The Democratic debate doesn't have Julián Castro because he stayed centrist too long

The 2020 race for the Democratic nomination has been one of the most progressive ever, and the first Latino candidate got there... eventually.
Image: Julian Castro
Julian Castro speaks at a Democratic Party fundraising dinner, the Liberty and Justice Celebration, in Des Moines, Iowa, on Nov. 1, 2019.Eric Thayer / Reuters file
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By Julio Ricardo Varela

In an election cycle during which Latinos are expected to play a pivotal role in 2020 as the largest ethnic voting bloc in the country, there will be no Latino candidate on stage for the MSNBC/Washington Post Democratic debate Wednesday in Atlanta. In fact, we might never see a Latino candidate in the national limelight for the rest of the primary season.

But rather than simply asking why Julián Castro didn’t meet the financial or polling criteria to qualify for this debate and now faces the likely prospect of staying in the irrelevant secondary candidate lane until his campaign inevitably ends, let's think about a more fundamental reason he could not. At a time where the Latino community feels under attack by a president who built his first campaign on anti-Mexican xenophobia, why did Castro start his campaign as a centrist rather than fully embrace the current progressive moment earlier?

It was clear last year when he was first considering his run that Castro was planning to go down a moderate path. He shied away from being labeled a “radical,” even though younger progressive voters — and especially younger progressive Latino voters — were cheering on figures such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Parkland shooting survivor Emma González and anti-gun violence activist Edna Chávez.

Then, his campaign's announcement in January highlighted images of him riding a city bus with his twin brother, Rep. Joaquín Castro, down Guadalupe Street in San Antonio, along with tributes to his family’s immigrant history, his mother’s activist past. The bilingual announcement was accompanied by Selena music and campaign signs showing off the accent in Julián. For many young Latinos, the campaign launch spoke to them — surprising veteran political observers of Latino politics, and raising the possibility that the Latino community would have a national champion against President Donald Trump’s constant vilification.

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But after that, the Castro campaign didn’t fully embrace his Latinidad with a fighting spirit. To many, Castro was too polite, too polished, too moderate. The political media didn’t take him seriously — though some would say it’s because the political media was focused more on candidates who were chasing the mysterious “white Midwestern voter” than paying more attention to a Mexican American leader who was also once mayor of a major American city. When Castro cursed on national radio in February about why he didn’t speak Spanish, it might have resonated with Latinos, but it didn’t make a mark with the mainstream.

And, when he was asked if his being Latino might have led to a media blowback about his candidacy, his answer seemed too middle-of-the-road. “The challenge is that — look, you can either get pissed off or you can go out there and work hard. And that’s what our families do all the time. We go and we work hard,” Castro said in April.

Maybe Latino voters wanted to see more of the “pissed off.”

The April comments came around the time that Castro was praised for issuing an immigration plan that began to poke holes in Trump’s policy — as well as the policies of President Barack Obama’s administration, in which Castro served as Housing and Urban Development secretary from 2014 until 2017. It showed that Castro was beginning to distance himself from Obama's immigration legacy and break away from the Democratic Party's institutional message.

Latinos were noticing — but it was not enough, as Castro continued to trail behind non-Latino candidates such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former Vice President Joe Biden in national Latino voter polls.

Castro even ran an effective ad that went right at Trump after the El Paso massacre in August; it was a punch in the gut and the community noticed. However, it didn’t seem to move anything for Castro politically, and his support cratered after the September debate, when he was smacked down by the (overwhelmingly white) political media for being “mean” to Biden by questioning whether Biden was backtracking on or had forgotten the terms of his own health care plan.

Among the Latinos who saw that exchange, many sided more with Castro than with Biden — but the elite chatter about it essentially stopped any momentum for the campaign. Where Biden defenders saw classlessness, Castro defenders saw a mostly white political class telling a brown candidate to go sit in a corner and stay quiet. You want blowback, Chicano? Here it is. You’re not one of us and your campaign will never been one of ours. Maybe Democrats weren’t explicitly being racist, but it sure felt like they wanted to make sure Castro had been put in his place.

Just one debate later, another mayor who leads a much smaller city — Pete Buttigieg — was praised by the same commentariat for his “passion” when he challenged who was then the front-runner, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., over the terms of her health care plan by suggesting her answers were disingenuous. Many Latinos who witnessed both exchanges saw a double standard in how the media reacted, but accepted that it meant Castro's days were running out (even though he succeeded in reaching a financial goal that will keep what is left of his campaign active).

Interestingly enough, Castro is just now going all-in on the unfairness of how states such as Iowa and New Hampshire determine who stays in the primaries but aren't really reflective of the real face of the Democratic Party. Over the past few weeks as his chances of lasting until those states vote have decreased, Castro has increasingly been seen as a candidate for people of color, but there will always be a lingering question: If he led with his Latinidad from day one, might he always have been seen as such?

We will never get to find out — but the fact that he wasn't could very well be why he didn't make it to the stage in Atlanta.