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So far, the Democratic candidates presumed to be in the best position to challenge Joe Biden’s polling lead among black and brown voters have been senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. Both are black and have spent significant energy courting voters in South Carolina; the Democratic electorate in the state was 60 percent black in 2016, and its primary is viewed as an early bellwether for both of their odds. Neither candidate seems to be generating much interest there yet. But during Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate, Julián Castro made a compelling argument for why he too deserves to be in that conversation. Though he has consistently polled below 2 percent, the former-secretary of Housing and Urban Development distinguished himself by submitting the field’s most specific policy proposals aimed at the two issues most closely associated with black and Hispanic voters: policing and immigration, respectively.
Castro’s policing platform is the only one of its kind among the 20 candidates debating this week. (Those with comparable proposals have cast a wider net, focusing on criminal-justice reform more broadly.) Among its provisions: establishing standards whereby officers are compelled to intervene if they see their colleagues using excessive force; working with Congress to make laws that lower the burden of prosecution for police misconduct; and collecting disaggregated data on all police detentions, stops, frisks, searches, summonses, and arrests to track for racial bias. The federal government’s ability to implement such changes is limited, given their local nature, and any congressional action would require a degree of cooperation that Mitch McConnell has proven himself stubbornly uninterested in. Castro hopes to narrow these gaps by leveraging financial incentives — determining grant eligibility and withholding federal funding according to jurisdictions’ willingness to cooperate.
The former-HUD secretary touted his proposal by citing the human costs of the policing status quo. “I was in Charleston not too long ago,” Castro said on Wednesday, “and I remembered that Dylann Roof went to the Mother Emanuel AME church, and he murdered nine people who were worshiping, and then he was apprehended by police without incident. Well, but what about Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Laquan McDonald and Sandra Bland and Pamela Turner and Antonio Arce? I’m proud that I’m the only candidate so far that has put forward legislation that would reform our policing system in America and make sure that no matter what the color of your skin is, that you’re treated the same, including Latinos who are mistreated too oftentimes by police.” The invocation of specific victims suggests Castro’s interest in appealing to the same reform advocates — including those affiliated with Black Lives Matter — who regularly disrupted campaign events and put Democratic candidates on their heels in 2016.
The strategic merits of such a gambit are up for debate. Trump surrogates like Rudy Giuliani and then-Sheriff David Clarke cast racial-justice protesters as bogeymen during the last election, bolstering the “law and order” message that helped the president seal victory. But as Trump continues to claim credit for the First Step Act — the bipartisan criminal-justice reform bill that he signed last year — the fact that he has not retracted his support for “stop and frisk” or encouragement of police roughing up arrestees places Castro’s proposals in contrast not just to his primary opponents (some of whom, like Booker, worked with Republicans to pass First Step), but to a president who can truthfully say that he signed off on prison-reform legislation but has no such claim about policing.
As far as immigration, the former HUD secretary boasts the closest thing to a progressive alternative to the Trump administration’s draconian policies, which Democrats have loudly decried but often failed to offer a coherent countermeasure to. As my colleague Eric Levitz has noted, Castro’s plan would essentially reinstate pre-9/11 enforcement standards: Making undocumented immigration a civil infraction rather than a criminal one; shifting Customs and Border Enforcement agents’ focus from internal enforcement to border policing; only detaining undocumented immigrants if the government has good reason to suspect they are a public-safety threat; and removing immigration courts from the Justice Department’s purview, presumably to limit the risk of an attorney general like Jeff Sessions setting the standards deployed therein.
Castro framed these policies on Wednesday by attacking Representative Beto O’Rourke, his fellow Texan and the other candidate most likely to make immigration a central issue — resulting in one of the debate’s few truly combative passages. Castro’s point of contrast was the two men’s disagreement over Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which criminalizes unlawful entry into the U.S. and serves as pretext for the Trump administration’s child separations: Castro supports repealing it; O’Rourke does not. (Castro’s position seems to have evolved on this issue from his past support for the Obama administration’s crackdowns on people crossing the border illegally.)
The long-term electoral viability of the Democratic Party has long been thought to hinge on the support of black voters and the increased backing of America’s growing Hispanic population. Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 demonstrated the benefits to be reaped from an activated black electorate, which supported him at unprecedented rates. No candidate in the short time since has made comparable inroads on a national level. Harris and Booker seemed, at different times, primed to be his heirs apparent, but continue to perform underwhelmingly in early polls. Harris is performing well ahead of either Booker or Castro at this juncture, and has an opportunity to further build her case on Thursday. Booker debated alongside Castro on Wednesday. In his comparatively brief airtime, the former-HUD secretary proved more than a match for both the New Jersey senator and former representative O’Rourke — privileging policies over platitudes en route to his strongest case yet for being included in the conversation about who is best positioned to profit from any Biden dip among black and Hispanic voters. Whether Castro’s performance on Wednesday is reflected in the next polls is yet to be seen. But one thing is clear: He made a compelling case that black and Hispanic voters should take him more seriously as a contender than they have been.