just asking questions

A Long Talk With Julián Castro

The Democratic 2020 candidate on why people care if he speaks Spanish and how Trump is like a fastball.

Julián Castro announces his candidacy for president in 2020 in San Antonio, Texas. Photo: Edward A. Ornelas/Getty Images
Julián Castro announces his candidacy for president in 2020 in San Antonio, Texas. Photo: Edward A. Ornelas/Getty Images

“There’s no magic to it,” Julián Castro says, sitting in a window seat at a busy tavern across the street from the New Hampshire statehouse in Concord. He’s talking about how to get people to pay attention to his young presidential campaign, given his long-shot status and the likelihood that he’ll have over a dozen rivals for the Democratic nomination. He’ll just have to do the hard work of campaigning, he insists, as he and his aide work through how the weather — along with the imperative to get to a TV studio in Manhattan — is already messing with his plans. The Obama-era secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who was the mayor of San Antonio before that, is wrapping up his first swing through this influential state as a candidate. “We’ve seen spectacular examples of candidates who started off with 2 percent, 3 percent, and ended up getting the nomination,” he says, still in a pressed dark suit nearing the end of a ten-plus hour day of campaigning, a few days after launching his campaign in the city where he grew up and served on city council before becoming mayor. Castro — whose mother has long been a well-known activist there, and whose twin brother Joaquin is a congressman — has been out of office since Donald Trump got to the White House. Since then, he’s been preparing for this campaign, in which he’s the only Latino candidate. “In fact, most of the time — at least half the time — that’s been the case. Whether it was Carter, or Obama, or a number of other people.”

Is it inevitable that this campaign is going to be run primarily on the issue of immigration?
Of course. Because Trump uses the wall and the issue of immigration in general as a political ploy to drum up his base, because he’s convinced that’s the only way he can win this election.

Well, do you think that’s right? Do you think it’ll be hard to actually beat him?
I don’t underestimate him. In some ways he was underestimated the first time around, so I certainly don’t underestimate him. I don’t believe that it would be easy, but I certainly believe that I can beat him. I don’t subscribe to the notion that he’s some sort of political magician. In some ways he’s like a fastball in baseball. Very predictable, sometimes hard to deal with, but, you know, you pretty much know the direction he’s going to go in. I’ll give you a good example of this. When Senator McCain passed away, people from both sides of the aisle — even if they disagreed with John McCain — they expressed sympathy to his family, and also deep respect for the sacrifices that Senator McCain had made on behalf of this country, and his public service, and trying to reach across the aisle. It would’ve been the easiest thing in the world for President Trump, and I think he would’ve gotten a lot of credit, if he had been gracious in that moment. But that would’ve been a changeup for him, and he doesn’t do changeups.

But — I’m curious about your analysis of how his mind works — do you think that’s just because of his relationship with McCain, or contrarianism …
Probably pride. But pride is also a weakness. A fastball can be tracked the way that a curveball, or a changeup, is harder to hit.

I’m going to abandon the baseball metaphor for just a second, just because I’m not sure where to take it here, but do you see that pride as the central feature of Trump? Oh! Is it that pride that you’re swinging at? Or is it more than that?
Well, first and foremost, I’m going to give the American people something to believe in. If you read what I’ve been saying these last few days, and for a while now, I lay out my vision for the future of the country. The No. 1 thing I want a voter to think about when they see my name, or hear my name, is what I stand for, and what I want to do for them and their family while elected. That’s why I’m talking about a vision for the United States as the smartest, the healthiest, the fairest, and the most prosperous nation in the world. So that’s my number one thing, and of course I’m going to stand up to the president and will provide a lot of contrast, but the most important thing is that people understand where you’re coming from, and what you want to do for them. Because the election is about them, it’s not, fundamentally, about the other guy.

