Former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and his family greet the crowd assembled for his presidential campaign announcement.
Former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and his family greet the crowd assembled for his presidential campaign announcement. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Julián Castro made the announcement that has been coming for months or  – to some who have followed his rise from San Antonio City Council to young mayor and, finally, a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet – perhaps years. He’s running for president.

Castro confirmed his 2020 presidential run Saturday in West San Antonio, the cradle of his political career and a few miles from the home where his single mother and immigrant grandmother raised him and his twin brother. In front of thousands of supporters and members of the media gathered at Plaza Guadalupe, he paid tribute to his hometown.

“This is the place where my grandmother Victoria [worked], where my mother became an activist, where Joaquín and I went to school, we were baptized by the church, and I had the honor of serving these neighborhoods as mayor of San Antonio,” said Castro, who first spoke in English, then repeated his remarks in Spanish. “… I’m proud to call myself a son of San Antonio.”

Faces in the crowd reflected the diversity of San Antonio, where the ethnic makeup provides a glimpse at the nation’s future as a minority-majority country, as Castro often says. Leading an ethnically diverse city is likely to be central to the presidential hopeful’s pitch to the American public.

“We are going to make sure that the promise of America is available to everyone in this country,” the 44-year-old Castro said. “When we want change, we don’t wait for change, we work for it.”

Presidential candidate Julián Castro speaks during his announcement event at Plaza Guadalupe in San Antonio's Westside.
Presidential candidate Julián Castro speaks during his announcement event at Plaza Guadalupe in San Antonio’s Westside. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

To restore the American Dream, Castro proposed a platform of progressive policies, including universal early education, Medicare for All, immigration and criminal justice reform, economic stimulus to address climate change, and making housing more affordable.

The immigrant story was woven throughout the remarks given ahead of Castro’s speech. “Julián wants to fight for equal opportunity for everyone,” said Ashwani Jain, born to Indian immigrants and Castro’s deputy liaison to the White House during his service as Housing and Urban Development secretary. “Isn’t that what we all want from our leaders? Isn’t that what we need from our president?”

Castro’s twin, U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro, said the campaign will accept no money from political action committees. “But we need your help to win this thing,” said the San Antonio Democrat. “There are going to be a lot of great candidates in this race, and many of them are great friends of ours, but I know that with your support we have the best candidate … with the biggest heart.”

The twins’ mother, Rosie Castro, introduced the candidate as a son of San Antonio, a son of the West Side, and “a son of this country.”

“The cornerstone of prosperity has always been community, and this community has raised up Julián and Joaquín, and we thank you for that,” she said.

The former mayor formed an exploratory committee in December with an eye toward announcing a presidential bid, and visited Iowa and Nevada, both states with early 2020 caucuses, this week. He becomes the fourth officially declared presidential candidate, joining U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), West Virginia state senator Richard Ojeda, and former Maryland Congressman John Delaney in the early field of Democrats looking to unseat President Donald Trump, with better-known figures such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren certain to join the race.

However, Democratic enthusiasm for fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke, whose narrow loss to incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz in November sparked a nationwide following, has eclipsed Castro in recent months, with a “Draft Beto” campaign putting down roots in early-primary states.

In a January poll by Politico and Morning Consult, Castro is at the bottom of the heap among candidates for the 2020 primary – trailing such hopefuls as O’Rourke, Warren, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Sens. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota). Although his polling numbers portend significant hurdles for candidate Castro, his college mentor at Stanford University and political science professor Luis Fraga believes he can overcome them.

“The immediate challenge is fundraising, and we’ll see how he’s able to meet that challenge,” Fraga said. “Then, it’s expanding his name recognition, and he’s doing things already to develop that.”

Fraga has maintained a close bond with the Castro brothers since he advised them on their undergraduate theses at Stanford in the 1990s. He said Julián’s adaptability and candor will make him a viable candidate for president.

“He is as comfortable in the boardroom as he is in the West Side of San Antonio,” Fraga said. “He has the rare capacity to be comfortable in many types of communities, in many types of conversations. I think it’s going to be very apparent to the public and attractive to many.”

