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Commentary Politics

What Castro’s People-Focused Platform Brings to the 2020 Race

Ray Levy-Uyeda

Julián Castro's campaign speaks to the most marginalized, underrepresented, and disenfranchised voices.

When former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro’s team said last month that there was a chance he would drop out of the presidential race, donors quickly fulfilled his plea for $800,000 in funding to keep his campaign afloat.

His campaign at the time said the push wasn’t a ploy, saying in a statement that it did “not see a path to victory that doesn’t include making the November debate stage — and without a significant uptick in our fundraising, we cannot make that debate.” While Castro’s campaign met its goal, time is running out to make it onto November’s debate stage—the deadline to qualify is on Wednesday and the campaign has only met one of the requirements. While Castro has since reportedly said that not qualifying for the debate won’t mean he will drop out, if or when he does leave the race, we all lose.

The former mayor of San Antonio and cabinet member of the Obama administration is arguably the most people-centered candidate in the race, demonstrated both in his policy and in his campaign. Castro’s policy platform understands that people in the United States have multi-issue struggles.

The issues page of Castro’s website includes a quote by the late feminist scholar Audre Lorde, whose words you would sooner find in a gender studies class than on the landing page for a presidential candidate. The quote, “there is no [such] thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives,” sounds like the precursor to critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, the idea that systems of race and gender interact with each other, presenting unique oppressions and privileges to different groups of people.

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A candidate who understands intersecting oppressions? Not unique in this election. A candidate who leads with it? That’s worth paying attention to.

Castro may not be the most senior or well-known candidate in the race, but he was often the first to name the victims of police killings on the debate stage, bringing their names into our national consciousness. He was the first candidate who called to repeal Section 1325, advocating for making crossing the border without documentation a civil violation as opposed to a criminal one. Castro has, in turn, pushed the conversation to the left on the issue, as the Trump administration has used Section 1325 as the basis for separating thousands of migrant families at the border.

Castro’s presence in the race is important because value-driven candidates help shape policy that gets propelled to the party’s national platform in the general election and can influence federal and state policy beyond the race. For instance, in 2019 candidates are measuring their health-care policy against the framework of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) Medicare for All plan, a key component of his platform in the 2016 race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

And already we’ve seen how Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) helped do the same for reproductive rights in the 2020 race. When Gillibrand dropped out, think pieces flooded the internet mourning the loss, lamenting that she dropped out too soon.

During her campaign, Gillibrand was the first to propose setting a litmus test for judicial appointments about abortion rights and Roe v. Wade. Fundamental to her campaign was that Gillibrand didn’t just offer her perspective in response to a question about reproductive issues—they were a part of the ethos of her campaign, something that the race is lacking now.

So what are the unique values that drive Castro’s campaign? He cares about people. He cares about poor people. He cares about people of color.

His climate plan, for example, details how environmental racism and discrimination impact the lives and livelihoods of people of color and calls for civil rights legislation as a response to environmental degradation. The plan includes actions meant to ensure that every person in the United States has access to clean water, air, food, and shelter. Castro’s plan underscores that climate change will have an increasingly adverse effect on global vulnerable communities, thus increasing the number of people who make seek refuge in the United States, and wants to change the definition of refugee to include those people.

Castro was the first in the field of candidates to speak on the discriminatory and racist actions of police across the country in a detailed policing plan. During the October debate he mentioned the name of Atatiana Jefferson, a Black Texas woman shot and killed by a white police officer in October in her own home, and spoke on the dangers of policing Americans who are more likely to be seen as guilty by police officers.

He was also the first candidate to introduce a plan to address issues faced by Indigenous people and communities. The plan calls for reinstituting Native leadership at the federal level, increasing funding to tribal governments, and favoring the allocation funding to preserve Native culture. The plan for increased Native autonomy also includes Castro’s support for repealing the Hyde Amendment to ensure that patients insured by the Indian Health Service can receive abortion care, in recognition that vulnerable communities are likely to face struggles that compound each other.

It’s worth noting that Castro relies on a reproductive justice—not reproductive rights—framework to inform his discussion of reproductive health-care access. Castro’s approach to governance communicates an understanding that justice is a means to ensuring that class, gender, and race don’t dictate one’s quality of life—which is different from a rights approach, which takes a one-dimensional approach to understanding people in the United States. On the campaign trail, that has meant that Castro has talked about reproductive justice on the debate stage, discussed how access to care differs for those LGBTQ people and those with low incomes, and incorporated related issues into other aspects of his platform such as his criminal justice plan.

Castro is a candidate, it seems, unique in his ability to see how systems create problems for people and how an individual’s ability to succeed may be hindered by constraints engendered by systems of racism, classism, sexism, and xenophobia. His campaign is built on the understanding that racism exists both in the ways that we think of one another, but also in terms of how we police poor communities and communities of color.

This approach of leading by supporting the most vulnerable is decidedly different from ordained front-runners’ like former Vice President Joe Biden, whose detailed climate plan features the environmental harms committed against low-income communities, disproportionately communities of color, in its fourth section. Castro’s environmental plan incorporated these issues throughout it.

Castro has called for moving half of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) employees to the U.S. Department of Justice and conducting an investigation into its role in human rights violations and family separations and to shift the focus of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to drug trafficking and victims of human trafficking instead of detaining immigrants and those seeking asylum. This approach to downsizing ICE, an agency born out of a fear of immigrants during the Bush administration differs from those of others who lead the Democratic pack, like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who proposes “evaluating” family separation without advocating for specific action. 

It is unlikely that Castro will do well in Iowa or on Super Tuesday—especially as low polling numbers may keep him from the debate stage—and yet the winds change quickly and unpredictably in presidential races.

But if the winds don’t shift and we lose Castro, we lose an approach to politics that’s not just people-centered, but people of color-centered. His campaign, speaking to the most marginalized, underrepresented, and disenfranchised voices, is singular in its approach. He’s a candidate who has managed to talk about his story in a multiplicitous way, without tokenizing himself and without presenting himself as having a singular story.

If we lose Castro, we lose the centering of people and communities who other candidates have kept on the periphery.

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