clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Julián Castro, former Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary and San Antonio Mayor, announces his candidacy for president in San Antonio, Texas, on January 12, 2019.
Edward A. Ornelas/Getty Images

Filed under:

Julián Castro’s 2020 presidential campaign and policies, explained

The former San Antonio mayor and HUD secretary is in a crowded Democratic primary field.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Former San Antonio mayor and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro is running for president.

Building off the success of a pre-kindergarten program he introduced as mayor, Castro has promised to pursue “pre-K for the USA” should he become the next president, and has released detailed proposals for overhauling both policing and immigration. He has also pledged to make removing lead from the US water supply and increasing access to affordable housing priorities.

Castro, 44, has been a rising star in the Democratic Party for years. He won a seat on San Antonio’s City Council at the age of 26 and became that city’s mayor eight years later. His work in that role got him the keynote slot at the 2012 Democratic National Convention as well as the appointment to run HUD in 2014, making him the youngest Cabinet secretary in the Obama administration. He was reportedly considered as a potential running mate for Hillary Clinton in 2016 before she selected Virginia’s Sen. Tim Kaine.

Despite this résumé, his association with Obama, and his national profile, Castro remains less well-known than many of his rivals for the Democratic nomination. Ahead of the first 2020 Democratic presidential debate, a June Morning Consult poll found 29 percent of Democratic primary voters had never heard of Castro. A further 28 percent had heard of him but had no opinion of him. However, he earned just enough support to be invited to take part in the first debate — most polls put his support around 1 percent, just above the cutoff, and he also qualified by receiving contributions from over 65,000 unique donors across 20 or more states.

To stand out in a crowded Democratic presidential candidates, Castro will have to establish himself among older politicians with much longer records. For instance, he had the first comprehensive immigration proposal in the field. However, he built a case beyond simply the importance of having a Latino face to represent a party.

Who is Julián Castro?

Castro and his twin brother, Joaquín Castro — a House member who’s now the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Julián’s campaign chair — were both raised in San Antonio by a local legend in Chicano activism, Rosie Castro. But Julián’s politics aren’t as far left as his mother’s, something he had to reassure business owners of when launching his political career in San Antonio, and they have both been career political insiders.

Both Julián and Joaquín went to Stanford (where Julián points out he was a beneficiary of affirmative action), followed by Harvard Law. By the time he was done at Harvard, Julián was already well into the next phase: a campaign for city council in San Antonio. (He held a fundraiser at Harvard while still a student and got $2,000 in seed money.) He was seated on the council in 2001 and (after a failed mayoral run in 2005) inaugurated as mayor in 2009.

Representative Joaquin Castro (R-TX) holds his daughter Andrea Elena Castro as he and his twin brother, then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, attend the opening session of the 114th Congress in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2015.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

By that time, Castro was already on the national radar — not because of his policy accomplishments but because of his political skills.

Castro’s career, as mayor and as HUD secretary, has given him neither the opportunity nor (it seems) the inclination to push the Democratic Party to the left on policy.

His signature policy as mayor was an innovative prekindergarten program: Castro got voters to approve a tax hike of one-eighth of a cent (bringing San Antonio taxes to the Texas state maximum) in order to fund four pre-K centers that weren’t tied to existing school districts, each of which enrolled 400 kids. Low-income families got to enroll children for free; middle-class families paid on a sliding scale.

The pre-K centers designed their curriculum based on early-learning best practices. They were able to pay teachers well and showed impressive results in bringing below-average preschoolers up to above the state average in literacy and math. But while Castro can take credit for the implementation of the program, it’s hardly the bold thinking and easy slogan of “Medicare-for-all,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax, or Sen. Cory Booker’s proposal for “baby bonds.”

Unlike some of the candidates running for president, Castro does have experience running a government. But a large city government is hardly the federal government, and as Vox’s Andrew Prokop has pointed out, “the city of San Antonio gives its mayor no executive powers. These powers are actually held by San Antonio’s city manager, who is appointed by the city council. So Castro didn’t have formal responsibility for or decision-making authority in major policy areas.”

Castro has argued that this fact would actually make him a better president than a mayor who did have wide-ranging executive powers; for instance, he told New York magazine’s Gabriel Debenedetti: “The only way a mayor can get things done in that system is if he or she is able to summon the political support for it, and I was able to do that in big ways, with Pre-K 4 SA, a number of other projects that we did.”

The candidate has also had to answer criticism from the left over his (mostly unremarkable) tenure as HUD secretary: When Castro was floated as a potential running mate for Hillary Clinton in spring 2016, progressive activists attacked him as too close to Wall Street and the mortgage industry. In particular, they pointed to HUD’s management of delinquent mortgages, accusing Castro’s department of selling too many mortgages to Wall Street banks without enough oversight or regulation. After official criticism from (among others) Warren, HUD changed its policies for the next batch of sales, in what it claimed was a previously planned move.

What are Julián Castro’s policy proposals?

