On April 16, former United States Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary and current presidential candidate Julian Castro visited the University of Chicago to discuss his campaign for the presidency. Castro is the second presidential candidate, after Pete Buttigieg, to visit the University of Chicago this year. Castro participated in a wide-ranging interview with IOP Director David Axelrod and then answered questions from students. Over the seventy-five minute interview and subsequent Q&A, Castro discussed his qualifications, his vision for America, and the path he sees towards the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
At the beginning of the interview, Castro laid out a concise, but bold, policy agenda. Asked what his priorities would be as president, Castro responded that he would address climate change, healthcare, and immigration in that exact order.
Castro expressed concern about climate change and railed against what he sees as insufficient action to combat it. He stated that his first act as president would be to reenter the United States into the 2015 Paris Climate Accords. When pressed on the Green New Deal, however, Castro’s response was mixed. While he expressed skepticism at the notion that the key goals of the Green New Deal could be implemented within ten years, he asserted that “we should be bold.” He cited work he undertook as HUD Secretary to reduce veteran homelessness as an example of the kind of “boldness” the Green New Deal represents, arguing that though the Obama administration failed in attaining its goals completely, it nonetheless made great progress by reducing the veteran homeless population by 50 percent.
Healthcare consistently polled as the top issue for voters in the 2018 midterm elections. Building off the energy and success that Democrats had running on healthcare that year, Castro articulated similar views as many of the Democrats who were successful last year. As with climate change, Castro is reluctant to adopt the most sweeping healthcare reforms being proposed. He believes that individuals receiving healthcare from their employers should continue to have that benefit. However, Castro remains skeptical that insurance companies with a profit motive can provide the highest quality insurance to their customers. To that end, he supports the introduction of a public option, which he described as Medicare that people can opt into. He believes that as time goes on, more and more people would opt into Medicare and forego currently dominant means of obtaining health insurance, such as through one’s employer.
Castro was heavily critical of the current administration’s immigration policy. He believes that the United States needs to both secure the border while also making it easier to integrate undocumented citizens into American communities. Specifically, he believes the United States should decriminalize border crossings and ensure that immigration hearings are conducted closer to where undocumented immigrants live. His understanding of America’s immigration challenges extends beyond our borders: Castro believes that the United States should accept more refugees and provide increased aid to Central American countries to reduce the problems that cause migration in the first place. Responding directly to the Trump administration’s proposal to resettle undocumented immigrants in “sanctuary cities,” Castro applauded the mayors who expressed an openness towards more immigrants, but criticized the administration for a policy that he said was based in “stoking fear, and paranoia, and division.” As president, Castro would emphasize the need for immigration reform early on. Citing the Obama administration’s failure to enact immigration reform during the two years it controlled both houses of Congress, Castro argued that the consequences of waiting are too high.
Castro expressed confidence that the next Congress would have Democratic majorities in both chambers, as well as a Democratic president. Regardless, he acknowledged that institutional norms may stymie an ambitious legislative agenda. Castro therefore expressed a willingness to demolish certain institutional norms to accomplish his goals if elected president. For instance, he stated that if the Senate filibuster was the one thing standing in the way of the sweeping healthcare reform he proposed, he would advocate for its removal. Beyond the filibuster however, many Democrats have expressed grievances with the federal judiciary, believing that the rapid pace of conservative judicial appointments, including Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh under Trump, have created an unevenly conservative court. Many have suggested, and some presidential candidates have supported, altering the size of the Supreme Court to mitigate this concern. However, Castro expressed reservations about such a plan, worrying that it would destroy the integrity and independence of the federal judiciary and would set a precedent that a future Republican president could easily take advantage of.
The 2020 Democratic primary field is one of the largest in modern history, with nearly twenty candidates either announced or exploring bids. Castro was pressed by Axelrod, and many students, to illustrate what makes his candidacy particularly compelling and how he sees a path to victory both in a crowded primary field as well as against a well-equipped incumbent. Castro cited his record as the mayor of San Antonio as having given him practical governing experience that many in the race, most notably the seven senators and five representatives, lack. Castro argued that mayors are evaluated on their ability to directly improve people’s lives and ensure the smooth administration of government services. He believes that the combination of his executive experiences both as mayor of San Antonio as well as HUD Secretary, as well as his relative youth at forty-four years old, have prepared him to be an effective leader for a new generation.
In spite of what he views as sterling qualifications to be President, Castro has polled poorly and has struggled to raise money. Asked about how he hopes to improve his polling stats and raise more money, Castro was honest about the need for improvements. He asserted that he doesn’t want to be the “flavor of the month,” instead believing that his campaign tactics are slowly building up broad and durable support. He was more blunt about his fundraising shortcomings, asserting that a poor digital presence was particularly at fault for underwhelming results. In spite of this, Castro asserted numerous times that the first voting is still eight months away, and that he is well positioned to use that time to build his support base. Castro remains confident that his candidacy is compelling enough to gain real traction as time goes on.
Castro gave event attendees an insight both into what his presidency would look like as well as the strengths and weaknesses of his candidacy. If elected, Castro would be the first Hispanic president in American history. He would be sure to bring an even-keeled temperament and policy stance to the Oval Office. It is clear that he will have much more to say between now and the first voting which will occur in less than nine months.