For those of us paying close attention to the bumper car rally that is the 2020 Democratic primary, most of the policy discussion seems to be anchored in the battle between bold, transformative proposals like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All and more immediate pragmatic solutions like improving Obamacare.
While the issues of climate change and health care are massive and pressing policy concerns, it’s created a two-lane primary where most candidates fall in line with whatever political niche they’re trying to carve out. It’s either a race to the left or a race toward the center, leaving few genuine opportunities for candidates to stand out on the merits of their own proposals.
Enter Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who has frequently managed to stand out from his rivals by offering policy proposals rooted in his real-life experience as mayor of a major American city and as a cabinet official charged with improving equality and opportunity in housing for all Americans.
Castro has, at times, sounded like he’s running to be America’s Mayor. He was the first candidate to unveil his immigration policy and has devoted serious time and energy to discuss issues like policing, lead-tainted water, and housing, all incredibly pressing issues felt throughout our nation but in particular in our urban core.
At first blush, Castro’s focus on issues more commonly debated in our city halls than our Congress seems like a neat way to promote his background and biography while taking substantive stands. While this is an efficient political tactic, it overlooks one important fact about Castro’s platform: it’s shrewd and effective policymaking.
Looking at the issue of housing, which his time at HUD uniquely qualifies him to speak on, Castro is able to articulate positions that most of the 2020 Democrats haven’t, including reducing rent burdens for working Americans, eradicating homelessness and effectively combating discrimination. He’s also able to offer practical policies that can help make an impact on climate change.
At a time when we talk openly about the economic stratification in our nation being out of control and the existential threat of climate change threatening the existence of humankind, Castro is able to embrace progressive positions that make housing more affordable and fair for those who feel left out, while also making real progress on an issue that speaks broadly to Democratic voters. It’s smart, strategic policy craftsmanship.
Likewise, Castro’s decision to call for billions of dollars in funding to remove lead from our schools, apartments and even the soil could have a dramatic impact on the health of millions of Americans. As municipalities like Flint have continued to struggle to clean up after lead exposure impacted their community, this is a health care policy that also speaks to a startling racial disparity. While communities like Flint, with large black populations, are left to fend for themselves, more well-to-do communities are given the resources to prevent these problems from occurring in the first place.
Where Castro has truly shined and may be able to create a compelling contrast with one of the frontrunners is on his aggressive proposals to reform policing and justice in the United States. Castro was the first major candidate willing to face down a massive crisis of public health and trust, and he set a high marker for where Democrats should be on this issue. With large states like Texas, California, and Illinois (all of which have dealt with the scourge of officer-involved shootings) preparing to vote on Super Tuesday, Castro’s ability to connect with and mobilize voters in Houston, San Antonio, Los Angeles, and Chicago could give his candidacy surprising staying power.