It’s a cold October day and Julián Castro is hunched over chicken fajitas with mole at a Mexican restaurant in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Since launching his presidential campaign in January, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development has traversed the country countless times and made 14 trips to the first-to-caucus state. But he has once again committed the cardinal sin of a consummate Texan gone north: He forgot his jacket.
On that bitter morning, the weather meant moving an outdoor campaign event at the University of Northern Iowa into the bowels of the student union. There, Castro, who cut his teeth in politics as the five-year mayor of San Antonio, joked that it was a little cold outside for a Texan. He spent about an hour answering questions, taking pictures, and trying to convince the assembled crowd of roughly 30 people that his wobbly candidacy is still viable. He needs all the support he can get.
A few days earlier, his campaign had made a desperate announcement to donors, saying that if he didn’t bring in $800,000 by Halloween, he’d be forced to drop out of the race. “Five dollars, ten dollars, y’all are students,” he told the small crowd. “Whatever it is, but please spread the word out here in Iowa.” A few days later, the fundraising prospects were still dire enough that he suggested that his twin brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, would shave his head if the campaign raised $100,000 that day. By the morning of Oct. 31, the campaign had raised close to 90 percent of its fundraising goal, although Castro’s long-term prospects as the top of the ticket remain dim.
But Democratic operatives say that the significance of Castro’s candidacy shouldn’t be measured in electoral success alone. As the only Latino running for president in a period when the community has been the target of White House insults and an uptick in hate crimes, Castro has made a place for himself by advocating for issues affecting minority groups and by consistently pushing his fellow candidates to take a stand, even on tricky political topics. “I like to think that on some issues I’ve been the conscience of the field,” Castro tells me, munching on chips and salsa. “I’ve spoken up in ways that a lot of other candidates haven’t been willing to.”
On the debate stage in June, Castro catapulted into headlines after speaking eloquently about the plight of migrant children and challenging his fellow candidates to decriminalize illegal immigration. And in October, he earned plaudits from progressives for linking gun violence and police brutality in communities of color. “In the places I grew up in, we weren’t exactly looking for another reason for the cops to come banging on the door,” he said, explaining why he would not support proposals for mandatory gun buybacks.
Throughout his campaign, Castro has embraced his role as a voice for a minority community while running on a platform intended to appeal to a broader electorate. On the trail, he has traveled with mariachi bands, played Selena Quintanilla’s “Baila Esta Cumbia” as his go-to walkout song at events, and pointedly kept the accent over his first name on campaign signs. And when a mass shooter targeted Latinos at a Walmart in El Paso, Castro gave voice to fury. In an ad that played on Fox, he looked into the camera and addressed Trump directly, his voice calm but seething: “Innocent people were shot down because they look different from you. Because they look like me. They look like my family.”
Less than a 100 days from the Iowa caucus, the future of Castro’s campaign remains deeply uncertain. But how he chooses to use his megaphone may shape the Democratic Party long past Election Day.
Castro and his brother were raised by their mother and grandmother in West San Antonio. Both women were single parents and his grandmother, who didn’t complete elementary school, managed to hold their family together while working as a maid. On the campaign trial, Castro, who kept his mother’s last name when his parents split, often credits these “two strong women” for his success. Though he talks a lot about his own family and cultural background in speeches and with supporters, he is aware that being Latino means different things to different people. His campaign, he says, was a reflection of his own, unique experience. “I wanted to be true to who I am, and neither downplay that nor play that up in a disingenuous way,” Castro tells me. “The campaign has reflected my cultural identity and my upbringing and been respectful of that without either under-doing that or overdoing it.”
Castro is a second generation Mexican-American. “I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish everyday. I’m not fluent in Spanish. I speak some, but I did not grow up as enmeshed in the everyday experience of that as some people do right now,” he says. A lot of people conflate being Latino with being a new immigrant, he adds. His own grandmother arrived in the United States nearly 100 years ago. “There are people that got here earlier than that, and thankfully there are also families that just got here 100 days ago,” he says. “All of that is part of the Latino experience. And in some ways the reactions to this campaign and to my candidacy have been…sort of a barometer for how that community is being seen and received in this country.”
