Julián Castro, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama, officially declared his candidacy for president on Saturday at a rally in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas. Castro, who served as mayor of the city before joining Obama’s cabinet, celebrated his Mexican-American heritage before announcing, in English and Spanish, his candidacy and outlining his progressive policy positions.
“When my grandmother got here almost a hundred years ago,” Castro told a crowd of supporters, “I’m sure that she never could have imagined that just two generations later, one of her grandsons would be serving as a member of the United States Congress and the other would be standing with you here today to say these words: I am a candidate for president of the United States of America.”
Speaking not far from where he grew up in the city — which is about 200 miles from the southern U.S. border — Castro also tried to flip President Trump’s dubious rhetoric about a border crisis, arguing that the real crisis the country faced was a “crisis of leadership” under Trump. In addition to attacking the White House’s immigration politics, he endorsed universal health care, Black Lives Matter, affordable housing, and a higher minimum wage. If elected, he added, he would sign the U.S. back into the Paris Climate Accords and bring the universal prekindergarten plan he started in San Antonio to the entire nation. His campaign slogan — “One Nation. One Destiny.” — is about making America “the smartest, the healthiest, the fairest, and the most prosperous nation on earth.”
Castro, 44, has been framed as a rising star in the Democratic Party for years. He won his first election at 26, became the mayor of America’s seventh-largest city at 34, then became the first Latino to land a keynote speech at a Democratic National Convention. He told the 2012 delegates and audiences watching at home about the struggling immigrant women who raised him and how “the American Dream is not a sprint, or even a marathon, but a relay.” He then went on to run the HUD as Obama’s youngest cabinet member, got a serious look during Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running-mate search, racked up some cable news appearances, and wrote a recently published, narrative-reinforcing memoir called An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up From My American Dream. So the presidential run was inevitable, but are Castro and his immigrant story the real-world “antidote to Trump” as he now claims?
Castro may end up with an advantage among Latino voters, a demographic he was able to dominate in San Antonio, and that he has pushed Democrats to do a better job engaging. His youth could attract young Democrats. And there’s no question a Mexican-American immigrant’s grandkid ousting Trump to become the first Latino president would be a dramatic feel-good story for the history books — and the kind of poetic-justice payback liberals have been craving since Khizr Khan held up his pocket Constitution at the 2016 DNC.
But the relatively inexperienced Castro is going to have to differentiate himself and his Trump-canceling-out narrative from a wide field of established progressives, rising stars, and underdogs with polished story arcs — and all ahead of a win-or-die election for Democratic voters. Castro isn’t even the party’s lone star from Texas anymore following the success of Beto O’Rourke, whose donor network and vote totals would surely hurt Castro’s chances in Texas and beyond. Castro, like O’Rourke in the midterms, says he will shun corporate PAC money, but so will other Democrats eager to distance themselves from the big bad business world. If electability wins out over inspiration, and a known-entity like “Amtrak Joe” Biden takes an early fund-raising lead, there might not be a lot of acceptable donors left.
Many more candidates for the Democratic nomination are expected to declare in the coming days and weeks, and there is no clear path to the nomination for any of them. Castro’s rally came less than a day after another rising Democrat, Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, joined the 2020 fray, declaring her intention to run during a Friday night appearance on CNN. The 37-year-old combat veteran, who was both the first American Samoan and the first Hindu to be elected to Congress, said she would make a more formal announcement over the next week, and sent out a fund-raising email afterward which indicated her campaign would be focused on “war and peace.”
The area where Castro and Gabbard will automatically dominate, however, is youth. Only two of the other top 2020 contenders are currently under 50 — O’Rourke, 46, and Senator Cory Booker, 49. Next up are senators Kirsten Gillibrand, 52, and Kamala Harris, 54. Elizabeth Warren, the first big-name Democrat to announce a run for president two weeks ago, is 69. Rounding out the older end of the contender list are 76-year-olds Biden and Michael Bloomberg, and 77-year-old Bernie Sanders. If any of those three won in 2020, they’d supplant the 72-year-old Trump as the oldest president to take office in American history. If Gabbard won, she’d be the youngest ever, at 39.
But these Democrats won’t just be running against time or each other or notions of past handshakes with Wall Street.
The only thing President Trump misses more than the nonstop ego trip of the 2016 campaign is the media’s attention whenever he doesn’t have every moment of it, and the Democratic contest is bound to periodically dominate news coverage and disturb Trump’s executive time over the next year and a half. So as individual Democrats take their turns in the spotlight, they should expect — and may end up coveting — the president’s ridicule and attention in response. Trump has flooded the airwaves and America’s political discourse with nonsense and vitriol since summer 2015 — and it helped him defeat all of his opponents and become president. That may not work again on voters come autumn 2020, but combined with the ongoing reaction to Trump, and the attention on investigating Trump, the reality show can only make it harder for candidates like Castro to get their signal through the noise.