Press "Enter" to skip to content

Julián Castro’s Obama Moment

The night before Julián Castro delivered the keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention for President Barack Obama’s re-election, he had eaten by himself at the T.G.I. Friday’s not far from the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C.

No one recognized the 37-year-old mayor of San Antonio. As the other delegates party-hopped around Charlotte, Mr. Castro studied his notes over dinner and went to bed by 9 p.m. He wanted to be well-rested before giving the biggest speech of his political career — a speech that he and his family now remember as transforming everything.

“The next morning, when we walked down the street, he was just mobbed,” said Mr. Castro’s twin brother, Joaquin, who is a United States congressman. “It was this instantaneous example of how things can change so quickly.”

Mr. Castro’s speech, in a prime-time slot, burst him onto the national stage, just like the one that had catapulted Mr. Obama to superstardom in 2004. Mr. Castro symbolized a new moment in American politics: The grandson of a Mexican immigrant with a fourth-grade education, the young mayor talked about his family’s story, one so common for millions of Latinos and yet almost nonexistent at the highest level of national politics. “My family’s story isn’t special,” Mr. Castro said. “What’s special is the America that makes our story possible.”

The applause was raucous. The reviews were overwhelmingly glowing (“A Political Star is Born” and “A Latino Obama?” the headlines read). People started to recognize Mr. Castro, even if they often confused him for Joaquin. On the way back to San Antonio, a fan stopped him in a men’s room at the Atlanta airport to shake his hand. (“He wanted to shake my hand in a men’s room!” Mr. Castro said. “I couldn’t believe it.”) Political pundits declared the Castro brothers the future of the party.

“He was this kind of phenom and, you know, was this symbol of the growing diverse country,” David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s chief strategist, said of Julián.

Party leaders waited for him to seize on his “Obama Moment.” And waited. And waited. And waited.

The keynote, as it turned out, became a turning point that didn’t quite turn him.

Now, as Mr. Castro seeks the Democratic nomination for president, he finds himself in a completely different political landscape. In 2012, both parties were courting Latino voters, and an incumbent Democratic president needed help softening his image as the “deporter in chief.” Today, the incumbent Republican president is pushing to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and has separated thousands of migrant families at the border.

Mr. Castro must convince his party that his Latino appeal, his record, his relative moderation and, most important, the themes he laid out in that 2012 speech — family, the immigrant experience, the importance of education — will resonate across a nation more divided than when he had his first star moment.

So far, however, Mr. Castro has mostly languished in polls, eclipsed first by another Texan, Beto O’Rourke, and then by another mayor, Pete Buttigieg. He is currently one qualifying poll away from earning a spot in the September debate.

Hiding ‘In Plain Sight’

Some Democrats wondered earlier this year whether Mr. Castro’s problem was that he peaked too soon. One challenge was that there was no clear path forward from the Charlotte convention. His most logical next step, running for statewide office, was all but impossible given his home state: Republicans had dominated Texas politics for more than two decades. The state was changing — by the 2020 presidential election, the Democratic-leaning Latino population could turn it purple. But back then, Mr. Castro seemed stuck.

In 2014, he became Mr. Obama’s housing secretary. Two years later, he stumped for Hillary Clinton and was floated as a potential running mate. Last year he published a memoir, the kind that maybe-presidential candidates often publish. (“In the spirit of a young Barack Obama’s ‘Dreams From My Father,’” the book’s description reads.)

After Mr. Castro’s solid performance in the first presidential debate in June, Democrats asked his finance chair, Scott Atlas, a lawyer in Houston, where he’d been hiding Mr. Castro. Mr. Atlas would go red in the face reminding them of his 2012 speech. “I said, ‘He’s been hiding in plain sight!’”

ImageCreditMichael Stravato for The New York Times

Even before the speech, Mr. Castro’s record as mayor, particularly his success implementing a universal pre-K program, had earned him national praise. At a 2010 forum on economic development at the White House, Mr. Castro, who was 35 at the time, looked so young that Mr. Obama joked that he thought he was an intern. “This guy’s a mayor?” he asked.

Two years later, Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign saw that his path to defeat Mitt Romney relied on high Latino turnout to hold Nevada and Colorado.

This would be a challenge for the president, who faced criticism from immigration activists and Latino advocacy groups over aggressive deportation policies and his failure to make progress on overhauling the immigration system.

Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, crunched the numbers and called the White House from the campaign’s Chicago headquarters to report that the re-election effort had a Latino problem.

In June 2012, Mr. Obama announced an executive action to protect some young undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers. (It also helped that Mr. Romney had stumbled by saying he favored “self deportation.”) The campaign needed something else, though, recalled Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group. The Democratic Party, he said, was asking, “Who is the Obama-like Latino who can electrify the convention?”

Enter Mr. Castro, in one of the most coveted speaking gigs in American politics.

‘A Different League’

Mr. Obama’s speech at the 2004 convention, a rebuke of a divided red and blue America under President George W. Bush, had been such a sensation that it laid the groundwork for his 2008 presidential campaign. Before the 2012 convention, Mr. Castro hadn’t ever delivered a speech using a teleprompter.

“I’d never been in front of a national audience before, and this would be 19,000 people in the arena and another 25 million watching, so it was literally stepping up to a different league,” Mr. Castro recalled.