The Latino experience in America is often “one dimensionalized,” he says, pointing at the lack of diversity in media and its ability to understand Latino culture. “I didn’t get into this race to break barriers, necessarily, I got in this race to win and to become president,” he says. “But I hope at least that my candidacy has inspired a lot of younger kids coming behind me to believe that they can accomplish great things, including running for and becoming president.”
Earlier that day, at the University of Northern Iowa event, a 21-year-old student named Beto Castrejon stood at the front of the room to introduce Castro. In a short speech, he told the crowd that his mother used to tell him, “Betito, you have to work hard so that someday you can have your own office with air conditioning.” The moment was earnest. Castrejon turned to Castro and thanked him on behalf of all the children who are seeing “him on TV and being like, ‘He talks like me, he looks like me, and I can also be like him.’”
Castro has been a rising star in the Democratic party since he first came onto the national stage, literally, at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, where he gave a moving speech for President Barack Obama’s reelection. He was, at the time, partway through a five-year stint as mayor of San Antonio. In 2014, Obama appointed him HUD Secretary. When the Obama administration ended, Castro published a book and traveled the country, courting buzz about a presidential bid.
When he finally launched his long-awaited presidential campaign in January, the announcement was met with a muted response, and it never fully recovered. The morning Castro and I spoke, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a candidate who’d been in the same tier as Castro, announced that she’d qualified for the November debate. Castro may very well not qualify for the next round at all.
To many, the lackluster response has been puzzling in part because Castro appears to check a lot of boxes. At 45, he’s young for the field; he’s experienced in the federal government; and he speaks fluidly to a Democratic base clamoring for progressive ideas and diversity in representation. And while the Castro brothers have a reputation for being politically risk averse, Julián—who is the less outgoing of the two—has hardly been a wallflower this cycle, for better or worse. At the June debate, Castro earned applause when he criticized former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke for not supporting the decriminalization of border crossings. In September, when he appeared to jab the 76-year-old former Vice President Joe Biden for his age, it didn’t go over as well. “Are you forgetting what you said just two minutes ago?” Castro said.
If it has been hard for Castro to court national attention off of the debate stage this cycle, it’s becoming even more difficult. As President Donald Trump’s alleged crimes and the impeachment process dominate the news cycle, the nuances of different candidates blur. Even between the two Castro brothers, it’s now the congressman and not the presidential candidate who has found himself on center stage. (Joaquin Castro is a member of the House intelligence and foreign affairs committees, which are playing a key role in the impeachment inquiry into Trump). The brothers are amused when media outlets regularly confuse them. In a Washington Post TikTok on Tuesday, they appear at an airport, Julián dressed in a suit and Joaquin dressed casually, making light of the mix-ups.
For now, Democratic insiders caution against dismissing Castro. In 2016, he was considered a potential vice presidential pick for Hillary Clinton, and the prospect seems possible this time around as well. If a moderate, like Biden or former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, end up at the top of the ticket, they may very well benefit from a running mate like Castro with deep progressive bonafides. Earlier this month, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, congratulated Castro for his campaign. His is “a powerful presence in this race,” she tweeted. “I’m really proud of him & how he consistently uses his platform to uplift & center issues that are wrongly marginalized, like homelessness+police violence.” In August, the Latino Victory Fund, a major progressive national group focused on Latino issues, gave Castro their endorsement. If one of the two top-polling liberals, Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, end up as the presidential nominee, then they, too, may benefit from a running mate like Castro, who is a generation younger than them both. (Castro’s campaign would not comment on being a potential vice presidential pick down the road.)
Back in Iowa, Castro’s still shivering in his shirtsleeves. It’s not the first time he’s forgotten a coat, he jokes at UNI. Once, he tells me, he even broke down and picked up a Patagonia jacket on the fly. I ask if he’s feeling confident enough in his path forward to buy a thick coat for Iowa winters. It turns out he owns one, but he laughs. At any rate, the Iowa caucuses aren’t until February. If he manages to stay in the race that long, he’ll have time to pack.