Of course. But I’m interested, too, in how you think about countering him. It sounds like you see that pride as a defining quality of his, or a pressure point?
It’s part of it. It’s part of the predictability of him. He’s very predictable. All of that stuff goes together: a pride, a stubbornness, a win-at-all-costs approach where winning is defined as whatever makes him look good. All of that. He’s a tough character, no doubt, but he’s also very predictable. And that’s a weakness, in politics and in life.

I was just rereading the 2010 Times Magazine profile of you. Your first big national profile, I think. The headline was, “The Post-Hispanic Hispanic Politician”
If only you could choose your own headlines, you know?

Well, when you read that for the first time, what did you make of it?
Oh, you know, it’s hard to tell. I never had a conversation with the writer after that. What I’ve noticed with feature writers is they want to create this black-and-white about things. I don’t spend too much time trying to get into the head of folks who write. In fact, I don’t read that much of what’s written about me these days. Yeah, I read some, and I think you have to be able to take in both praise and criticism, and to get better with it, but in this world of Twitter and trolls and everything else, I leave most of that aside.

Were you offended by it?
No, I mean, first of all, I think like 50 percent of headlines are bullshit. Headlines in newspapers and magazines. Headline writers, collectively, need to be better in touch with reality. It was caught up in a moment postelection of the president in 2008.

All right. So it’s nine years later, and you’re running for president. How — at 44 — do you combat this knock on you that you appear to be in a hurry to run for something else?
Well, I mean, I haven’t run for anything in the last few years. The last time I ran for something was 2013. I passed up the opportunity to run for other positions, so I haven’t been in a hurry to just run for something. I’m 44 right now and so I completely understand some people saying, “Hey, you’re young.” But each of the presidents, the Democrats, that have been elected in the modern era — Kennedy, Carter, Clinton, and Obama — have been young. The oldest was Carter, I think he was 50 or 51. The others were in their 40s, so I don’t think that for those of us that are in our 40s that there’s anything special about what we’re doing.

Speaking of Obama, I don’t know if you’ve been following this argument in recent weeks, but there’s been a line of commentary suggesting that one question the Democratic candidates will have to deal with in 2020 is assessing Obama’s legacy, confronting the position that he may have been a bad president. Have you been following this?
Ha, I think it’s ridiculous to say that he was a bad president. He was a good president! He was one of the most effective presidents that we’ve had in a very long time and certainly a much better president than President Trump.

Ha, well, okay, sure … but presumably you think that’s a low bar.
That President Trump is setting a low bar? Well, yeah. But I disagree with those who say — in any way, shape or form — that President Obama was not a good president. Now, the next Democratic president will have the opportunity to build on some of the things that President Obama did, will have the opportunity to build on DACA and DAPA, for instance, when it comes to immigration. Will have the opportunity to build on the progress that we’ve made with the Affordable Care Act. Will have, in my old neck of the woods, in housing, will have the opportunity to build on the great progress we made on reducing homelessness. He set progress in motion that we can build on.

A big part of the argument, though, hinges on the idea that Obama was insufficiently tough on Wall Street during the recovery, or that he didn’t go far enough on health care. Do you think those are fair criticisms?
Well, what I believe is that he set a foundation, a strong one, that we can build upon. There’s no president who’s going to get 100 percent of what the party faithful, or certainly the activists in this country, want, but he made tremendous strides for the country on health care. Seven presidents beforehand had tried to extend health care and didn’t. I expressed disagreement in 2014 with some of the immigration policies, but the administration got a lot better on the immigration issue as time went on, culminating in DAPA and DACA. And it’s night and day between the Obama administration approach, at the end of the administration, and the Trump administration.

All right. One thing I’m curious about was how, in 2016, you started facing questions from some on the left who accused you of being too cozy with Wall Street while you were at HUD …
It was very convenient at the time.

For who?
Who knows! But somebody! [Laughs.]