Castro has made universal prekindergarten a central part of his campaign from its earliest days. On the trail, however, he has added a number of other proposals, including a plan to completely “overhaul and reimagine our justice system.”


Many of the 2020 candidates have called for education reforms that would make college more accessible and affordable, and Castro is no different: he has pledged support for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), wants to expand the Pell Grant cap to $10,000, create a student loan forgiveness program for people who are enrolled in government assistance programs, and allow student loans to be discharged through bankruptcy.

Castro also wants to reform K-12 education, expand access to kindergarten and pre-K programs, and invest in all teachers, using tax credits to increase teacher pay by up to $10,000 per year. And his plan calls for investing in school infrastructure — $150 billion.


Castro was the first candidate to release an immigration proposal. The biggest change Castro proposing is making “illegal entry” — entering the US without papers — a civil offense rather than a federal misdemeanor. While immigrants lacking credentials who failed to qualify for asylum could still be deported, they would not be charged with a crime or detained for extended periods of time. Castro’s plan includes reorganizing immigration agencies and reforming the immigration court system, which now falls under the purview of the attorney general — Castro wants it to be completely independent.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro laughs at a joke during the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, on August 20, 2019.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images


Castro promised to “overhaul and reimagine our justice system” as president, and he has a plan to do so that focuses on the concerns of communities of color. Castro proposes doing this by creating strict and standardized rules for the use of force, linking disparate police departments at the federal level, and creating incentives for state and local governments to avoid longterm incarceration as a deterrent.

He also wants to make sure officers who have been fired for misconduct cannot move to a different jurisdiction — in recent years a number of fired officers have been able to find new positions this way; some were even rehired by their old departments.


Lead is everywhere in the US — it was used to build pipes in cities, was common in paint, is in the ground, and is very often inside of us. As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias put it: “Children in essentially every city in America are being exposed to hazardous levels of toxic lead, and very little is being done about it.”

Castro wants to change that, in large part, by investing a lot of money: $5 billion a year for 10 years to clean up lead from buildings and from the soil, starting in areas deemed to pose the most risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would also receive an additional $100 million per year to spend on keeping children safe from lead.


As the head of HUD, Castro might be expected to have a detailed housing plan, and it is, in fact, his longest proposal. It has three main parts: policies meant to lower rent burdens and reduce homelessness; equal housing protections that address discrimination, gentrification, and climate change; and a plan to increase home ownership.

Castro is a biography politician who hasn’t always been comfortable with “identity politics”

The reason to pay attention to Julián Castro in a crowded primary field is simple: The Democratic Party needs high turnout and loyalty from Latinx voters to win presidential elections (especially as it loses ground in the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest), but it doesn’t have a deep bench of star Latinx politicians. And representation matters.

But Castro might be an odd fit for that role in 2020.

His rhetorical style is similar to Obama’s — or, for that matter, Marco Rubio’s. He’s skilled at using his story and the story of his hometown to illustrate the best parts of America. That makes him comfortable talking about immigration and border issues, for example, in strong contrast to Trump.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro stands with supporters at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding in Clear Lake, Iowa on August 9, 2019.
Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call

But Castro’s idea of his identity hasn’t always meshed with what progressive activists might want to hear in 2020. In 2010, the New York Times noted that he didn’t necessarily see all Latinxs as “people of color,” and preferred the term “Mexican American” to a Hispanic or Latino identity. (It’s also worth noting that Castro didn’t learn Spanish until he was elected mayor, and he’s likely still not as fluent as some white politicians — including Beto O’Rourke.)

More to the point, Castro’s political temperament, like Obama’s, has traditionally been sunny and even-keeled. In the Trump era, that risks coming off as conciliatory.

That is not to say Castro avoids criticizing Trump or his policies; he simply does so in a way that lacks the fire of an Elizabeth Warren or the vitriol of a Bernie Sanders. For example, Castro has taken to painting this picture about his inauguration day:

I can just imagine — being there with my wife, Erica, and our daughter, Carina, and our son, Cristián — on the White House lawn, getting ready to say goodbye to Donald Trump and Melania Trump. And they’ll be getting ready to go off to New York or Mar-a-Lago ... The helicopter will be off in the distance ready to take ’em away on the White House lawn. And right before he leaves, right before he walks off, I’m gonna tell him, “Adiós!”

The story usually gets Castro laughter and applause and is indicative of the politician’s personality. But voters seem to be drawn to candidates like Warren and Sanders, who offer more pointed presidential takedowns, or even to Joe Biden, who is openly dismissive of Trump as an aberration.

Nevertheless, it might be unwise to underestimate the appeal of a young charismatic politician of Castro’s temperament.

Listen to the Ezra Klein Show

Ezra Klein sits down with Julián Castro to discuss why the 2020 candidate wants to decriminalize migration, admit climate refugees, reimagine our relationship with the homeless, and protect animals.

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | TuneIn

World Politics

Can Democrats overcome their deep divisions over Gaza?


Why so many members of Congress are calling it quits


Hunter Biden’s new indictment, explained

View all stories in Politics