Julian Castro speaks to members of the LGBT+ community during a Pride happy hour.
Julián Castro speaks to members of the LGBTQIA+ community during a Pride happy hour. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

Julián Castro is riding high after a performance on the debate stage Wednesday that saw him win plaudits throughout the nation.

That much was evident Saturday night as Castro returned to his hometown to march in the annual Pride Bigger than Texas parade in celebration of San Antonio’s LGBTQIA+ community. Before the evening parade, Castro met with supporters at a happy hour hosted at his downtown campaign headquarters.

“I’m excited for my campaign,” told those gathered, many of them wearing Castro campaign T-shirts bearing the rainbow colors of the pride flag. “How do y’all think I did?”

The crowd erupted into cheers.

But whether Castro can convert that momentum into positive force behind his still-underdog campaign remains up for debate.

Despite being among the first Democratic candidates to announce his 2020 presidential campaign, in January, Castro captured just over $1 million in political contributions through the first quarter, according to the Federal Election Commission. He was outraised by such Democratic minnows as author Marianne Williamson ($1.5 million) and entrepreneur Andrew Yang ($2.4 million). Castro’s polling numbers continue to hover around 1 percent, behind former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Yang, and others.

Castro has already qualified for the Democratic National Committee’s July debates, which will be held July 30 and 31 in Detroit, said Maya Rupert, Castro’s campaign manager. But he has some work to do to get on the stage at the September and October debates. To be eligible, he’ll need to be polling at 2 percent in four separate polls, up from 1 percent for the June and July debates. He’ll also need 130,000 unique donors, an increase of 65,000. Rupert said the campaign has received about 100,000 unique contributions.

Castro has embraced the role of scrappy underdog. In perhaps the turning point of Wednesday’s debate Castro challenged O’Rourke’s stance on a section of U.S. immigration law that led the government to treat illegal immigration as a criminal offense instead of a civil one. Castro called for its removal and to return immigration violations to the civil courts, but O’Rouke vouched for a more comprehensive revision of U.S. immigration law.

“If you did your homework on this issue, you would know we should repeal this section,” Castro clapped back.

Castro voiced frustration with the national media for dismissing his campaign in favor of the likes of political stalwarts like former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and his fellow Texan O’Rourke.

“We sent them a message that they can’t ignore this campaign anymore,” Castro said Saturday in San Antonio. “We sent them a message that we’re going to compete in every state with a strong vision for the future of our country.”

Before his speech at his campaign headquarters, Castro was introduced by Gina Ortiz Jones, who narrowly lost her bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Helotes) last November, and state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio).

Ortiz Jones, who served in the military under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that forbade gay and lesbian service members from being open about their sexuality, said she was proud of Castro’s support of the LGBTQIA+ community. She railed against President Donald Trump’s anti-LGBTQIA+ policies, including the U.S. military’s ban on transgender people and a proposal to allow health care providers to deny LGBTQIA+ individuals service based on religious beliefs.

“On the other hand we could have somebody like Julián, somebody who has the compassion, that empathy, the courage to ask somebody, ‘What is your preferred pronoun?’” Ortiz Jones, said referring to a question-and-answer portion of a recent Planned Parenthood event in which Castro asked an activist for their preferred pronoun. “That takes a lot of empathy and compassion to ask that very important question.”

Castro also claimed to be the first presidential candidate to embrace rights for the transgender community on a national debate stage.

Castro’s mother Rosie was in the audience Wednesday night in Charleston, South Carolina. A single mother who raised Castro and his twin brother Joaquin in West San Antonio, Rosie Castro launched her own longshot run for office in 1971 when she sought a seat on City Council as a member of the Raza Unida party, a group of Chicano activists seeking to gain more representation.

“I wouldn’t be in politics if it hadn’t been for her,” Castro said. “My mom is part of a generation of people who sacrificed a lot, who were trailblazers in their own right. I can only imagine how meaningful it is for her to get to watch her son campaign for president when back then in 1971 … it was impossible to even get elected to a city council seat. So to be able to run for president – and I believe have a chance to become the president – is very special for both of us.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is the San Antonio Report's audience engagement editor.