Julián Castro announced his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination at Plaza Guadalupe on Saturday Jan. 12. Credit: Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Julián Castro, in his first stop since announcing his presidential campaign, told Hispanic political leaders here Monday that President Donald Trump “failed the people of Puerto Rico” with his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria and vowed to far better represent the U.S. territory if elected to replace him.

Castro, the former U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor, spoke at the Latino Victory Fund summit two days after the the long-anticipated launch of his presidential campaign in his hometown. He said he chose Puerto Rico as his first post-announcement trip “because I want all the people of Puerto Rico to know that you count – that we respect you” – especially after Maria, which devastated the island in 2017.

“The administration failed to prepare for the hurricane,” Castro said. “It failed to coordinate a swift response and, it has failed in the recovery process as well.”

“What’s worse?” Castro asked before bringing up reports that the administration is now weighing whether to divert disaster relief funds to help fund Trump’s long-sought border wall. “To do so is completely objectionable, immoral, and should never happen.”

The Latino Victory Fund meeting was the first of three stops that Castro was making Monday in Puerto Rico. After the summit, he was scheduled to tour two hurricane recovery sites in San Juan.

“This work is nothing new to me,” Castro said, citing his tenure at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, when he visited states struck by natural disaster.

The crowd that Castro addressed at the Latino Victory Fund meeting included the first Latinas elected to Congress from Texas: Democratic U.S. Reps. Veronica Escobar of El Paso and Sylvia Garcia of Houston. Both were elected last year.

Puerto Rico is home to more than 3 million U.S. citizens. They cannot vote in the presidential election but can participate in the nominating process.

Before Castro’s arrival, a delegation of U.S. House Democrats was already visiting Puerto Rico to see the Maria recovery and attend a winter retreat hosted by the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Their visit has drawn the ire of Trump and other Republicans, who have criticized them for making off to the sunny island amid the partial government shutdown.

“I’ve been here all weekend,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House on Monday morning. “A lot of the Democrats were in Puerto Rico celebrating something – I don’t know, maybe they’re celebrating the shutdown.”

Republican National Committee spokesman Steve Guest said in a statement: “It is disgusting that Julian Castro is trying to further his own political aspirations off of a natural disaster the administration has spent over a year addressing. Instead of focusing on the humanitarian crisis at our southern border, Castro chose to spend his weekend with Congressional Democrats who were partying at the beach with lobbyists.”

Making a stop later in the morning with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, Castro said he saw Democrats doing “substantive work” in Puerto Rico, noting many were planning to meet with members of its Legislative Assembly Monday about the Maria recovery. Then, Castro let it rip on Trump.

“I wish that the president would actually spend more time doing the job of being president instead of fighting people on Twitter and spending so much time golfing and not going to his first meeting until 11 a.m. in the morning,” Castro said. “It’s amazing to me that we have a president who’s not even doing a part-time job, that is putting in less hours than the average part-time worker. And that’s the president of the United States. … We need a president who’s dedicated to the job full-time.”

Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Patrick Svitek is the primary political correspondent for The Texas Tribune and editor of The Blast, the Tribune's subscription-only daily newsletter for political insiders.