’s one about race, ethnicity, gender, identity. And there is another about class and economics. I think of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo as the centers of gravity of one side of this, and on the other, Bernie Sanders and his populist new New Deal-style message. Is there a way to weave those two together as a candidate for higher office?
The good news is we have several spectacular candidates who weave those two together very well: Andrew Gillum in Florida, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York. We have candidates who recognize that often times folks who are grappling with lack of job opportunity in their community are also grappling with fear of being brutalized by law enforcement. That those two things in people’s lives are not mutually exclusive, and that we can respect the lived experience of people who are different from us enough to form a broad coalition for the purpose of electing candidates that understand all of those issues.
Part of this tension that people describe both underestimates the ability of white people, and the ability of minorities, to try and understand each other and to form a coalition around common issues, and even around some issues that one group may experience more than others. We shouldn’t sell ourselves short. Andrew, Stacey and others have demonstrated that you can tie those together and get as strong support from a white suburban mother as you do from an African-American who lives in the middle of Atlanta.
How do you interpret Beto O’Rourke becoming this phenomenon in some ways, but also right now trailing in the polls?
He’s a great, earnest, honest and energetic candidate. He’s done the hard work of getting out to every county in Texas, of sticking to what he believes in. And that authenticity, I think, has resonated with a lot of folks in Texas.
If he faces headwinds, it’s that we’re trying to win here in a state that we haven’t won in 25 years. It’s an uphill climb. But he’s doing a better job running right now than anybody has in Texas in a very long time. I think that’s because he’s addressing the issues that people want to hear about, and he’s doing it in a genuine way. He’s taking the campaign to them.
I do think that after the primary, his campaign got more savvy about appealing to non-white voters and has continued to get better along the way. Joaquin and I toured several border cities with him three weeks ago. We saw a lot of enthusiasm in the cities that we visited. My hope is that that will translate into turnout in November.
Polls show right now a lack of energy among Hispanic voters. It could make a big difference in the midterms in states like Nevada and Texas. You’ve got a racist in the White House with Trump, and the pitch to Latino voters shouldn’t be that difficult. But it doesn’t seem to be landing.
The party needs to invest more resources more consistently in Latino voter registration and turnout. It’s not enough to just invest a few months before the big election. Whether it’s the Democracy Alliance [liberal donor network] or other individual big donors or organizations, they need to scale up efforts like the Texas Organizing Project, Voto Latino [of which Castro is a board member], and Jolt out of Austin. There needs to be a massive and sustained effort that’s well-funded and well-scaled to create a generation of Latino voters. And until that’s done, Latinos are not going to vote at the rate that they ought to vote at.
It’s unfortunate that it’s going to take that kind of push, but I believe that’s the case. Democrats have these two young, fast-growing constituencies, Latinos and Asian Americans, that, if invested in, could be a part of a blockbuster coalition for decades if not longer.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.