Julián Castro and the ‘Timeless’ Policing Crisis

Julián Castro, former HUD secretary and 2020 presidential candidate.
Julián Castro, former HUD secretary and 2020 presidential candidate. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Earlier this summer, as he watched America burn from his home–turned–quarantine bunker in San Antonio, Texas, Julián Castro reflected on the past 18 months. He’d run for president on a platform that emphasized the need to reform policing, which he calls an “inveterate challenge” — an issue that rarely gets tackled by lawmakers. Voters didn’t bite. He hovered around 1 percent in the polls from start to finish, reduced to chasing debate-qualifying thresholds to get even modest amounts of media coverage. When he failed to make the Democratic primary debate in November, the writing was on the wall. He dropped out of the race on January 2. “It simply isn’t our time,” he told supporters. Five months later, though, few things seemed less true. A Minneapolis police officer killed a Black man named George Floyd on May 25, kneeling on his neck for close to nine minutes while the handcuffed 46-year-old gasped for mercy. The public was jolted out of its torpor; millions who’d been confined to their homes for months poured into the streets. Unease fomented by the coronavirus pandemic, spiraling job losses, and the deadly ineptitude of the Trump administration erupted. Protesters faced down cops, and rioters torched buildings and Crown Victorias from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. It was a dizzying turnaround. In April, Castro looked as if he’d pegged his fortunes to the dying embers of the Black Lives Matter movement. By June, Nancy Pelosi was wearing a kente-patterned stole at the Capitol, and Castro looked like a seer.

He resists the suggestion that he has been vindicated. “I saw it as another unfortunate confirmation of why we brought it up in the first place,” Castro says of policing’s resurgence as a national preoccupation. Over the phone, his speech pattern reflects his demeanor: even, deliberate, perhaps a bit cautious. When he announced his candidacy last January, the 45-year-old had been described as a “rising star” in the Democratic Party for what felt like the lifetime of an actual star. He and his identical twin brother, U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro, were raised in the barrios of west San Antonio by their mother, Rosie Castro, a local organizing fixture. Rosie was active in La Raza Unida Party, which sought elected office to improve the lot of Mexican-Americans in the 1970s. Her boys inherited her zeal for public service but fewer of her ideological commitments. They advanced their political ambitions through more traditional channels. Julián attended Stanford and Harvard Law School before being elected to the San Antonio City Council at age 26; he was mayor by 35. Fawning media profiles followed, as did bullish new sobriquets — “the post-Hispanic Hispanic politician,” “the Latino Obama.” The actual Obama took notice and selected Castro to give a keynote speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. The response was glowing. The young Texan’s ascension seemed all but assured.

For a while, things kept looking up. Castro was tapped to become Housing secretary at age 40 — a formative experience, even for a man who was no stranger to hardship. “When I was at HUD, I had an opportunity to see a lot more than I had ever seen, and I saw it in different ways from how I had before,” Castro tells me. “I visited Native American reservations; I went to 39 states and 100 different communities.” He absorbed these experiences and asked lots of questions. For most of his political career, he could be characterized as a progressive pragmatist, hewing toward the left flank of the Democratic mainstream but with an abiding belief that private capital and free trade have key roles to play in U.S. politics. That outlook hasn’t changed, but Castro describes the Trump era and its buildup as galvanizing — a moment when many of the disadvantages he’d experienced personally, and worked to alleviate incrementally, became more pressing. “Having a president who is so hell-bent on taking away opportunities for people that don’t look like him helps clarify the need to push for opportunities for everybody,” he says. “I believed that America was ready to hear a vision that brought all of the most vulnerable people back into the fold and said, ‘If we can make our country work for those who are often forgotten and left behind, then we can make our country work for everybody.’”

He seemed to be right on time. Since Castro’s tenure at HUD began, the Black Lives Matter movement called strident new attention to racial inequality, especially for Democrats. “All of a sudden, people are having complicated conversations about intersectionality and race and white privilege that would never have happened, even in 2016,” says Maya Rupert, Castro’s presidential-campaign manager. There were also national trends the party had struggled to maximize. Electoral success for Democrats has been moving for years toward a greater reliance on Latino voters, but engaging them has been a persistent point of weakness for the party. Latino turnout has declined in every national election since 2008, with the exception of the 2018 midterms, and Latino organizers regularly sound the alarm about missed opportunities for Democrats to court them on issues besides immigration. Here was a chance to hit “reset.” President Trump had won office largely through anti-Latino demagoguery. Castro was a natural foil to the bigoted real-estate scion turned reality-TV performer: the grandson of an orphaned immigrant from Coahuila, whose politics and demeanor contrasted sharply with the heedless revanchist-in-chief.

