CONCORD, New Hampshire — In 2010, Julián Castro, then the 35-year-old mayor of San Antonio, Texas, was asked about his future political ambitions. In the House or Senate, he would be just one person in a large body. He was “not likely” to accept a cabinet position. “President?” the reporter asked.
“It is way too early to be thinking about that,” Castro said.
Nearly a decade later, Castro is running for president. And now it might be too late.
Castro became a national Democratic star with a stirring keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2012. He became a cabinet secretary in the Obama administration. He was on the short list to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate. He was spoken of as the future of Texas, and the future of a Democratic Party looking to make inroads in a state whose demographics were steadily changing in its favor. In short, Castro did everything a politician was supposed to do to prepare for a successful presidential bid.
But now that Castro is finally running, the rules appear to have changed. The man in the White House arrived with an outsize Twitter following and no political experience, having beaten out a generation of Republican stars who had carefully crafted their paths to this moment. And even as Democrats seek the antidote to Donald Trump, many seem open to the possibility of something new. The relatively unknown former mayor of South Bend is generating buzz. Beto O’Rourke, a three-term former congressman, launched a presidential bid on the back of a loss to Sen. Ted Cruz — a smaller than expected loss, but a loss all the same. And Castro is aware he has been relegated to the role of “the other Texan.”
Castro, in his first trip to New Hampshire since O’Rourke got in the race, dances deftly around questions about the new Texan in the race, who said over the weekend that he was uniquely qualified to tackle immigration issues as the “only candidate from the United States–Mexico border,” brushing right over Castro’s existence (and California Sen. Kamala Harris’s, for that matter).
“I certainly understand the value and the impact of immigrants in our country and have set out a strong agenda to protect our immigrant community,” Castro told BuzzFeed News Monday, when asked about those remarks.
“I’ve spoken in concrete and specific terms about the kind of things that we need to do,” he told another reporter in response to another such question about the other candidate from Texas. “I’m one of the few folks in this race that has executive experience, that has a track record of getting things done. And I believe that people are ready for somebody that actually knows what they’re doing in that position.”
It was as close as Castro came to any kind of criticism or direct comparison with O’Rourke, who has been criticized for lack of policy specifics as he barnstorms the trail in a rented minivan.
It’s not clear anyone should be comparing the two Texans at all. Castro favors a progressive platform including Medicare for All; O’Rourke wants to go a different, less specific route. Castro meticulously plotted his path to this campaign over years; O’Rourke saw a moment and seized on it. Castro speaks calmly and quietly, requiring a microphone to project to 40 voters who had come to hear him speak Monday about family-related policies in a Manchester, New Hampshire, bookstore. O’Rourke jumps on tables and motions wildly, as he sweats through layer after layer of clothing.
“I think they are both elected officials from Texas and the similarities end there,” said Jess Morales Rocketto, a Democratic operative who worked on the Clinton and Obama campaigns and is friendly with Castro.
But as Castro auditioned for New Hampshire Democrats who are shopping for a champion in the field, the candidate at times seemed to have fashioned his career around an outmoded vision of electability.
“Of course that counts for something,” Castro told BuzzFeed News after a house party Monday night of the importance of his experience.
“People want to see a track record of getting things done, and the president is the ultimate executive. The experience I have as an executive of getting things done is a good thing and I’m confident that’s one of the things that people will look to as this campaign goes forward,” he said.
“We’ve seen what happened with Trump, right?” he added with a laugh.
“People say, ‘Electability is my number one criteria,’” said Hilary Judd, 26, who attended the house party here. In 2016, she said, both parties “blew up” the definition of electable; now, “we don’t know what that means until we see it.”
“Experience goes hand in hand with that,” she said, but she didn’t think it was quite the barrier to entry it had been previously. “We’re more looking for people who have the ideas.”
Castro sounds unperturbed by the constant questions about the viability of his candidacy.
“If the election were held tomorrow, I know that I wouldn’t win tomorrow,” he says. “But the election’s not tomorrow.
“I can’t think of a single time in my life when I was the frontrunner at something,” Castro told BuzzFeed News after an event in Durham early Monday afternoon, a line that has gotten a lot of use since he ceased to be even the top Texan in the race. “I didn’t grow up the frontrunner. And so to me, I’m gonna go make my opportunity. I’m not the frontrunner now, but I will be the frontrunner in early 2020.”’
He’s insistent that despite the fact that he’s at one percent in most polls, he’s making progress, “getting strong traction when I get in front of people,” something he reiterates in a parting note at the end of the night. He seems to feed off crowds, growing progressively louder and more animated as the crowds get larger and more engaged throughout the day.
“What do you call a collection of lawyers’ diaries?” he cuts in excitedly when a questioner tells him that he, like Castro, is a lawyer by trade. “A lie-brary.”
He’s running on a decidedly progressive platform — Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, universal pre-K (something he implemented in San Antonio), tuition-free public college or career training options. He’s skeptical, he says, of a plan some candidates have suggested to expand the size of the Supreme Court, because he doesn’t know where such a thing ends — what’s to prevent the next president from expanding it again? We should “do away with” the Electoral College, he tells BuzzFeed News. And he thinks that independent redistricting and making Congress subject to the Freedom of Information Act would help tamp down the partisanship that often gridlocks the legislature by facilitating greater transparency.
He is, at times, wildly optimistic, as when he tells the house party crowd: “I look forward to Inauguration Day.” Or predicts that he can win Texas, Florida, and Arizona, states that Democrats have struggled with in statewide elections. Or when he predicts that 2020 will usher in a Democratic House, Senate, and president, enabling a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people already in the country, and would allow for both border security and humane treatment of those seeking to come into the US.
Three years ago, Trump’s primary victory came at the expense of a generation of Republican stars who had carefully guided their careers toward that moment. And his victory in November suggested that voters were willing to overlook his lack of political experience.
“I can’t think of anything he said that I disagree with,” said Tracy Hahn-Burkett, a resident of nearby Bow said of Castro after the house party. “I’ll think about him.”
But she was also thinking about several others, including Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city less than one-fourteenth the size of San Antonio. “Two weeks ago I would have said Pete Buttigieg was not experienced enough,” she said somewhat sheepishly. “But he’s been saying interesting things.”