In what way? What do you mean?
Well, it was right during the vice-presidential selection process. The fact is, I bet that I’ve taken almost no money from, quote-unquote, Wall Street. I’m from San Antonio, Texas. I have neither represented Wall Street nor actively courted their support, and anybody who reads my record would know that I have been progressive. At the same time, I don’t ‘X’ anybody out. You know, I’m not unwilling to listen to people just because where they’re coming from. I’ll listen to them, but I’m not going to be beholden to them. In this campaign, for instance, I’m not taking any PAC money, corporate or otherwise. I’m not taking lobbyist money. And so the American people can know that if I’m making a decision, that decision is not going to be made because I owe anybody anything. It’s going to be made because I believe that’s in the best interest of the country. So.

But the criticism was that while you were at HUD, too many mortgages were sold to banks. You didn’t see that as a fair criticism.
I did not. That policy existed well before I became HUD secretary, and I was the one who came in and said that we’re going to improve this policy. And we did improve this policy, to try and get more of those mortgages into the hands of nonprofits and organizations that could help build community. That had been policy since 2010, and I got there in the middle of 2014, and then we started making changes in early 2016, or something like that.

During that time, when you were mentioned in the context of Hillary Clinton’s VP vetting process, there was a pretty strong consensus that you were close to her politically. But if you look at the issues you’re running on now — not accepting PAC money, Medicare for All, et cetera — it sure looks like you’re moving with the party, no?
Oh, when I was mayor of San Antonio, I pushed for expanding high-quality, full-day pre-K. We didn’t have the resources to make it universal, but you could clearly see that that was what I wanted to do. And I have championed greater access to things like higher education. So this is not new. Has the party moved to the left since 2016? Yeah, of course it has. And is part of running for office understanding what the people whom you would represent want? Yeah, it is. But these are fully consistent with what I believe, and what I’ve been working on for the time I’ve been in public service.

So you do see this move toward the left, or toward activism, as productive?
I do, to the extent that it’s serving people who are vulnerable, and who are under attack, and balancing things out. Because we’ve had, for the last 40 years, since Reagan, a move to reward and invest in people at the top more and more, and we’ve seen a declining middle class. We’ve seen that upward mobility has increased in some other countries, but decreased in the United States. We rank lower in terms of upward mobility than where we used to, against other countries, and we’ve fallen in terms of educational achievement against other countries around the world. So yeah, when we’re out there championing health care for everybody, when we’re championing things like universal pre-K and universal higher education so that people can get the skills and the education they need to get a good job, that’s a good thing.

One reason I ask is the party’s consensus has also moved toward a much more skeptical position on past trade deals, and you’ve been pro-free trade, pro-NAFTA. Still?
Well, I mean, what I’ve said is that I believe that the American worker should always come first. I also don’t think that we should summarily say no to striking trade agreements if they make sense for workers and for American business. And, you know, I had a front-row seat to that in Texas, the possibility of that. I also believe that we’re going to have compete in a global economy. I mean, somebody that is wearing a shirt, or you’re driving a car, the chances are that was made, perhaps, in more than one country, if it’s an automobile or a refrigerator. We have this global economy that already is established, and we’re competing in. It’s not realistic to think that we’re going to withdraw from that wholly. I do think that we ought to only strike trade agreements that are good for American workers and American companies. I disagree with people who say we’re going to close off trade — I don’t agree with that.

But do you think there are people to your left who are saying that?
No, not most folks. I agree with a lot of the reservations that people have. I do think we need to hold countries accountable who violate trade agreements that are already in place. We need to get stronger about enforcement, that in the future if we strike a trade agreement, toughening up labor standards and environmental standards and enforcement standards is something we absolutely need to do. The thing is, look at what President Trump did on this renegotiation of NAFTA. He didn’t scrap NAFTA, what he did is make a few incremental changes to it. And so I hope that the American people get that even the president recognizes that there can be value in boosting American workers and American companies, and there can be a mutually beneficial relationship that we have with other countries in trade.

Did it surprise you when trade became such a big issue in 2016?
No, not really. I mean Trump has been talking about that for 30 years. About how he thinks that the United States is getting ripped off by China. The problem is that the president has done a terrible job when it comes to laying the groundwork, setting the foundation to actually outcompete a country like China. He’s chosen a go-it-alone strategy that is hurting everybody from farmers in Iowa to business owners in Texas. And it doesn’t help many people.