Despite its timeliness, Castro’s bid drew perfunctory acknowledgement from the media — and little more. Any notion that Democrats wanted something new and untested was subsumed by the Joe Biden behemoth, which, though it had to weather strong showings from some opponents in the early primary states, led most polls from the outset. The message was clear: Democrats wanted a known quantity to face Trump in November. “It wasn’t an aspirational cycle,” Castro tells me. “It was a ‘Let’s just get through this and beat this guy’ cycle.” But his failure to win support belied his prescience. Even experts were surprised at how attuned he was to an issue that had never been the focus of a presidential campaign; Castro’s was the only stand-alone policing platform in the primary and his closest item to a signature issue. “For those of us who have been in the policing space for the better part of the last couple of decades, that there was such a strong and well-thought-out policing platform and that it came out so early, I was really pleasantly surprised,” says Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, a criminal-justice research center based at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

This gets reaffirmed daily. More than a year after they failed to entice the Democratic electorate, Castro’s proposals fit seamlessly alongside many of today’s protest demands and have, in some cases, been adopted by federal legislators: ending the transfer of military equipment to local departments, ending “broken windows” policing, eliminating the use of police as disciplinary agents in schools, investing in alternatives to criminalization like drug and mental-health treatment. “Qualified immunity” — which shields police from being held personally liable for constitutional violations — was a Castro target long before it made its way into the House Democrats’ latest reform bill. When the secretary endorsed Biden last month, the vice-president’s team said they needed his help most glaringly to tackle law-enforcement reform. He may have lost the race, but in its afterlife, Castro is uniquely positioned to influence how Democrats address policing for the foreseeable future.

Whether they actually utilize him is another matter. Beyond the Biden shout-out, Castro hasn’t been tapped to lead any specific policing initiatives for the vice-president or the party. He has set his sights on smaller races and projects. He has a podcast coming out in September, titled Our America, which takes a narrative-exposé approach to documenting inequality in the U.S. (When he was younger, Castro considered a career in journalism.) He joined the advocacy organization Voto Latino in May as a senior adviser working on efforts to mobilize young Latino voters. His newly launched PAC, People First Future, is building a bench of progressive talent, including U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and José Garza, the former public defender who, in July, was elected to become district attorney of Travis County, Texas. He’s committed to being an aggressive surrogate for Biden, like most of the vanquished primary field. “He will make an excellent president if he’s elected,” Castro tells me of the former vice-president. But his own prospects as an elected official are murky. Polling indicates that traditionally red Texas may be in play for Democrats in 2020 — a notion that, aside from its implications for November, might have dramatically rerouted the career paths of the ambitious Castro brothers had it been the case ten years ago. But he’s not thinking about running there, or elsewhere, anytime soon. “That may be because I came off 14 months of campaigning for president,” he said. “I’m hoping to run again in the future, but I don’t have anything in mind right now.”

There’s more than a whiff of misfortune to it all. Castro’s background role in resolving today’s crises feels like a missed opportunity and belies his uncommon familiarity with the inequities that exacerbate them. This extends beyond policing. “I don’t think there was a campaign that was more on it in terms of what we’re facing today post-COVID 19,” he tells me. “Because all of those people that I highlighted — people who are homeless, people who are working in the fields, people who are incarcerated, folks who are struggling with the rent — they are among the hardest hit during this coronavirus time period.” It has also become personal; earlier this month, Castro’s stepmother, Alice Guzman, died of complications from COVID, and his father, Jesse Guzman, has tested positive. His level of familiarity during the campaign was more deliberate. Castro’s team approached policy more like organizers than like politicos — partly a function of its key leadership positions being held by longtime advocates and organizers like first-time campaign manager Rupert and national political director Natalie Montelongo. This meant taking Castro’s vision and brainstorming with people who aren’t usually looked to as policy-makers to fill in the specifics. Activists from Wisconsin to Florida were shared on a Google Doc that served as an idea generator for what became the campaign’s law-enforcement program. “That’s how we built all of our policies,” Montelongo tells me: from the ground up. The result was a pace-setting collection of proposals, thoroughly integrated into Castro’s broader conception of community health. Their granularity led him to draw insightful, if sometimes counterintuitive, conclusions on the campaign trail; when asked during the October 15 debate about his plans to prevent gun violence, Castro argued against the confiscation schemes proposed by some of his opponents, like Beto O’Rourke, on the basis that they would rely on police trafficking in their own brand of gun violence. “In the places I grew up in, we weren’t exactly looking for another reason for cops to come banging on the door,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

His team was encouraged by how wide open the primary seemed in the beginning. At its most crowded, it featured 25 active candidates, all seeking to entice an electorate struggling to find its way post-Obama. But Castro found himself getting squeezed out. He made waves but didn’t benefit measurably — as when he got most of his opponents to commit, on live TV, to repealing Section 1325 of U.S. Code Title 8, which makes it a misdemeanor to enter the country without papers. He suffered as well from a seeming paucity of niches: In a field of similarly credentialed competitors, Biden was the restoration candidate; Bernie Sanders had locked down the party’s left wing; and Elizabeth Warren, arguably the closest in spirit to Castro, was the progressive wonk. By contrast, the secretary’s campaign — marked by activist-driven policies that, although framed as broadly beneficial, seemed micro-targeted at specific constituencies — struggled to find an audience.

But rather than being marginal, the issues Castro emphasized have since been proved to have mass support, as indicated in recent polling about the need to reform policing. The advantages of a president attuned to law enforcement’s excesses have only grown starker since he dropped out. “That could be powerful,” Goff says. “Not just on messaging but leading a party to say, ‘We’re going to be a party of justice at the federal, state, and local level, and all the resources of the federal government can be leaned toward it.’” It’s an alien concept at the moment. Trump had protesters tear-gassed so he could secure a photo opportunity at a church. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” was his response to the more destructive strains of unrest, and he threatened to deploy federal armed forces — and then followed through on those threats — to subdue it. “The first role of a president is as a uniter and moral leader,” Castro tells me, days before Trump approvingly tweets videos of a supporter in Florida shouting, “White power!” and of a white St. Louis couple brandishing firearms at protesters. “The president has failed spectacularly in that regard.” Meanwhile, Trump’s approval ratings continue to fall as national support for the protests strikes a bipartisan tenor. Republicans are increasingly sympathetic to the dissidents, even as the president’s revamped culture war bemoans their declining way of life.

Castro has spent weeks watching the progression of the policing-reform debate unfold, and he has taken heart. Aggressive proposals for reimagining public safety are being entertained, and there’s talk of defunding the police, even abolishing them. “I hope we can live in that society one day,” he says of abolition. “I think, like most people, I recognize that we don’t live in that society right now. But we also don’t live in a society that requires nearly as many police with guns responding to situations as we have.” He notes the scale of the challenge — specifically for officials like those on the Minneapolis City Council, which recently voted to dismantle the city’s police department. “There are a lot of vested interests in the system that we have now,” Castro says, “including residents whose first reaction is ‘I’m not going to have a police officer when I call for one.’” All the more reason, he says, to embrace what he describes as the most exciting part of political leadership: hearing from the public. “I know there are going to be tears. There are going to be amazing stories. There’s going to be a lot of hope that’s given about what they can create instead of the current system.” Cautious optimism seems in order. But even as public sentiment shifts in reform’s favor, revanchism has started to take root — whether in the president’s rhetoric and his deployment of federal officers to Democrat-run cities, or among lawmakers in states like Georgia who recently sought to include police officers as a protected class in new hate-crime legislation. Law-enforcement violence has slowed only moderately. At least 95 people have been shot and killed by police since Floyd’s death. The extent to which public pressure to rethink policing is fueled by frustration with Trump or the coronavirus — neither of which is permanent — remains unclear. The constant is urgency. “I see those issues as timeless,” Castro tells me. It’s obvious in retrospect that he would be proven right so soon. And that he will be again.

Julián Castro and the ‘Timeless’ Policing Crisis