Politics

Julian Castro launches presidential bid, becoming first Latino in 2020 Democratic race

Julian Castro
Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro announces his candidacy for president in his hometown of San Antonio.
(Suzanne Cordeiro/ AFP/Getty Images)

Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and housing secretary under President Obama, launched an uphill bid for president Saturday, promising a youthful push behind a progressive agenda of environmentalism, economic equality and a more humane immigration policy.

Speaking at a sun-soaked rally in his hometown, Castro lashed out at President Trump and declared “a crisis of leadership” in the country, now mired in the longest government shutdown in history.

“Donald Trump has failed to uphold the values of our great nation,” Castro said, then went on to enumerate a number of pledges, including — as his first executive order — recommitting the United States to the worldwide effort to fight climate change.

His checklist fit squarely in the leftward reaches of the Democratic Party: Medicare for all, a higher minimum wage, a “Green New Deal” creating jobs through public works, expanding access to higher education, protecting legal abortion and gay and lesbian rights.

Castro, whose grandmother came to the U.S. from Mexico, grew most animated in discussing immigration policy, which is at the center of the stalemate shuttering portions of the federal government.

“Yeah, we have to have border security,” he said, then raised his voice to a shout. “But there’s a smart and a humane way to do it. And there is no way in hell that caging babies is a smart or a good or a right way to do it. We say no to building a wall and yes to building community.”

After visits last week to Iowa and Nevada, two early-voting states, Castro’s inaugural foray as a candidate will take him to a less-conventional stop, Puerto Rico, where he planned to address Latino activists and visit with residents still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Castro, 44, brings diversity and a shot of youthful charisma to the nascent Democratic contest; he’s been called, in political shorthand, a Latino Barack Obama.

A native of San Antonio, Castro was elected to the City Council in 2001 at age 26 — its youngest member in history — and became mayor eight years later. (His identical twin, Joaquin, joined him on an educational path through Stanford and Harvard Law School and for the last six years has represented part of San Antonio and its suburbs in Congress.)

After twice winning reelection, Julian Castro stepped down as mayor in 2014 to become secretary of Housing and Urban Development during Obama’s second term.

His previous turns in the national political spotlight included delivering the keynote address at Democrats’ 2012 national convention and mention in 2016 as a possible vice presidential running mate for Hillary Clinton.

The presidential bid is Castro’s first attempt for office beyond the confines of Texas’ second-most populous city. He enters the contest with little name recognition or political base beyond his home state. He does, however, enjoy the distinction of being the only Latino in the Democratic field — for now, at least; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, whose paternal grandfather was born in Mexico, is also contemplating a 2020 run for president.

So, too, is former El Paso Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who poses potentially the greater challenge. His near-miss 2018 Senate race against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz has turned O’Rourke into a national Democratic celebrity. If he runs, he would vie with Castro for Texas campaign cash and political support.

There is, local political observers say, also the question of whether Castro has the temperament to appeal to Democrats who fairly seethe with their loathing for Trump.

“His normal personal political style is friendly, affable, smiling, comfortable, approachable,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “Whether or not he’s got a sharper edge when he needs it is something people will work to figure out.”

San Antonio leans Democratic, but Castro got on well with Republicans and the conservative-leaning business community, said David Crockett of the city’s Trinity University. Among Castro’s achievements was successful promotion of a 2012 ballot measure that boosted sales tax to expand pre-kindergarten education.

“He was not someone who came in as a rabble-rouser to shake thing up. He was not in the Bernie Sanders mold of trying to revolutionize the city,” said Crockett, who teaches political science and wrote a book on insurgent presidential candidates. “He was more of a nuts-and-bolts mayor, trying to run things efficiently. And he was pretty successful in that.”

Castro’s launch follows Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s entry in the race on New Year’s Eve and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s announcement Friday that she plans to run. A spate of further announcements is expected soon, including from Sen. Kamala Harris of California and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who are among more than two dozen prospects eyeing a Democratic White House bid.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

@markzbarabak