Julián Castro interview: “I have the experience and I can win against Donald Trump”

Obama’s former housing and urban development secretary talks about the 2020 field and his stance on impeaching the president.

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Seven years ago, when he was mayor of San Antonio, Texas, America’s seventh largest city, Julián Castro was the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention. It’s the sort of gig which marks people out for great things: Barack Obama performed the role in 2004 and look what happened to him.

His status as a rising star in the party was cemented when he took a call while picking up a meal at his local Panda Express restaurant. The call was marked private: it was President Obama. He was calling to offer Castro the job of housing and urban development secretary.

“My advice, if you ever get a call marked private, is to answer the phone,” he recalls when I meet him at a small campaign event at Crackskull’s Coffee and Books in Newmarket, New Hampshire.

Now Castro, who was talked-up as a potential running-mate for Hillary Clinton in 2016, is one of more than 20 Democrats seeking their party’s nomination for the presidency in 2020. The field is a crowded one, but should the Democrats decide to go for youth rather than the more wizened experience of, say, a Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, Castro – the only Latino in the race – should, by rights, be a strong contender.

His grandmother was an orphaned immigrant who worked as a maid, cook and babysitter. His mother was a Chicano activist who raised Julián and his twin brother Joaquin – now a Texas congressional representative – as a single parent. But the man billed by some as the “Hispanic Obama” is failing to make an impact in early polling. Public imagination has been captured instead by another mayor, Pete Buttigieg, while Castro lags in the polls.

Still, Castro, 44, is unperturbed. The race is in its early stages, he says. “We are in May of 2019. We still have about 40 weeks left until the Iowa caucus; there are 21 or 22 candidates and people are still trying to sort out who’s who.”

“I am going out there working hard every day making sure people know that my vision is a compelling one for my country, that I have the experience and that I can win against Donald Trump,” he tells me. “These campaign cycles have different phases and we are in a very early phase.”

He is optimistic about his chances. “I see more people coming to our events, our fundraising has accelerated, we are gaining more support out there so I feel good about my ability to continue growing my support and to be in a position to win in early February 2020.”

“There is ample opportunity to show voters what you have got. That is what I intend to do here in New Hampshire, Iowa and in early states.” He says that he has pledged to visit all 50 states as part of his campaign.

His event in New Hampshire draws a crowd of around 40 Democrats to a coffee shop that doubles as a bookshop and second-hand record store that seems to specialise in 1960s rock. Castro, who is wearing a blue suit and open-necked shirt, is relaxed as he fields questions. He is generous with his time, possibly to the chagrin of his aides, who appear to be peering at their watches as they fret about arriving punctually to the next engagement.

The race has, of course, stepped up a notch with the entry of Joe Biden into the race, and Castro picks his words carefully when I asked him about the impact the former vice president will have on the campaign. Biden is “a talented experienced public servant and I wish him well in the campaign,” he says.

Along with Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, Castro was one of the first among the Democratic candidates to call for Donald Trump’s impeachment in the wake of the release of the Mueller report. It is an issue which some candidates have tried to avoid – perhaps fearing that it could backfire.

But on this, there is no equivocation from Castro. “400 former federal prosecutors said under any other circumstances other than being the president of the United States, Donald Trump would face several felony obstruction charges,” he tells me. “The question is not whether this president committed acts that are impeachable. He did. It is: what is the Congress going to do about it?”

“I believe nobody should be above the law and that is why I support moving forward with impeachment.”

Asked why he is at odds with House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who currently opposes impeachment as a tactical mistake, Castro is almost curt. “Everybody has their take on it.”

Those attending the small gathering appear to be impressed with Castro’s willingness to discuss policy in detail and his nice line in humour, centring on his relationship with his brother. “I am a minute older,” he jokes, “and he says the way to tell us apart is that I am a little bit uglier than he is.”

Peter Schmidt, a member of the New Hampshire legislature who attended the event, likes what he saw. “I have given money to Castro so he can get into the debate,” he tells me. “I want to make sure that people like Castro and people like [Hawaii representative] Tulsi Gabbard get in.”

“He is very articulate, and his positions are well-thought-out,” Schmidt tells me. “I think he will play a role in the debates.” But then he sounds a note of caution. “The question is how good an organisation can he put together.”

David Millward is a journalist based in New England. A Telegraph staffer for more than 30 years, he writes on US politics and business and can be found tweeting as @davidgmillward.