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Julián Castro may not beat Trump in 2020, but he is the face of future presidential politics

The first Latino candidate since 2008 may not win in a crowded field, but someone had to take the plunge.
Image: Julian Castro in Puerto Rico
Julian Castro visits Playita, one of the poorest and most affected communities by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 14, 2019.Carlos Giusti / AP

Even as the Trump administration continues its core policy of “othering” Latino Americans for political gain, one Latino Democrat candidate has officially entered the presidential race, telling us that he can be an “antidote” to the current political climate of fear and xenophobia.

The question for Julián Castro and his supporters, however, is this: Will he be the right Latino candidate for the time of Trump? If his Saturday announcement in West San Antonio is any indication, the answer is not so simple.

Castro’s speech was definitively moderate in tone (even with his spoken support for causes like climate change, Black Lives Matter and housing equality). Yet in a campaign season during which immigration will be the key issue coming from the Trump campaign -- assuming Trump runs for re-election — Castro’s words against Trump lacked the bite of even most cable news talking heads.

Image: Julian Castro in Puerto Rico
Julian Castro greets residents in Playita, one of the poorest and most affected communities in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 14, 2019.Carlos Giusti / AP

“Just a couple days ago, President Trump visited McAllen Texas, just south of here, after claiming that we’re facing an ‘invasion’ at our border. He called it a national security crisis," Castro said on Saturday in San Antonio. "Well, there is a crisis today. It’s a crisis of leadership. Donald Trump has failed to uphold the values of our great nation.”

Still, Castro’s speech, which was brimming with bilingual and bicultural touches, was met very positively; for many young, politically-involved Latinos who grew up in the Obama era, seeing something who looks like them, who shares a common story and, yes, is not afraid to show off the accent in his name is a historic moment of political representation.

Castro is the first Mexican-American Democrat to run for president since Bill Richardson’s bid in 2008; given that Democrats are supposed to be about diversity and representation, Castro’s move feels long overdue. Besides which, after the then-former San Antonio mayor gave a primetime speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, there were rumblings that Castro was thinking of a bid in 2016, when he was still Housing and Urban Development Secretary under Obama. But Castro seemingly banked on staying in Washington under a Hillary Clinton administration.

That never happened and, ever since, one of the Democrats’ rising young stars has been figuring out what to do next. Last year in Miami, for instance, Castro gave a speech in front of a predominantly Latino audience, where he talked about putting community first and fighting back hard against an administration that has painted Latinos as criminals. Shouts of “Julián Presidente” echoed through the ballroom.

He's floated several other trial balloons since then, never really saying that he would run, but hinting that he would. And while he has celebrated his mother’s Chicana activist past of the 1970s, he still shied away from terming it “radical.”

Which is why asking if Castro will be the right Latino candidate in the time of Trump is valid; it's unclear whether being a Latino moderate in what will be a very crowded Democratic field will be the right play.

After all, the very same young Latino voters to whom Castro might be appealing on Twitter might not share his same views on the immigration debate. After the 2018 midterm cycle — when calls to Abolish ICE led to victories for Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. — calling for “comprehensive immigration reform” rings a bit hollow. Immigrant rights activists are already thinking bolder, saying that new leaders new to stop acquiescing to Trump and demand a real pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

So will Castro be the candidate who boldly calls for full amnesty, or will he be a legacy of an Obama administration that deported millions of undocumented immigrants while failing to negotiate even a moderate solution on immigration that would appease Republicans?

Maybe Castro will surprise us. He did seem fired up on Saturday, and he led with his powerful family story: In 1922, his grandmother came to United States from Mexico as a 7-year-old orphan. As an adult, she was a maid and single mom; his mother was a Chicana activist; and now his twin brother is a member of Congress and he is running for president.

That story might not necessarily hit home in a place like Iowa or New Hampshire, but it will resonate in Nevada — the third primary state of the 2020 season, where Latinos make up close to 30 percent of the state’s population. It will resonate in places like Texas, California, Arizona and Colorado. It resonated in Puerto Rico, Castro's first stop of his campaign, where he said this on Monday, "I can guarantee you that a lot of people in D.C. are underestimating my campaign."

Castro and his team also know that Latinos came out to vote in the 2018 midterms despite questions about 2016, and the electorate is younger and more Latino than ever before.

But it's too early to tell whether Castro can do enough to make a decent showing, either for his future chances or those of other Latino candidates down the line. But no one can deny the fact that what we saw in San Antonio on Saturday and in San Juan on Monday is indeed a sign of how presidential politics will look like in the future — and somebody had to take the first serious plunge.