The Obama campaign had polled how several potential keynote speakers might go over, but Mr. Castro’s personal narrative — the single mom, the bootstraps, the journey from public schools in a poverty-stricken, predominantly Hispanic area of San Antonio to degrees from Stanford and Harvard — seemed like the best message.

“The Latino thing was important to us because that was one place where we had to run up the numbers against Romney,” Mr. Messina said. But mostly it was Mr. Castro’s biography that appealed. “He was the Latino version of Barack Obama — at least in his story, if not the talent.”

ImageCreditLisa Krantz/San Antonio Express-News

In July 2012, Mr. Messina called Mr. Castro in San Antonio to offer him the keynote address at the upcoming convention. Mr. Castro sent an aide out to scramble around South Texas to find the nearest teleprompter so he could begin to practice.

The Obama campaign sent a couple of speech coaches to run through practice sessions in Charlotte. “He’d start delivering it and they’d say, ‘Don’t yell into the mic,’ and, ‘Don’t lean back and forth from the mic,’” recalled his communications director at the time, Jaime Castillo.

Mr. Castro told Mr. Messina that he wanted to write his own speech, or at least most of it. Ever the student, he studied the greatest hits of convention speeches. There was Ann Richards’s 1988 address (“Poor George, he can’t help it — he was born with a silver foot in his mouth”), Mario Cuomo’s 1984 speech (“This nation is more ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘shining city on a hill’”), and, of course, Mr. Obama’s in 2004 speech (“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America”).

“The common theme that connected them was the way you communicate your personal story, your aspirational vision for the future of the country — those things never go out of style,” Mr. Castro said.

The campaign largely agreed to leave it to the Castro brothers, but they did cut “this idea of infrastructure of opportunity we’d both been talking about for a while because they thought it sounded too technical,” Joaquin Castro said. The brothers convinced the Obama campaign to leave the line about the American dream being “not a sprint or even a marathon, but a relay,” passed from one generation or another — a line Julián Castro uses often in his 2020 campaign.

ImageCreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

Mr. Castro divided his remarks into three parts: First, there was the story of growing up the son of a single mom, raised partly by his grandmother Victoria, who had left Mexico when she was a child and worked as a maid most of her life, “barely scraping by, but still working hard to give my mother, her only child, a chance in life so that my mother could give my brother and me an even better one.” Then, he criticized Mr. Romney, delivering the red meat that the party and re-election campaign demanded. (“Mitt Romney, quite simply, doesn’t get it.”) Finally, he told voters why they should choose Mr. Obama.

He’d done several rehearsals on the stage, but 30 seconds after Joaquin introduced him, Mr. Castro clutched the podium, felt the heat of the bright lights and thought he might pass out. (He later confessed that to Mr. Obama, who said that he, too, felt faint before his 2004 keynote.) Mr. Castro got more comfortable as he went on. Watch it on YouTube and you can see his hands unclenching, his expression soften. By the time Mr. Castro concluded, reciting the Spanish words his grandmother had whispered to him — “Que dios te bendiga,” may God bless you — the room roared.

“It didn’t launch him the way it did Barack Obama,” Mr. Messina said. “But he gave a very good speech that was good for us and, for a moment, he was this very big thing nationally.”

Echoes in the 2020 Race

In his 2020 campaign, Mr. Castro has led the party left in the immigration debate. He was the first candidate to propose repealing a section of the immigration laws that criminalizes illegal border crossings. It’s a position that some Republicans believe can be used against the Democrats in a general election where “decriminalization” likely won’t play as well as a proposal framed simply around ending family separations. But almost all of the major Democratic candidates have followed Mr. Castro’s lead on border crossing policy, reflecting both where primary voters stand on the issue and a desire to draw a sharp contrast between the party and President Trump’s views.

“Our current president, for whatever reason, has decided to paint brown people as dangerous and dirty and unwanted, so we need brown people represented,” said Patti Solis Doyle, a Democratic operative and one of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign managers in 2008.

The Castro brothers believe that the current climate makes the echoes of that first major speech and their family’s story even more potent. They dusted off the 2012 keynote address to prepare for the first Democratic primary debate in Miami.

During the debate, as his opponents spoke, Mr. Castro scribbled on a notepad a closing statement that what was essentially a 47-second distillation of his 20-minute convention speech. He repeated the story of his immigrant roots, and he declared that the nation would soon say “adiós” to Mr. Trump. “There is a direct line between what I talked about in 2012 and what I am campaigning on in 2019,” Mr. Castro said.

ImageCreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

Online donations in the two days after the June debate spiked 3,255 percent from the previous two days, according to the campaign. Caucusgoers started to show up in greater numbers to his town halls in Iowa. The merchandise on his website inspired by the Mexican lottery started to sell out.

“Before the debate, people said, ‘I don’t know why you’re doing this. This guy isn’t ready for prime time,’” Mr. Atlas, the lawyer and finance chair, said. “After the debate, they said, ‘I take it back! I take it back!’”

Mr. Castro delivered a less standout performance in the second debate in Detroit. But he is optimistic about his chances to make the September debate stage, in his home state of Texas. His mom, Rosie, said her son, who doesn’t look or act like most of his opponents, has an advantage. “He’s a calm guy. He’s not a good ol’ boy. He’s not a back slapper. He’s quiet and introspective and likes to read,” she said. “People always end up underestimating him.”


Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *