He Could Have Been a Contender

I saw Julián Castro “up close and personal” at a home reception in New Hampshire last July. He had just turned in his first debate performance, at which he upstaged much of the field – especially Beto O’Rourke – with a fine-tuned policy proposal on immigration, as well as an energetic stage presence.

So when I found out he’d be making a campaign stop less than two hours away from me, I hopped in the car with my teenage daughter and niece, and the three of us headed north.

The weather was hot and humid. We waited well over an hour among strangers in a rural backyard for the candidate to arrive. Later on, halfway through Castro’s presentation, a woman sitting in the back would faint from the heat. The courtly candidate waited on the woman for a good 20 minutes until medics arrived.

I liked nearly everything about Castro’s stump speech, which seemed well-rehearsed and yet sincere. He hit most of the progressive talking points I wanted to hear. Maybe two-thirds of the way in, he leaned into his “origin story” of growing up poor in a Latino family. I was glad he didn’t make too much of it.

Castro’s progressive bona fides as mayor of San Antonio sounded plausible and genuine. What he had to say about the economy and inequality, the environment, and other, mostly domestic, issues was on target. His delivery was confident and articulate.

Despite my misgivings about his being a member of the Obama administration – such are my left-leaning politics – I found myself drawn to Castro. After his talk, my niece, who had recently returned from a year in China, went to ask him about the Uighurs. (His answer, that he would consider imposing sanctions on China, disappointed me.)

I, meanwhile, signed up for his mailing list, made a small donation, and talked to one of his aides about his campaign poster. At the time, it had a very weird graphic design, with a silhouette of his profile intersected by angular shapes; it made it look as if he had plates inserted in his skull. Weird.

Not long after, the first of his e-mail and text messages arrived on my phone. His participation in the next debate was in doubt. He might not have enough favorable poll numbers to get in, and he needed money to make sure he would. I never did figure out what having money had to do with getting into national polls. But, whatever. I might have donated again.

For what it’s worth, Castro’s performance in the second, even more crowded, debate was unremarkable. Around that time, I was looking for evidence of something better on his campaign website: a bold proposal, perhaps, or even just more than a cursory nod toward foreign policy and criticizing the military-industrial state. I found nothing.

Long story short: From a trickle to a flood to a deluge to a tsunami, the texts and e-mails kept coming, more and more, first one or two a day, then three, four and more. And now the message had been distilled to, “Send me more money, because I’m the one different voice (read: Latino), and I rose up out of poverty thanks to my sweet grandmother.”

Long before Castro dropped out of the race for Democratic Presidential nominee, I had lost any interest in him. His campaign offered no vision, no concrete ideas. And it’s a shame. Because I believe he could have been an exciting candidate. Instead of reducing his Latino heritage to an identity-politics punchline, he could have continued using it to put a laser-like focus on issues like not only immigration, but also our relationship to Latin America. He could have spoken out against the Venezuelan coup attempt and the Bolivian putsch with authority. There’s no reason he couldn’t have claimed a progressive platform and stayed in the picture with Sanders and Warren.

The most frustrating thing about getting endless campaign communications is not being able to talk back directly to the candidate. I would have been happy to offer some feedback. After all, perhaps he took my advice to simplify his campaign logo.

İBuena Suerte, Julián! Maybe we’ll see you in 2024.


Fred Baumgarten is a writer living in western Massachusetts.