What’s your diagnosis for why that is, though?
I wish I could figure out the rhyme or reason to some of the things he does. I think what he’s going to do in 2020 is, he thinks his strongest argument is to say, “Look, every other politician tells you something, but then they don’t do it. I told you something, and even when it was unpopular, even when everybody screamed bloody murder, I did it. So when I tell you that I’m going to do X, Y, and Z in the next four years, I’m going to do it.” And he believes that with enough of a base, enough of the American people will go for that. But I disagree. I would say in many ways he has abandoned and gone back on what he promised. The biggest example of that being that this is the most corrupt administration — the swampiest administration — that we’ve had in a very long time.

There’s also no wall.
Yeah, no wall. There’s basically another form of NAFTA, even though he made it seem like he was going to get rid of NAFTA. He lives as a confidence man, and by creating an impression with his base that may even stick, even if his actions counteract those [promises].

What do you read these days?
You know, I read a lot of articles from different magazines, but off of Twitter. You know, I’m on Twitter all the time, like a lot of people.

Really? Do you check your mentions?
Um. Sometimes. Yeah. I — I read less and less about things written about me. But I do read articles, whether it’s in The New Yorker, or the New York Times, or any of the papers out there. I end up reading a lot of the Washington Post, the New York Times, The New Yorker, and then anything that I see that’s interesting out there on policy, or just good stories. I get less and less time these days to read books. I just started reading that book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, about the Golden State Killer. [Laughs.]

Huh, are you a fan of thrillers?
Oh, my brother and I grew up reading a loooooot about serial killers.

You did? Do you still think a lot about serial killers?
[Laughs.] Not really! Politics hasn’t gotten that bad that I’d rather think about serial killers than politics.

Speaking of your brother, who’s now your campaign chair, you’re both frequently the subject of an argument that, because you’re not exactly a front-runner in this race, you’d be better served if one of you ran for something in Texas instead.
I appreciate people’s opinion. Ha. But I have a strong vision for the country’s future, and I’m going to go out and make the case, and I have no doubt that there are very talented people that are going to run for senator and governor of Texas.

Do you get frustrated with all the national focus on your fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke?
No. You know, I was happy to support him. Joaquin supported him in his race for Senate. I believe he’s very talented, that he’s going to be a fantastic candidate if he decides to run. You know, so he’ll be one of 15 or 20 other people who are running. So I expect a crowded race. And, you know, if he decides to run, I’ll see him out on the trail.

One line of commentary that’s followed you around for ages is about how you’re not entirely fluent in Spanish. What have you made of that over the years?  Do you think it comes from a misconception about how the language is used now?
Uh. Yeah. I think it says something about a lot of people asking the question that they don’t understand the reality of the Latino community in the United States. First of all, there are a tremendous number of Latinos in the United States that are bilingual, and also those that are English-dominant, and also Spanish-dominant. But, you know, my brother and I speak some Spanish. We’re just not completely fluent. It’s not 100 or zero. It’s also ironic because my grandmother and my mother grew up in a time when they were punished for speaking Spanish, and this country effectively was telling them, “You go learn English. Your Spanish isn’t good enough here.” So it’s very ironic and makes zero sense that now somehow a Latino would be told, “You’re not good enough because you don’t speak Spanish.”

So you see this question reflecting a lack of understanding that people have of the diversity within Latino communities.
Oh, for sure. It’s part of the lack of diversity in journalism. And, you know, I’m going to go out there and be myself. I did that on Saturday [at the campaign launch]. I did that [campaigning] in Puerto Rico. I’m going to speak English and Spanish.

So it’s primarily journalists that ask you about this, not regular people, then?
Oh, no doubt! Regular people hardly ever ask about it. Everyday people hardly ever ask about that. It’s journalists and it’s trolls on Twitter, basically. That doesn’t mean some people don’t wonder, “Do you speak Spanish fluently?” But in the press and on Twitter, it’s much more hyped up than it is — for most people it’s not anywhere near their first concern.

