LAS VEGAS — He helped force a conversation on reparations. He set the tone on immigration and homelessness. And he has sparked a heated debate about whether Democrats should demote Iowa from first-in-the-nation voting status, and instead designate a state that is more reflective of the country’s and the party’s diversity.
Julián Castro has led the way on all those matters — and he was often followed by higher-polling candidates like Elizabeth Warren. But for the first time the former San Antonio mayor and U.S. housing secretary won’t be on the Democratic debate stage on Wednesday. And without him, some grass-roots organizers and activists say an important voice — that of the sole Latino in the field — will be lost.
Castro, they say, has channeled the rapidly expanding liberal and racial justice movement into campaign messaging in a way other candidates have not — using it to pressure his Democratic competitors to take positions they might have otherwise avoided.
“I’ve clearly influenced the debate on immigration, on police reform, on housing,” Castro said in an interview here, after several Democrats appeared at a forum in the oft-forgotten third state in the nominating process. “There has been a focus on people that are left behind, people that are struggling, including an awareness of how race impacts that.”
Castro’s failure to qualify for the debate stage is his own, of course, and the latest sign of a flagging campaign. Earlier this month, he laid off staff in New Hampshire and South Carolina, devoting the campaign’s full capacity to Iowa and Nevada.
He sits at 1% or below in nearly every major national poll. In late October, his campaign made a last-minute fundraising push, warning he’d have to drop out of the race if he did not rake in $800,000 within days. He made it, but still appears to be barely hanging on.
Pressed on his path forward, Castro said he’s staying in the race until at least Iowa. “That’s what I’m working toward,” he said.
Despite his shortcomings, Castro said he’s proud of how he’s pulled the field leftward on key issues. Supporters said his impact on the race — particularly in highlighting issues affecting black and brown communities, as well as reproductive and transgender rights — could end up rivaling Bernie Sanders’ sway in 2016.
As he spoke to a packed room of black voters and leaders at Paschal’s soul food restaurant in Atlanta on the eve of the debate, Castro ticked off the ways he’s led the field.
“Even though I’m not there, we’ve already influenced the debate,” Castro told the crowd. “If they get asked a question about housing [Wednesday], it’ll be because we’ve kept speaking to the affordability crisis that we have in communities like Atlanta.”
Attendees lined up for selfies with Castro afterward, some of them urging him to stay in the race. National organizers, even some who have endorsed other candidates, shared the sentiment.
“You’d be hard pressed to find another candidate that has been as bold and unyielding and consistent in lifting up key issues that black voters are dealing with and have listed as priorities,” said Nse Ufot, executive director of New Georgia Project, which mobilizes young black voters across the state.
Castro’s recent critique of the Democratic nominating process — which gives overwhelmingly white Iowa outsized influence over picking the nominee — has forced the top candidates to address an issue they’d rather avoid in the heat of the primary.
“We’ve changed a lot as a country in almost 50 years,” Castro said, referring to when Iowa became the first state on the Democratic nominating calendar. “1972 was right after the black community really moved fully over into the Democratic Party. …and then all of a sudden in ’72 the nominating process starts with Iowa caucus. What sense does that make?”
Part of Castro’s success in befriending the growing activist movement on the left is found in his campaign’s enlistment of national and community-based organizers to help in drafting policy plans. The strategy has allowed him to bring an activist voice to his highest-profile moments and solidify his position as an ally and “figurehead” of the community.
“I was on the Google Doc,” said Brooke Evans, a homelessness activist who helped the Castro campaign draft his “People First” housing policy. “So it’s not just that, you know, his talking points will be missing. It’s also the fact that our labor will be missing.”
Moreover, organizers point to Castro’s willingness to name black and brown youth who were killed by police in almost every major speech he’s given, including on the debate stage. It’s caught the attention of operatives who have endorsed other candidates.
“He has said the names of people who have been subjugated to police violence, whether that be through murder, or police brutality” said Nelini Stamp of the Working Families Party, which endorsed Elizabeth Warren. “He has brought police brutality and criminal justice reform to the forefront of every debate.”
While his willingness to take politically risky positions on issues like immigration and police brutality have won plaudits from activists, it may also be the reason his campaign has failed to catch fire. Some centrist and establishment Democrats fret that a candidate running on a platform like Castro’s couldn’t beat President Donald Trump. Castro contends those Democrats are “equating electability with a profile of a candidate they think can go get rural Midwestern voters.”
A number of Castro’s supporters chalked up his low status in the primary not to poor performance but to a crowded field and the media’s fascination with Pete Buttigieg. It’s a similar critique offered by fans of Cory Booker. Both Booker and Castro were mayors of larger, more diverse cities, but have received less national attention than the newer, younger South Bend mayor, who currently leads in Iowa polls.
Aimee Allison, founder of the group She The People, lamented Castro’s absence from the debate stage, saying he’s demonstrated a commitment to causes important to the black and Latina women who support her organization.
“Julián Castro I think has done such a service in terms of highlighting marginalized and vulnerable communities. Women of color know all about that,” Allison said. “He’s not on the debate stage … but I think the policies he’s been embracing have in some ways changed the game.”
Reflecting on the campaign he’s run, Castro dismissed chatter that he’s now running to be vice president.
“I’ve spoken the truth about what we need to do in this country and haven’t cowered from confronting tough issues in a way that almost no other candidate” has, Castro said. “No matter what happens, I’m very proud of the campaign that we’ve run because I didn’t take the easy path.”
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