Presidential candidate Julián Castro greets supporters during his announcement event at Plaza Guadalupe in San Antonio's Westside.
Presidential candidate Julián Castro greets supporters following his announcement to run for President in 2020. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Castro’s classmate at Jefferson High School, City Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7)  attended the announcement with family and friends. Seeing Castro’s rise from humble beginnings to Obama’s cabinet inspired her to serve in public office, the same seat Castro held more than a decade ago. She said Castro’s presidential bid marks a milestone in the city’s history.

Castro became the youngest City Councilman in San Antonio’s history when he was elected to the Westside District 7 seat in 2001. In 2009, Castro beat a field of nine candidates to become mayor.

In his October 2018 memoir, An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from my American Dream, he writes that the defeat of the proposed PGA Village was one of his greatest political achievements. The 2,855-acre development would have brought three golf courses, hotels, apartments, and condos to San Antonio but near the sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge zone – drawing concern from environmentalists.

An ethical quandary during his time as a Councilman prompted Castro to step down from his position as an attorney at the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer, & Feld. Akin Gump represented Lumbermen’s Investment Corporation, the Austin-based developer proposing the PGA Village project, but Castro opposed it. His constituents protested the development, and hydrologists predicted that fertilizers and recycled wastewater from PGA Village could contaminate San Antonio’s drinking water supply.

The PGA Village stalled because of opposition and later because of the economic downturn. The political victory provided early fuel for his 2005 mayoral run, but Castro ultimately lost to Phil Hardberger.

In 2009, after Hardberger had served two terms in office, Castro beat a field of nine candidates to become mayor.

Despite his reputation for opposing development, stimulating economic growth through government appropriations and actions has been a motif throughout his time in public office.

Seeing a blighted downtown rife with vacancies and derelict properties, Mayor Castro kicked off the “Decade of Downtown” in 2009 – an initiative aimed at spurring investment in center-city San Antonio as well as its older neighborhoods. The undertaking has produced millions of dollars in investment from the private sector and thousands of housing units.

In 2012, Obama offered Castro a job in his administration related to transportation, Castro details in his October 2018 memoir, An Unlikely Journey. But Castro turned it down to see his Pre-K 4 SA initiative through its implementation in Fall 2013. In 2014, Obama tapped Castro for a cabinet vacancy, and the mayor was confirmed as HUD secretary that summer.

Under Castro’s stewardship, HUD launched ConnectHome, which aims to close the gap in internet access for the nation’s 2 million federally assisted homes. Working alongside the Veterans Administration and U.S. mayors, the department helped bring veteran homelessness down 47 percent by the end of Obama’s presidency.

One of 10 candidates vetted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate, Castro was passed over in favor of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia). Castro continued to reside in Washington, D.C., through the end of that year, however, anticipating an easy Clinton victory and hoping to earn a job with another Democrat in the White House. Castro moved back to Texas the day after President Donald Trump was sworn in and now lectures as a visiting fellow at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Long considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, Castro rose to national prominence in 2012 when he gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.

In the address, he cast himself and his twin brother as the epitome of the American dream, their grandmother an illiterate Mexican orphan with a fourth-grade education who worked jobs as a housekeeper and babysitter to provide for the household.

Rosie Castro said in her remarks Saturday that her son should not be underestimated.

“He is a man who sets his goals and then proceeds to get everyone behind those goals,” she said.

The usually soft-spoken Julián Castro’s voice boomed at times as he spoke of the American Dream he sees as dissipating under President Trump. He denounced Trump’s characterization of the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border as a crisis.

“There is a crisis today,” he said. “It’s a crisis of leadership.”

Presidential candidate Julián Castro speaks during his announcement event at Plaza Guadalupe in San Antonio's Westside.
Presidential candidate Julián Castro Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

It remains to be seen whether a candidate whose grandmother immigrated from Mexico can have success in a political climate where anti-immigrant rhetoric helped carry Trump into the White House, but Fraga believes it is precisely because of Castro’s background that he can go far in 2020.

“He is someone whose entire life story is about building understanding, building commitment, building hopes, and working to realize them for himself and for all others – Latinos, whites, African Americans, Asian Americans, all people,” he said. “I think our current times, as a result, need a candidate like him.

“Our country will be better if he is successful.”

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.