Wait, do you think this is reporters’ first concern about you?
Oh, no doubt. I think a lot of reporters in 2016 — and beyond that — have played up that aspect of me. I don’t know why, because it certainly can’t be what they’re hearing. I don’t even think that they’re talking to the Latino community out there. If you noticed, on Saturday for people who were watching, there was a tremendous amount of pride that a lot of people in the Latino community had, and I think, just, a lot of folks in journalism didn’t see — don’t see — how my candidacy is going to resonate with the community. Whether I’m 100 percent fluent in Spanish or 50 percent fluent. I mean, it’s the common experience of people that have come over from different countries, you know — again — whether they came over from Germany a long time ago, or Italy, or people who have come over from India, you see this pattern of second-generation Americans who might not be quite as fluent as their parents were, their grandparents were, in the mother tongue, but of course are still proud of their background. And I’m able to speak some Spanish, but I’m not completely fluent. I have no doubt that over the course of this campaign, using it the way that I will, I will become more fluent, and I look forward to that.

What’s the worst thing Ben Carson has done at HUD?
Probably to put on ice the Affordably Furthering Fair Housing rule, which we did in 2015. It was a groundbreaking rule to put teeth into the Fair Housing Act, and it helped to further desegregate communities in the United States by making communities that receive HUD dollars get more serious about how they’re ensuring there’s housing opportunity that’s equal throughout their boundaries. And a few months or so after the Trump administration started — Secretary Carson took over — they basically put that on ice. That’s going to have a long-term impact. It’s the first thing that ought to be reversed when the next president takes over.

But it can’t have surprised you that he did that.
No. I mean, you know, Carson had called it social engineering. He had referred to AFFH as social engineering before. So it didn’t surprise me, I just had hoped that as somebody that grew up in poverty, challenging circumstances, himself, that he might understand the value of making sure that everybody could have good housing opportunities across the country.

Huh, that suggests you had some hope for him at HUD?
Out of respect, I wanted to give him an opportunity to demonstrate the direction that he was going to go in, and I held off on critiquing Secretary Carson for some time. But it became clear pretty quickly that his administration did not have an interest in people who were poor, that in fact he seems to scapegoat it, or to blame people who are poor. And I don’t believe that just because you’re poor there’s something wrong with you. A lot of people think, for instance, that if you live in public housing that you’re lazy or you just don’t want to work. And the fact is that 43 percent of households that are headed by a working-age person, they have somebody that’s working. So we need to be investing in their ability to be upwardly mobile, not scapegoating or blaming them, or leaving them behind.

I take it Carson hasn’t asked for your advice, then.
Well, he reached out in the spring of 2017 when he put together a dinner of former Housing secretaries to offer their advice, perspective. Unfortunately, I was not able to make it to that dinner that night. But I expressed to him that if there was ever anything that I could be helpful with, any perspective that he wanted me to give, I was perfectly willing to do it. I have not been called.

Do you know what they talked about at that dinner?
My understanding is that it was fairly light, in terms of the conversation.

All right. To rewind for a second, if I understood correctly, you said you had hope that Carson would, because of his experience, be more empathetic than you’d feared. Did you have that hope for the Trump administration?
No. I figured, based on what Donald Trump said on the campaign trail, based on how he got elected, that it would be bad. I said, I believe in late January of 2017, that this would be the shadiest, most corrupt administration that we had seen in a very long time, and that’s proven itself to be true. So I didn’t have a lot of hope, based on his track record, and the people that he was surrounding himself with. Already at the time, there was a question about his national security adviser, and others. And since then, of course, there have been convictions, and an election that has revealed dishonesty, there have been ethics violations and Cabinet secretaries that have had to resign because of that. So it’s only gotten worse and worse.

How did your perspective on the way national politics works change after you gave the keynote speech at the Democratic convention in 2012?
It just broadened my experience, because after that I got to travel the country a lot more, and get a sense of the politics in different places. When I was mayor of San Antonio I was in a nonpartisan system, and then when I was in the Cabinet — even though I wasn’t in Congress, you were in the middle of a very partisan system. So what I hope is that I’ve brought this spirit of trying to bring people together based on the experience of being a mayor, and trying to get things done in a nonpartisan system, but understanding the realities of a partisan system.

Well, not only is the system in San Antonio nonpartisan, it’s also one with a structurally weak mayoralty.
Yeah. But that means politically you have to be even better. San Antonio was a hybrid model with a city manager. The only way a mayor can get things done in that system is if he or she is able to summon the political support for it, and I was able to do that in big ways, with Pre-K 4 SA, a number of other projects that we did.

What’s your first memory of your mother’s political activism, back when you were growing up in San Antonio?
Probably handing out — maybe in 1978 or 1979 — handing out leaflets, probably at a polling place, I think it was for a city council candidate. I think that’s the earliest memory that I have of her being involved in politics and me participating in it with her. Yeah, I remember, also, meetings. People talking about politics at our house. But that’s the most striking memory that I have.

You were 4 years old? Presumably that left an impression.
Yeah! The impression that it left was that there’s a value in participating. A lot of people grow up with a deep skepticism, if not cynicism, about politics and politicians, and I had some of that skepticism when I was a teenager, but fundamentally what I got from my mom was an appreciation for participating in the process. And, you know, unfortunately what I doubted back then was whether you could actually make a real change by participating, because they were coming from this outsider perspective, and I didn’t see a lot of change happening at that time. It’s only with the sweep of time that I can see that, of course, there was significant progress that was made because of the efforts of a lot of people, and that that was through political involvement and political participation.

Just to make sure I’m understanding: that’s to say for a while you doubted the power of outside pressure to effect change in our political system?
The way that I meant that was, I didn’t see politics itself, even being in politics — politicians — as making much of a difference. Because, you know, I grew up in this neighborhood where I saw a lot of people that were still hurting. And also, the politics of my mother and her colleagues had been, as activists, I just thought, not making much of a difference. When I was a teenager, my eyes started to open — when I went away from San Antonio to college and started to realize, well, this is the best that we have. If you want to make a difference, this is the system to work in. This is the way that it’s done. That’s when I started thinking about being a part of it. One thing I remember was being at Stanford in 1994 when Pete Wilson ran Prop 187 in California — scapegoated immigrants, the nastiness, the ugliness of that. [I started] feeling like, in addition to wanting to get home and improve my own community, that I wanted to act on that kind of ugliness. I felt embarrassed for it.

Were you active in fighting Prop 187 when you were at Stanford?
Joaquin and I were active, a little, with the Stanford Democrats. Very — I mean, I don’t want to exaggerate how much — a little bit. Mostly, I did volunteer stuff, like tutoring students from East Palo Alto, but I can’t say I was super active. Then we ran for Stanford student senate, and got elected. At that time I was still following the issues more than I was participating.

Well, then you went to law school and immediately ran for office.
When I got back … I was 26. Because we had very strict term limits back then, you could only serve two two-year terms. That’s a terrible idea because it doesn’t allow people to develop expertise. I’m talking about city council now …

Huh, do you feel that way about term limits for …
City council! Well, for city council four years is too short. You know, you can have term limits, but you need more reasonable terms. But the only silver lining was for young, up-and-coming people that wanted to go into politics, you knew when there was going to be an opening. For me and my district, I was going to graduate in 2000, and there was going to be an open seat in 2001. So yes, I was anxious to get back home, and I was probably going into politics. But part of it is also the timing: that’s when the open seat was there.

Doesn’t that kind of feel like what’s going on now? It’s 2020, and there’s an open seat …
There’s no Democratic front-runner, but there is an incumbent in the White House! It’s not like ’08!

This article has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

A Long Talk With Julián Castro