Castro discovers America — one voter at a time
It’s not easy to see a friend struggle. And it’s even harder if that friend is running for president in a crowded field of Democratic contenders — and not getting his fair share of the spotlight.
You get frustrated because while voters in Iowa and New Hampshire try to figure him out after meeting him for only 15 minutes, what you understand after knowing him for 15 years are his core qualities: authenticity, humility, competence, integrity.
You know that your friend has minimal baggage and that this comes from another quality that seems in short supply in politics these days: accountability. While others could flout the law in their youth and escape the consequences because of their privilege, your friend has had to walk a straight line or else answer to his family, friends and community.
Julián Castro is not accustomed to coming in second — or 12th. An overachiever who grew up always knowing the answers to the quiz, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development is now facing his biggest test.
His presidential campaign has gotten off to a rocky start.
One reason is that he’s trailing in the crucial “media” primary. Other candidates are more frequently the topic of conversation on TV chatfests where pundits, reporters and anchors give their take on what they expect will be the Final Four. At the moment, that’s Joe Biden, Beto O’Rourke, and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris.
Castro, who is polling nationally in the low single digits, doesn’t schmooze with the media. Whether he’s talking to New York Magazine or Politico, he often scolds the Fourth Estate for not being more racially and ethnically diverse.
Good point. If our media looked more like America, the folks in New York and Washington might be better able to grasp the historical significance of his campaign and give it a fair hearing. For instance, it’s absurd for white journalists to constantly ask him why he doesn’t speak perfect Spanish when — according to marketing figures — about 80 percent of Latinos in the United States speak English or a combination of both languages.
Yet where Castro hits his stride is in retail politics. Art Cullen, the editor of the Storm Lake Times in Northwest Iowa, was impressed, calling him “ever polite, smiling, self-deprecating and unassuming.” He is smart and affable, and he listens.
And, for someone who almost became a journalist before he went to law school, Castro is also good at telling a story. Lately, he has posted videos from small towns in Iowa where he talks with local folks about the positive impact of immigration in their communities.
He understands that, in presidential campaigns, what seems to matter today will be forgotten a few weeks now. He recently told The Texas Tribune that he’s confident that he’ll do well “by the time people start voting.”
I caught up with Castro during a recent swing through California. The first thing I asked him: Does he want it bad enough?
“I wouldn’t put myself through this crazy process in this day and age, wouldn’t have to run the gantlet of everything from a million different criticisms to Twitter trolls to outright lies about you as a person unless I had a great passion for making a difference in this country,” he said. “I’m not the loudest candidate or the loudest personality, but I’ve shown my desire to make a big difference for people. I believe that’s what counts.”
Of course, these days, what really counts is putting on a show. So, I asked, what’s “The Julián Show”?
“There’s always some showmanship,” he said. “The question is, what kind of show do people want right now? And this campaign is a counterprogram to Donald Trump’s show. People want the opposite of Trump — somebody who’s levelheaded, inclusive, honest, focused on the future and trying to bring people together instead of tearing them apart.”
Finally, I asked, does it bother him that other hopefuls get more attention?
“Right now, I’m more concerned about the basic building blocks of a successful campaign than whether I’m in the spotlight all the time,” he said. “People can have the spotlight a year from the voting. What I want is solid building blocks and a strong campaign in a race that’s in play.”
While others say they were born to run for president, Castro always stresses that he was not born a front-runner. In fact, he says, there are a lot of Americans who today don’t feel much like front-runners. Yet, every day, just like him, they lace up their sneakers and continue the race.